Since it was founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma 16 years ago, the Silk Road Ensemble — an artistic collective comprised of master musicians and other artists from more than 20 countries, spanning the globe — has become an incubator for inspiring cross-cultural collaborations.
The group has also become the subject of a new documentary directed by filmmaker Morgan Neville, who won both an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which chronicled the paths of five backup singers from some of rock's biggest hits. This film, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, chronicles both the evolution of the group and personal journeys of some of its members — several of whom who have endured life-shattering tragedies.
Earlier this week, Ma and Neville joined me at HBO's headquarters in New York for a special evening to mark the release, which included this brief but beautiful performance by the cellist and a screening of the film.
As Neville and I discussed in a Q&A that followed the screening, the film hits upon many universal themes, including love and loss, immigration and isolation, and the twin missions of preserving cultures and moving traditions forward.
The film also explores the world-famous cellist's journey to shaping his own contributions. As Ma — who at just 7 years old performed with his sister for President John F. Kennedy after an introduction by none other than Leonard Bernstein — explains in the documentary, being a celebrated child prodigy meant that as a young man, he didn't necessarily have the chance to determine his own path. "When you grow up with something, you kind of don't make a choice," he tells Neville.
But as Ma told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel (in the audio linked above), a life in music has provided him with avenues to traverse an incredible amount of terrain — artistic, intellectual and emotional.
"I've always thought there's something that goes beyond the sound that we make. Isaac Stern said it, I think, best: Music is about what happens in between the notes. So it's not the notes themselves, which I think is a material thing. It's about how you get from one note to another."
Ma demonstrated that principle beautifully in a short, intimate performance he gave before we screened the film. He chose to perform his own solo arrangement of "Going Home," a tune with a long, long American — and multicultural — history.
As the cellist explained before he began to play, "Going Home" is adapted from a melody that appears in the second movement of Antonin Dvorak's beloved Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," and was inspired by indigenous and African-American sources. It has traditionally been sung with lyrics by William Arms Fisher, a Dvorak pupil, that transform it in to a spiritual-style song about death and the promise of heaven.
But on the Silk Road Ensemble's new album, made as a companion to the film, the group takes the tune to another destination. Guest banjo player Abigail Washburn and Chinese sheng master Wu Tong turn the tune toward China.
This theme — of exploring the idea of home very broadly, and embracing its expansive possibilities instead of limiting it parochially — preoccupies Ma and his Silk Road colleagues. It is communicated most eloquently this way.