Exchanging Notes

A Commentary & Review of
The Music of Strangers:  Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble

By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

 “The intersection of cultures is where new things emerge.” - Yo-Yo Ma

I’m clearly old enough to identify with that certain demographic, a large portion of which seems to enjoy the retro bands phenomenon. They’re those musical groups from the sixties and seventies that re-emerge after time and the aging process have taken their toll; but where former rock stars whose voices are now a bit shaky still dust off their instruments and our collective memories to replay a rusty rendition of a hit from yesteryear; with some semblance of the way we all remember it. It may be a sweet and melancholy retreat from the chaotic upheaval of way things are these days. But it is, in fact, only a wistful illusion of the way things once were.

This new documentary film drives home this point through the dramatic stories of an ensemble of characters that challenge us to rethink how different cultures, with their unique traditional music lore, get preserved to either evolve and interact, or clash.

Any film intended to celebrate the universal thread of music, with the diversity of its expression in different cultural traditions, all sounds lovely. In point of fact, the Silk Road Ensemble’s throbbing rhythms and the joyful expressions so clearly expressed by its members, sounds powerfully persuasive. But we live in a world filled with more than musical notes and happy players. In focusing on the lives of several members of this ensemble, we are faced with the unavoidable intersection of happy musicians colliding with the ever-present political intrigue and international conflict.

As the late Leonard Bernstein once asked some young Harvard students (that included Yo-Yo Ma) over 40 years ago. “Does music matter? The world totters, governments crumble, and here we are pouring over music?”

More than forty years later, what kind of a place is Damascus for a gifted Syrian clarinetist? Or a pipa player from China, raised during the communist cultural revolution; encouraged by her parents to use music as an escape from all the upheaval around them, and cling to cultural ruins of the past? Or a kamancheh virtuoso from Tehran, who – since the time of the Iranian revolution -- has intermittently lived large portions of his life in exile, because his musical popularity threatens the political infrastructure of the Iranian government?

“I don’t know who writes the script for a revolution,” he says, “but the results on the people are all the same.” He shares his own personal tragic consequences, and one of the underlying questions of the film emerges. How then can the human spirit foster its own evolution, without resorting to revolution, refugees and war?

As Kinan Asmeh from Syria put it, “Can my music stop a bullet? Can it feed someone who is hungry? Of course it doesn’t. You question your own part altogether.” Or, as Yo-Yo Ma observes, “There’s always a fight in each one of us between believing in the power of the human spirit, and dreading the power of the human spirit.”

A year after the Silk Road Ensemble had its initial formation, 9/11 occurred; and it became a question for Yo-Yo Ma and this group whether or not -- in the face of all the xenophobia at that time --such a cultural exchange through music was possible. Yet fifteen years later, the very same question could be asked today. “Everybody, in the face of disaster,” Ma says, “re-examines who they are, and their purpose.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the cellist found his own way of responding to those events by playing a piece entitled, “Quartet at the end of time,” composed by a French POW during WWII. The piece is filled with a solemn, plodding dissonance, longing for resolution. Ma asks reflectively, “How do you express incredible grief, or eternity, and love? You add a little bravado, and you suddenly feel that you might be bathed and blanketed by the warmth of an intense light. That love is mythic, eternal and unconditional love. The paradox is that by trying to kill the human spirit, the answer of the human spirit is to revenge with beauty.”

Or, as another member of the ensemble puts it, “Art is about opening up to possibility. Possibility leads to hope. We all need hope.” 

Indeed. Now, perhaps, more than ever. jb