Morgan Neville is the man behind some of my favorite documentaries including “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Best of Enemies.” His latest film, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” is about cellist Yo-Yo Man bringing together international musicians to share their sounds and traditions in a group called The Silk Road Ensemble. As we learn more about the challenges faced by performers from Spain, Syria, China, and other countries, the music they create together becomes even more moving.
That does not mean it was not a challenge for Neville to work with people from so many different cultures, whose only common language was music. “It was difficult but incredibly rewarding. I mean this was such an ambitious film that I think if I had known how ambitious it was at the beginning I would have been a lot more scared. I think when you make films it’s like being like a mother who’s had a baby. Your body forgets the pain; you have this conscious amnesia where you convince yourself that it won’t be that hard. And this was hard. We shot in seven countries in six languages and so from a production point of view it was hard, but creatively it was fascinating. Trying to take the ideas and the music and the scale of what is happening in the Silk Road Ensemble and trying to put that into a movie was daunting, but it was amazing experience at the same time.”
The film goes back to the first gathering in 2000, and some of the film was archival, coming from a local PBS station. “I didn’t know when I started making the film that any of that stuff existed but we just found little bit and pieces in archives that helped us tell the story and helped shape the story. But I basically filmed everything from 2011 on.” There were so many musicians he had to select a few to focus on. “Not only did I want to represent the diversity of the geography and background and experience but at the same time they had to be on the same type of journey. There were other great musicians and great stories in the ensemble but their stories are less related. I think the thing that united everybody that we focused on was that they all made a decision to leave, to not do the obvious thing or take the road less traveled and to go out into the world and then all returned back to home with some new found perspective on what made their home special or made that tradition special.”
The musicians all cherish their traditions and cultures, but they clearly relish the musical adventure of combining sounds and trying something new. Neville agreed that those two impulses could create some tension. “In all these cultures there are traditionalists, people who basically don’t want things to change, and I get that, but I think what Yo-Yo says in the film is that all traditions are born of real innovation. In a way what they’ve all tried to do with their tradition is the best way of preserving it. They are trying to keep it growing. What you are doing with a bagpipe or a peepa; a Galician gaita or a pipa, it’s taking it and expanding the vocabulary of that language. That’s a way of celebrating its uniqueness and making sure it stays relevant, it doesn’t die out like you see with the Xang Family banned in China [who are no longer able to support the music and puppet shows their family has put on for generations]. To me they are just tremendous, they are amazing, but there is no future for it. And there is a whole other counter-argument you could make, which is why the metaphor the Silk Road is so appropriate. Things that seem like pure embodiments of specific cultures usually aren’t, whether we are talking about pipas or pasta. I will give you one example, the Persian instrument which is a Kamancheh, a very traditional, personal instrument. It has four strings on it; it used to have two strings on it until they saw violins and said, ‘Well, if they’ve got four strings we should have four strings.’ And now people want to protect it but it already has a vocabulary, it’s already in dialogue with the rest of the world even going back before this tradition. People like Wu Man [from China] and Kayhan [from Iran], even though actually they left their homes, they’ve done more to preserve their tradition than the people that stayed. If you look at how China regards its own traditional music now or how Iran regarded its traditional music after the Gulf War, they not only stopped all Western influence, they stopped all traditional music in the cultural Revolution and that’s part of why Kayhan had to leave, everybody had forgotten how to play the Kamancheh.”
While Neville has made documentaries on other subjects, his favorite topics begin with music. “To me, the best music films are not about music. Music is a way of telling the story. It’s a language but it’s got to say something with that language. I think Yo-Yo is very much about that. I feel like it’s an amazing tool to have as filmmaker and I love investigating those stories. But every music film I’ve done is about something beyond the music. This one is about all these ideas. I mean it’s really about these big questions in its most elemental form, the importance of culture. Does culture matter, how does it define us and connect us in ways we don’t see? How can culture help us humanize the other in a world where we are so caught up in building walls and demonizing the other, how does culture work as antidote to that? I mean all of these kinds of questions I think we’re the ones we were investigating.” He gave as an example one moment in the film he said was one of his favorites: when Yo-Yo Ma is playing a Bach piece and another musician is singing a very traditional Taiwanese song as a mashup between the two seamlessly.” At first, the film had more expert explanations, but “at the end of the day it just felt like we were talking more than showing and that the music expressed so much that we just kept pulling back on it and trying to find the emotional story.”