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TIFF Review: Silk Road Ensemble "The Music Of Strangers"

09.19.15
Silkroad Ensemble
The Hollywood Reporter

A first-rate music film capturing a restless desire to communicate beyond the boundaries of any single idiom, The Music of Strangers watches as Yo-Yo Ma, a giant in the world of Western classical music, puts Bach and Beethoven aside to spend time with his multicultural Silk Road Ensemble. Documentarian Morgan Neville is on quite a roll here, debuting two films at TIFF while his widely praised Best of Enemies still lingers in theatrical release.

Many viewers will be surprised to hear the cellist speak of never having really committed to music, of having simply "fallen into" the career because his gifts were so obvious in childhood. (We see footage of Leonard Bernstein introducing the prodigy on TV at age 7.) Friend John Williams observes that, for a wunderkind, the challenge is finding ways to keep one's interest up, and early in Ma's career he began addressing that question, teaming with everyone from Hot Club legend Stephane Grappelli to the acrobatic vocalist Bobby McFerrin in his search for what Bernstein called a universal musical language.

But Ma found an enduring outlet for his curiosity with the Silk Road Project, gathering virtuosos from Spain to Syria, putting practitioners of very different traditions in rooms together to see what kind of music they'd make together. Neville offers footage from the first meetings of the amorphous group, at Tanglewood in 2000, described at the time as a "Manhattan Project of music." It might have been a one-off experiment, we're told, but the events of the following year made it seem all the more important to build bridges between cultures that know little of each other.

The film spends most of its time not on a history of this project — frustratingly, we don't even get much insight into how new works are composed for the core performing group — but on a handful of its most colorful members. We meet Wu Man, master of the Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa; Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh; Iranian exile Kayhan Kalhor, who plays the bowed kamancheh; and the ebullient bagpiper Cristina Pato, "the Jimi Hendrix of Galicia."

Woven among these personal narratives, of course, are scenes of music — from aching laments to boisterous party jams. This is not a performance film, so unfortunately we rarely hear a complete song. But the spirit of hybrid creativity is infectious enough to inspire the uninitiated to seek out the group's albums. They've made six so far — and if the onward-and-upward tone of this idealistic doc is to be believed, they're a long way from stopping.

Read the rest of the review here