Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Yo-Yo Ma Plays Well With Others From Everywhere

Lou Fancher on June 20, 2016
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble at the United Nations.

For decades, the cello has been Yo-Yo Ma’s voice of expression.

Asking himself what he and his instrument could do as partners, the answers abounded: performances, lectures, and master classes; educational initiatives with schools and universities; partnerships with scientists and business think tanks; award-winning recordings and an international presence that crowns the 60-year-old musician a near world prince of the cello.

Yo-Yo Ma

Inevitably, the Chinese-American Ma — born in Paris and first introduced in 1962 at age 7 to the American television audience by Leonard Bernstein — allowed his natural curiosity to expand. The question became “What can we as artists do together that we cannot do alone?”

Ma has found answers in work that stretches preconceived ideas about classical music while respecting its traditions. It’s striking that the most profound answers have arrived in response to shocking tragedy or human suffering. In part, that’s made most evident by a project Ma launched in 2000 that gained momentum after 9/11 and is the subject of a new documentary, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

Ma’s collaborations with nonartists, cross-genre artists, and rap, jazz, folk, and root music musicians the world over led Ma in 1998 to found the Silk Road Ensemble. Two years later, 50 musicians gathered with Ma at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA, to seek kinship through music. As often as not, the connections formed between the cultures of nations in conflict with each other. After the events of September 11, 2001, Ma says the project took on added urgency. “But even after 9/11, there are always events — earthquakes, tsunamis, the Ebola scare, the horrendous war in Syria that left millions of immigrants without homes. What has led to Silk Road’s cohesiveness and continuity is curiosity, respect, trust — leading to innovation and creativity,” Ma says in an interview.

He’s in a cab on the way to yet another airport during a series of cross-country premieres of the new documentary made by Morgan Neville, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, among other films. The Orchard — a film, TV, and music distribution company — issued the theatrical release June 10; HBO’s television release will follow. The 96-minute Silk Road film includes archival footage of Ma and other musicians, excerpts from Silk Road performances, and compelling, personal interviews featuring four of the ensemble’s 17 members: Chinese pipa player Wu Man, kamancheh player, singer and Iranian exile Kayhan Kalhor; Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and bagpiper and vocalist Cristina Pato of Spain. Interspersed with “talking heads” segments are stunning scenes of spontaneous street concerts, casual rehearsal footage, and visual imagery that honors the architecture and landscapes of the countries in which the musicians live or travel.

At the New York premiere, Ma says film directors were asking Morgan about the opening scene: a kaleidoscope of visual and auditory color filmed with swirling cameras and filled with musicians, an artist drawing on a large, room-sized canvas spread in the marketplace setting, and spectators — some holding cell phones to capture the moment, others simply listening and smiling. “The other filmmakers thought it was staged and wanted technical details. Morgan had to explain it was just him and one other person with two handheld cameras. The townspeople just literally wandered into range.”

Ma says Neville was given a free hand to decide what story to tell. “Our trust in him was deliberate. I kept my distance so that we weren’t breathing down his neck. The film is Morgan’s point of view on Silk Road. Now that he’s finished, I feel freer to be his good pal because I’m no longer in a position to influence the results of his work.”

Poster for The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

The results are varied, depending on a viewer’s expectations. As an introduction to Silk Road, the performance footage alone is sure to be thrilling and there’s no questioning the film’s beauty. Tight close-ups heighten the drama of interviews. Panoramic sweeps of urban or rural settings and the faces of large crowds of people add grandeur and variety. Sensitive scoring, the camera’s movement and framing, and Neville’s seamless transitions offer lessons in fine, classic filmmaking — with enough twist to be fresh and alive with Neville’s distinctive voice. The one mark against the film — and it’s a significant one — is that it doesn’t delve into how the musicians actually work together or how their different cultures impact the compositions they perform. Musicians or people who already know the ensemble’s history might enjoy a film with more insights into their process. How do they resolve conflicts? Is there an effort to avoid becoming each other’s cheerleaders? Do they sacrifice individuality to reach compromise? Are there musical structures that fail to coalesce, despite the willingness of the participants?

“Some people like explanation, some just like face value, “ says Ma. “Morgan is trying to not just speak to the choir, but to address people who think, ‘Really, music? Why does it matter?’”

Which brings up a point made by Kinan Azmeh in the documentary. In a raw moment that bristles with his anxiety, he questions music’s value, admitting that amid war and poverty, music doesn’t stop bullets or feed hungry children. Of course, Ma has an answer about the power of music that was given to him years before by Bushmen he visited in Africa. Asking one of them after participating in a trance dance why culture matters, Ma was told, “Because it gives meaning.”

For all Ma’s notoriety, Neville’s reputation as a top documentary maker and the Silk Road Ensemble’s talent and ambition, the greatest potential for demonstrating evolution in classical music — or in society — comes down to the humanity in the stories and the exuberant musicians. This is where the documentary shines: in Man’s rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” played for her stunned young son in Dusty’s Guitar shop in Oceanside, California; or in Pato’s buoyant bagpipe playing and singing during the film’s most rousing moments. As counterparts, Nicholas Ma’s brief, but strikingly clear descriptions of his father are searingly poignant, and Kalhor’s quiet tale of losing his entire family to war is gripping, like looking into a man’s heart and feeling the helplessness of watching it bleed out. “In the 15 years I’ve known him, I knew about the tragedy, but he never talked about it,” says Ma. “The fact that he could do so meant that he knew it would be handled with incredible sensitivity.”

Although he’s “hands off” with the filming, Ma’s process for selecting musicians is deeply instinctive and personal. “When you go through the rehearsal process, you get a sense of not just someone’s facility, but how easy they are with their facility. Under duress: do they clam up, or open up?  Are their eyes open? The body language tells a lot. When someone’s tight, it means the reaction is slower. To simplify it to the most basic quality, I look for generosity. It’s not where someone is, it’s about their potential.”

Even so, he says it has taken an 8-year “gestation period” for the 17 musicians to truly be an ensemble. About the overall project, he says, “I think we’re probably permanently a lab. We have almost 20 experiments going on.” A passion-driven learning initiative with Harvard is an initiative that helps teachers include music in their curriculums. He hopes to expand it. “We don’t want to to 50 things: we want to do three to four well and take them to scale over time.”

The largest impediment to expansion is a funding environment that has nonprofits competing instead of collaborating. “We need funders to understand social impact investing and have the metrics to show that the arts have the greatest potential to cause change.” Ma says.

The Companion CD: Sing Me Home

Several things give him hope: a new integrated arts and science program at the University of Tokyo is fully funded; an educational summit at Kennedy Center that Silk Road participated in that added arts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM to STEAM) was met with enthusiasm. “And in the Bay Area, there are many forward-thinking organizations that will start trends and get people thinking about arts’ social impact. I’m cautiously optimistic nonprofits will find incentive and funding to collaborate,” he says.

Ma says the film will be shown in as many countries as will accept it. A new CD from Sony Masterworks, Sing Me Home, pairs the ensemble with human voices on the theme of “home.” One song, Wedding, he says is dedicated by Azmeh, the composer, to “people who’ve fallen in love and gotten married in Syria in spite of the civil turmoil that’s been occurring.” Another song is sung in Chinese and English and “gives the impression of crossing oceans.” Ma says the CD pays homage to “our first and most natural instrument, the voice.” And beyond that, he says the new record and documentary herald “moments when planetary voices are coming together in an organic way that is truly powerful.”

Local screenings of The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble begin June 24 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.