“The talk about music being a universal language is a used and abused cliché,” says Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian clarinetist featured in Morgan Neville’s film “The Music of Strangers.” While there are some basic building blocks of music, its sounds, grammar, and syntax—not to mention methods of teaching, learning, and performing—are as various as the cultures of the earth. Instead, perhaps music offers a reminder of roots, a sense of home. The documentary explores the lives of members of the Silk Road Ensemble; it also delves into the story of its founder, the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who used the intercultural expedition as a way out of the narrowness of the jet set, touring soloist life. Two years ago, director Neville won an Oscar for his film “20 Feet from Stardom.” We met him this week at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville

VAN: You had two feature documentaries premiering at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, one following Keith Richards recording a solo record, and “The Music of Strangers” on Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble. Did Richards and Ma meet each other?

Morgan Neville: I tried to get them together, and they wanted to meet each other, but it couldn’t happen because they were both there for only one day. But the thing is, they are actually more similar than you would think.

How so?

For Keith music is his religion, it’s the one thing in life that never betrayed him, and as I started to think about it with him, I realized that Yo-Yo is kind of the same way. Music is the thing that gives him meaning and solace. The thing I took away from Yo-Yo from the beginning, the whole idea of strangers, was that to him music is all about how if you play music with somebody you can’t be a stranger anymore; by necessity, you have to harmonize with him and build a dialogue, and Yo-Yo is always trying to build a dialogue. He has invested a large part of his career in doing things that classical musicians aren’t supposed to do. And it’s not just Silk Road—he’s done records with Stéphane Grappelli, Ennio Morricone, the Bushmen Music, Bobby McFerrin, and got flack from people from the classical music community for doing that. It’s about him asking those bigger questions, and it all came together in the Silk Road Ensemble, which is the umbrella to make sense of it all.

How was your first meeting with Ma?

Yo-Yo wanted to talk about shooting a concert, so I met with him and we had this incredible evening where we drank wine and told stories and jokes and talked about music and philosophy. After that I was willing to follow him with my camera everywhere. And he said a couple of things that evening that really surprised me. That his journey has been trying to figure out what he can do with music that is more than just music. That resonated with me, because my journey as a filmmaker is to figure out what I can do with films that is more than just films. Although I don’t have the energy that Yo-Yo has.

For example?

At the end of every shoot he would be the last person remaining. I remember being in hotels with him and he would be in deep conversation with the bellboy every time and we had to drag him onto the bus. And to him that’s the joy of his work; I wish I had the energy and the willingness to spread that kind of good will. He has been living on the road for 40 years.

His son says in your film that when he was young he thought his father worked at the airport.

Exactly, he does it somehow, and there is no pretense; he is a joker, which surprised me when I met him. It’s not just being silly—he is excellent at making everyone comfortable right away, and saying, I’m no better than anybody, I want to hear what you have to say. He is the least cynical person. And that’s difficult to maintain being a professional musician and recording artist.  

There’s a lot of music in the documentary, but it’s rarely talked about in technical or intellectual terms.

That’s why many other people that we interviewed aren’t in the film …

Kaykhan Kahlor, an Iranian Kamancheh player and one of five main subjects of the film
Kaykhan Kahlor, an Iranian Kamancheh player and one of five main subjects of the film

Who didn’t make the cut?

Many amazing people, Emanuel Ax for example. But the thing is, you can intellectually talk about music as an international language, you can talk about how the tonality is worked together, and it’s interesting on an intellectual level, but ultimately I realized that the music has all of this emotional information in it, and the more you explain it the less powerful it becomes. You could write a book about all the issues behind the hybridization of music, being a musician myself I found it fascinating, but when I got in the editing room I just found that those comments weren’t helping the emotional form of the story.

Does the film have musicality of its own?

It does—a film should play like music, with ebbs and flows, and I think I learned a lot about this over the years. Every time I see documentaries that are trying to make intellectual points or that deal with political issues first, they always seem like eating spinach to me [laughs], like you are supposed to watch them. Ultimately the best way to get people to buy into what you have to say to have them identify with  characters who are going through something.

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Apart from Yo-Yo Ma, you tell the stories of four other members of the Silk Road Project: the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, the Galician Gaita player Cristina Pato, the Iranian Kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor, and the Chinese Pipa player Wu Man. How did you choose them?

Of course I thought about equally representing geographic and gender diversity, but also diversity in experience. In the West, particularly in the U.S., we tend to think of culture as nice but a privilege. We cut education programs, art is always cut first, but when you really look at what the arts do, they teach improvisation, creativity, collaboration, things that are essential for a society. And when you look at musicians from cultures that have paid a huge price for being an artist in their country, it reminds you of the power of culture. If you look at cultural revolutions in China, Iran, Russia, Syria, whether they are political or religious ultimately they are called cultural revolutions, because this is how you subjugate people. So for me reminding people of the power of culture was important. And it’s hard because culture is soft, hard to measure, which is why it’s discounted so easily.

Some of the protagonists tell very personal stories of loss and displacement. How did you build trust with them?

Somebody like Kayhan talking about Iran and what he went through, talking about his family being killed, talking about running away: the other people in the ensemble told me that they had never heard him talking about those things. I interviewed him many times over the years to make him feel comfortable and trust me enough to talk about it. I know it wasn’t easy for him.

“In times of crisis and tragedy you wonder what you can do. I play this piece of wood and silver and try to relate it to the world. But it can’t stop a bullet or free a political prisoner. You realize the limitations of what you do. At the same time, you don’t want to be pessimistic and say, There’s nothing I can do, I’ll just stay at home. If you think of the Syrian uprising as being about people wanting to express themselves loud and clear, I have a tool that can be loud, whether in a refugee camp or in a concert hall. If you move someone, reach someone, you have achieved something. It’s good to be stubborn about it.” Kinan Azmeh, Syrian clarinetist of the Silk Road Ensemble

Kinan Azmeh making music with students at a refugee camp in Jordan.
Kinan Azmeh making music with students at a refugee camp in Jordan.

You have made many films about pop culture: on Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash, Keith Richards, backup singers…and now about one of the biggest superstars of classical music. What’s your perception of the culture of classical music?

A similarity to pop culture is obviously that the surrounding business is still one of the most dysfunctional there is. Nobody gets into it for any reason other than passion. I think that is the saving grace of the music industry. The classical world is to me the most repressed part of the music world where it’s very, very difficult for people to open up emotionally. There’s such a formality to it, which does a disservice to the music. I think that’s also striking with Yo-Yo, why he stands out in that world, because he is such an open book emotionally. It makes me wonder why there are not more people like that.

Some scenes of your film, for example the one shot in a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan, seem to have gained in relevance since when they were shot.

Yes, it’s tragic that it keeps getting more relevant, as opposed to less, since we started shooting at the refugee camp. That was almost a year and a half ago. It’s gotten much worse since then, in Syria as well. Tonight they have invited Syrian refugees to the premiere, there are also a number of Syrian musicians coming. It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays—I haven’t seen it with a European crowd. I hope it humanizes in a small way.

The Chinese pipa player Wu Man
The Chinese pipa player Wu Man

You started out as a political journalist. Are you happy that you’re not working in politics anymore?

Yes, I don’t miss political journalism. Not because I’m not interested in politics, but because I felt strongly that the left wing media and the right wing media just preach to the converted, particularly in America. I worked for the left wing media [the weekly magazine The Nation] and I agreed with everything they were saying, but I didn’t feel that I was changing a lot of minds. I got very frustrated when I was young doing that. I kept coming back to the theme of how we can actually bridge political divides with culture. I did a film about Johnny Cash [“Johnny Cash’s America,” 2008], it was looking at, How do you get a figure like Johnny Cash—Christians, Republicans, Democrats, and punk rockers all loved that guy. How is that possible? What is it about him—what are the things that we can agree on? Best of Enemies was about what we can agree on; at least we should get together and discuss. Where are the adults in the political process? So in a way I feel I do political work. ¶

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... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.