The focus is on his life and the mostly more tragic and troubled lives of a handful of his musical partners in the Silk Road Ensemble. The name is rendered from various trade routes that connected the Far East with Europe and points in between. As such, the musical influences stretch from Galicia in northwestern Spain (Cristina Pato) through the Middle East (Kinan Azmeh, Syria and Kayhan Kalhor, Iran) to China (Wu Man).
How do artists of varied personal backgrounds and worldwide cultures work together? The film explores a bit of that. Its greatest success is allowing the musicians to tell a bit of their own stories: how upheaval and inhumanity have contributed to the artistic voice. Interspersed are film clips from Yo Yo Ma’s history (with Leonard Bernstein and Fred Rogers to name two), but also the troubles in China and southwest Asia. What is the artist’s place when violence, oppression and perversion break out within and between nations? It’s a difficult question that the film gives no single voice in answer. And indeed, sometimes the musicians are searching for that answer with great anguish.
Fusion in music is usually the target of critics. I’ve seen it in church circles. Pop music, certainly. Often enough, combinations of artists transcend the pettiness of reviewers and naysayers. There is much in this film to suggest the Silk Road Ensemble accomplishes this. I’d like to see a live performance to judge.
One Variety critic suggests:
If “The Music of Strangers” had taken a deeper look at what makes Yo-Yo Ma tick, if might have been a memorable documentary instead of a movie that, for all its ebullient rock-of-the-ancients vibes, winds up having the ring of an infomercial for one-world utopia. (Owen Gleiberman)
Actually, I think the one-world utopia is the point. In the face of divisions in our world, I can think of no better aspiration. If not in harmony with the vision of God’s Reign, it certainly is admirable to urge the banishment of conflict.
In the film, one musician comments on 9/11 suggesting that ensemble members could have just as easily been adversaries. If they had chosen politics, military service, business, or even journalism, that is certainly true. Thank goodness some people choose otherwise.
I recommend the film highly.