Exploring the Silk Road

Yo-Yo Ma and Morgan Neville talk about documentary The Music Of Strangers.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Davidson, Morgan Neville, Caitrin Rogers, Cristina Pato, Dianne Weyermann, Dennis Kooker and Yo-Yo Ma
Paul Davidson, Morgan Neville, Caitrin Rogers, Cristina Pato, Dianne Weyermann, Dennis Kooker and Yo-Yo Ma Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Morgan Neville's 20 Feet From Stardom star Darlene Love, Richard Gere and Barbara Kopple hosted an invited Cinema 1 screening of The Music Of Strangers, followed by a performance from the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma at Lotos Club. The director of Keith Richards: Under the Influence and together with Robert Gordon, the Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr Best Of Enemies documentary, gave me some insight on what Keith and Yo-Yo have in common. Yo-Yo shares a moment he loves with Cristina Pato in The Music Of Strangers and confirms his fondness of TS Eliot.

Morgan Neville with Yo-Yo Ma: 'Yo-Yo is just trying to change the world'
Morgan Neville with Yo-Yo Ma: 'Yo-Yo is just trying to change the world' Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Gaby Hoffmann, Alan Alda, Gay Talese, Heidi Ewing, producer Caitrin Rogers, Silkroad's Laura Freid, along with musicians Kojiro Umezaki, Colin Jacobsen, Shane Shanahan, Joseph Gramley, Evan Ziporyn, Johnny Gandelsman, Sandeep Das, Abigail Washburn, Logan Coale, Nicholas Cords and Cristina Pato, The Orchard's Paul Davidson, Participant Media's Dianne Weyermann, Sony's Dennis Kooker joined in the festivities.

The Silk Road Ensemble core group is Kinan Azmeh, Kayhan Kalhor, Wu Man, Cristina Pato and Yo-Yo Ma. In Morgan Neville's The Music Of Strangers their personal experiences transform into a far-reaching pursuit.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
Little Gidding, from TS Eliot's Four Quartets

Anne-Katrin Titze: What is it about TS Eliot that resonates so much with you?

Yo-Yo Ma: Oh, my goodness! Well, the quote about, you know, you leave home, you circle around and in the end, after so many experiences, you actually come back and you discover that you're home. So, basically we're always circling around our core - whatever that is. And we try and stretch and go to the edge of what we know.

We try and break through but ultimately what keeps us the way we are is - we're human. We can be strong but we're vulnerable. And both actually go side by side. We practice critical thinking, we practice empathetic thinking and we realise, you can't do both at the same time. But if you keep going back and forth, ultimately, you might make some good decisions.

Morgan Neville with host Darlene Love
Morgan Neville with host Darlene Love Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: There is a Tuscan proverb that says, if you don't add anything to a story when you tell it, it isn't beautiful any more.

YYM: Right. Because I think, the opposite of, for example in industry, people spend years making something so it's exactly the same.

AKT: And remains that way.

YYM: And remains that way.

AKT: And then breaks.

YYM: Well, there's a shelf life. And there's a shelf life for humans, too. But in humans, it's a different time frame. Because our job is to build something that is good enough that someone else can build on it after we're gone. So it's about keeping things.

So if you can find that you can build one good brick in culture - whether it's in music or in science - someone else will build another brick on top of it and eventually you have a building. You might have a mansion of culture, of knowledge, of civilisation. But if you have a bad brick …

AKT: It is like a soup with one rotten ingredient.

YYM: Exactly. The whole thing can fall apart. So it's really important that we build things that are true so that things can stay alive. Because in culture I think we believe there's something that's greater than we are, that we can work towards. That's why I think culture is so important.

AKT: Morgan [Neville] is a master of detail.

YYM: Absolutely!

AKT: He puts so many, tiny wonderful details in his documentaries and then connects them all. Is there one detail he captured in The Music Of Strangers you particularly love?

Alan Alda greets Yo-Yo Ma at Cinema 1
Alan Alda greets Yo-Yo Ma at Cinema 1 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
YYM: My goodness - well, I think the funniest moment is when Cristina Pato says: "Come on, Yo-Yo!" And you expect to see me. Instead it's her little dog. That for me is a fabulous moment.

AKT: Yo-Yo Ma and I just talked about you and that you are the master of detail. That's what makes and breaks documentaries.

Morgan Neville: Yes, a lot of it does have to do with the details.

AKT: For example, Yo-Yo's fruit bowl on the table has an onion in it. You capture things like that. Anyway, what's the biggest similarity between Yo-Yo and Keith Richards?

MN: They're both very open-hearted people. They're actually more similar than you would imagine. They're both people who love music but also who are very open-minded, in a way. I think, they are all about learning. Keith and Yo-Yo - I never got them together but I have no doubt, they could talk all night long.

AKT: It will happen, don't you think?

MN: I tried to make it happen in Toronto and I couldn't.

AKT: Keith is not coming to the Lotos Club tonight?

MN: No, unfortunately, Keith couldn't come.

AKT: What is the greatest difference between the two?

MN: Hmm. I don't know. Keith is trying to change the world through music. And I feel like Yo-Yo is just trying to change the world.

AKT: That makes a lot of sense.

Wild's Gaby Hoffmann
Wild's Gaby Hoffmann Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
MN: Yo-Yo, like somebody says in the film, he's trying to change the world, he just happens to have a cello with him. That sense that music is just a language he is speaking but the things he is trying to do are as big as anybody can imagine.

AKT: There is a moment in your film where you show a strange Roman soldier furry boot. The previous shots were in New York, people are talking about their experiences - the shot of the boot makes no sense at all. Only much later do you reveal what that was about in the context of Galicia. I've hardly ever seen that kind of foreshadowing in a documentary. How did that come about?

MN: We're just trying to make a film that was hopefully as artistic as the music. It's not always just about being intellectual. It's about an emotional truth. And I felt as we made the film, I actually made it less intellectual. I interviewed a lot of great ethnomusicologists about Silk Road instruments but I cut them all out because, at the end of the day, film, like music, is an emotional way of storytelling. And I had to let that speak first.

AKT: It has to change, it has to evolve to be alive.

MN: Absolutely.

AKT: Talk to you more at the party.

Coming up - Morgan joins Gay Talese at Lotos Club for a conversation on The Music of Strangers and what is genius.

The Music Of Strangers is in cinemas across the UK from November 18.

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