Documentarian Morgan Neville takes to the Silk Road with Yo-Yo Ma

Since he was child, French-born cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been revered for the way he brings classical compositions to life. But a lifetime playing the works of long-dead Western composers night after night can make even the most dedicated genius feel mired in routine rather than blessed by a calling.
In part to remedy this professional hazard, Ma — with a rotating group of international musicians, working as the Silk Road Ensemble — has since 2000 recorded and performed challenging music outside the canon, using both familiar instruments and idiosyncratic tools. His cello has harmonized with Iranian Kayhan Kalhor’s kamancheh (strings of a different kind), Cristina Pato’s gaita (a Spanish bagpipe), Wu Man’s Chinese lute or pipa, and Syrian Kinan Azmeh’s clarinet.
The Music of Strangers documents the group as it finds balance among seemingly incompatible instruments and cultures — an effort that hasn’t come without struggle. Kalhor and Azmeh are living in exile, while Wu grew up in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution. Its director, Morgan Neville, has made a name for himself with documentaries about Brian Wilson and Keith Richards, as well as 20 Feet From Stardom, a moving visit with a storied clique of backup singers. That film gave its subjects long-overdue attention — and won Neville an Oscar.
I called Neville in Los Angeles to talk about his latest project, which opens Friday in KC.
The Pitch: All of the members of the Silk Road Ensemble seem like outsiders in their own worlds, — even Yo-Yo Ma, who appears ambivalent about his fame.
Morgan Neville: I think the thing that unites them is that they all made the decision to take the road less traveled. They all could have just been teachers or members of the orchestra or done a very conventional thing, but they all made a decision to try and do something unorthodox. That in some cases led them to having to leave their country, and maybe it got them into trouble. It certainly led them to have these different artistic experiences. What unites them is that they all kind of returned to that tradition with this new kind of worldliness.
I think that tradition is supposed to innovate. We tend to think of tradition as something that has to be very rigid and calcified. I think the argument that all of them make is that tradition comes from innovation, and it flourishes through innovation. If you put it under glass and say, “This is the way it is, and you can never change it at all,” that’s the surest way to obscurity.
Do you think that’s why Yo-Yo Ma formed the Silk Road Ensemble? A lot of people have that attitude toward classical music.
Absolutely. And Yo-Yo has certainly caught his share of flack. “Why are you doing this? You should just be playing Bach. Why are you playing with Mongolian fiddle players?” For him, not only is he a curious person, but I think you need to try to find your voice. Finding your voice as an artist is not something you ever finish doing, and if you do, you’re probably not a great artist to begin with [laughs].
That’s why the metaphor of the Silk Road is so perfect. The things that seem like pure symbols of their culture — a komache, a sitar, a pipa — have actually influenced other cultures for millennia. So a komache, a violin and a cello are related, and a sitar, a guitar and a lute are related. We shouldn’t get too precious and go, “Oh, this is ours, and this is pure.” I think there’s this false belief in purity.
How did you mic the opening performance in an open courtyard?
It was hard. We had microphones on a bunch of the players, and then I think we had a stereo mic in the back. But that was about it. We knew we had to make the documentary sound great because if you’re doing a music documentary the sound is in some ways the most important thing. So we just spent a lot of time to make sure we could hear as much as we could, but the open air stuff was the hardest stuff by far because you have no control over the space and the ambient sound and open air sound dissipates very quickly. If they’re not closely miked, the sound just becomes very thin.
And what if somebody brings a baby and it starts crying?
Yeah. That happened. And that whole pop-up concert, which was in Istanbul, was just crazy. It was about to rain, and we couldn’t leave the instruments outside, so somebody had the instruments in an air-conditioned hotel nearby. We had about 20 minutes. They performed, and as soon as we stopped, it started raining.
You travel with the Silk Road Ensemble as they tour. Were any of the locations especially difficult?
From a production point of view, it was the most difficult film I’ve ever done, because we shot in six languages in seven countries. We were shooting in a refugee camp. We did pop-up shows in city squares. It was very complicated. I don’t think I ever felt in danger, but I was definitely concerned.
When we started the film, the Syrian revolution started, I think, a month later. So that was all happening in real time. So, when I started to film, the last thing I expected was that, three years later, I was going to be shooting in a Jordanian refugee camp. But that’s part of what happens when you make a documentary.
How do you get all of these instruments from different cultures to sound right together?
You take an instrument like the gaita, which is Cristina’s Spanish bagpipe. First of all, who knew they had bagpipes in Spain? But it turns out that any country on Earth that has herding has some version of the bagpipe, from Mongolia through Ireland.
What’s unique now is that technology has allowed instruments like this to play together. Without amplification, it would be impossible to put an instrument like the bagpipe with an instrument like the flute. But now, because of modern technology, you can have instruments that are in a very different sonic range exist together.
This comes very soon after your Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom and the Oscar-nominated Best of Enemies, which you made with Robert Gordon.
I started Best of Enemies before 20 Feet From Stardom, and I started this in the middle of 20 Feet. I’m not going to keep putting out a doc a year. I think it’s more that after 20 Feet, I was able to get the money to finish all my other documentaries [laughs]. I think that’s why all these other things happened the way they did. It made it a lot easier to raise money. I spent a lot less time trying to raise money and a lot more time making films.

Categories: Movies