The Music of Strangers




A film about a music project which proves to be quite different from what you would expect.


The Music of Strangers


To encounter a film at once so profound and so frustrating is a rare experience, but then Morgan Neville's documentary about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project confounds expectations. Albeit more likely to turn up on TV than in the cinema, films about classical musicians and their work are not infrequent. Consequently, I had assumed that The Music of Strangers would be a standard piece telling me about the international performers who are involved in this special project set up by Yo-Yo Ma, one not quite as famous but not light years away from Daniel Barenboim's bringing together of Palestinians and Israelis in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.


However, choosing to go to the heart of things, this film follows Yo-Yo Ma in questioning the role of art and whether or not it has any meaning in a world torn apart by violence and poverty. Ma himself, born of Chinese parents in Paris, reveals that as an infant prodigy he fell into his career as a cellist and he now seems to be considering his purpose here on earth: can it be justified by what he has done or does he need to take on some more significant role in order to find himself? It's a quest that has led to his bringing together musicians from different parts of the world who come from varied traditions in the belief that long established cultures can only be kept alive by developing: what some would condemn as cultural fusion he in contrast regards as a way forward and one that cements international brotherhood by being multicultural.


Ma speaks from the heart, but the film seems totally disorganised. It switches back and forth to tell the individual stories of Ma, the Iranian Kayhan Kalhor, the Galician Cristina Pato and other members of the group and it is all done in bits and pieces with no sense of overall shape. Contributors are introduced without names and nationalities being written up and the impression is of a work put together with far too little preparation in its shaping. It's a shame because the subject matter is fascinating - but, alas, it's all too typical that we never learn anything about the distinctive music performed by this group which could involve some improvisation although we see scores being used be they original compositions or arrangements. The music is, indeed, said to be different and, featuring as it does a number of instruments unfamiliar to us, it sounds it and in a rather pleasing way. But precise information about this music there is none.                  




Featuring  Yo-Yo Ma, Kayhan Kalhor, Cristina Pato, Kinan Azmeh, Wu Man. 


Dir Morgan Neville, Pro Morgan Neville and Caitrin Rogers, Ph Graham Willoughby, Ed Helen Kearns and Jason Zeldes.


Tremolo Productions/Participant Media-The Orchard.
96 mins. USA. 2015. Rel: 18 November 2016. Cert. 12A.