"Contemplating the Meaning of Creativity"
What You Need To Know:
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS wrestles with the abstract concepts of “home” and the purpose of culture and music. It will certainly spark many conversations among its viewers. The ensembles performances inspire and captivate, providing a fascinating look at the ensemble’s blend of multiple cultures. While most of the music is beautiful and enjoyable, many people of faith may find the movie’s existential examinations a bit disappointing. Thus, when talking about the purpose of art and culture, the movie ignores any spiritual beliefs. Ultimately, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS is hopeful and inspiring, but it needs more philosophical depth.
(PaPaPa, Ro, B, C, AC, L, V, M) Very strong mixed pagan worldview that accepts all forms of belief or lack thereof, with strong Romantic ideals where creative expression and cultural identity are the ultimate good above any spiritual belief or objective standards, plus some minor moral, redemptive themes of loving one’s neighbor, community, mentorship, and hope along with some anti-communist elements in discussing the Chinese “Cultural Revolution”; two “f” words, one “h” word and no profanities; no violence; no sex; no nudity; no alcohol; no smoking or drugs; and, some moral relativism and multiculturalism.
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS is an entertaining, beautiful documentary about the “Silk Road Ensemble” and the creative power of music to unify cultures. Founded shortly before 9/11 by famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the “Silk Road Ensemble” is a diverse group of musicians who share their unique culture of music with other artists from around the world. Diving into the fascinating history of the ensemble, as well as following individual members from their homes in Boston, Spain, Syria, China, and Iran, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS is an exploration of cultural identity and expression through beautiful music. Regrettably, the movie takes a relativistic approach, putting creative expression above religious beliefs and objective standards.
The movie starts off with a great musical sequence of the Silk Road Ensemble performing in the street. The music itself is arguably the movie’s best part, and each musician is highly captivating on screen. From there, the movie focuses on five main musicians of the ensemble, their lives, their culture and their instruments, while also weaving in the story of the ensemble itself.
Yo-Yo Ma is the famous American cellist and founder of the group who believes creative innovation comes from the combining of cultures. He started the Silk Road Ensemble in 2000. It consists of artists from around the world. As they come together, they realize the importance of cultural unity through music. After 9/11, in the wake of global tragedy, they all decide to keep the ensemble going and tour around the world.
Kinan Azmeh is a Syrian clarinet player, who brings the audiences into his home in Damascus. He struggles throughout the movie about the importance of music, especially considering the turmoil and political climate of his home nation. He often wonders if he’s doing enough to help the world as a clarinet player.
Wu Man is a Chinese Pipa player, who helped revive the craft as the first class of musicians after the Chinese “Cultural Revolution.” She wrestles with the politics of growing up in an unstable China, and how she can define her Chinese identity after practicing music in the United States for so long.
Kayhan Kalhor is a renown Kamancheh player who struggles with the political censorship of being a musician in Iran. A key member of the ensemble (Yo-Yo Ma refers to him as his brother at one concert), Kalhor lost 12 friends and his entire family during the Iranian revolution. He struggles with being unable to return to his wife Iran as the government repeatedly cancels his concerts for ambiguous political reasons.
Finally, Cristina Pato is a bagpipe player from Galicia, Spain. She has a wonderful heritage and a free spirit, being described as the Jimi Hendrix of bagpipe players. The movie dives into the rich cultural history of Galicia, Cristina’s home, and how she can keep her cultural identity alive outside of the country.
As Pato puts it, “the moment you place yourself in a different context you have to express yourself,” and so the ensemble embarks on combining their struggles and cultures in an effort to find the purpose of musical expression. It is truly a remarkable story of the power of art to bring cultures and people together even in the face of turmoil.
The story is most interesting when it attempts to tackle difficult, abstract questions like, What is home? What is the purpose of creative expression? And, “What obligation does an artist have to their cultural upbringing?” These existential musings of the musicians are excellent conversation starters, even though the ensembles conclusions are somewhat empty and superficial, especially for faith-based audiences.
For example, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS takes a highly relativistic viewpoint and completely leaves out any spiritual explorations on creativity. When commenting on the ensemble’s decision to continue after 9/11, Yo-Yo Ma says, “Everybody in the face of disaster re-examines who they are and their purpose.” All the musicians ultimately find their purpose in their cultural identity and musical expression, even while they are grappling with bigger social and political problems. Religious beliefs are placed secondary to creative expression, with one member of the ensemble saying, “He is Muslim, and I am Christian. It’s not a necessary thing to know who is Muslim and who is Christian.”
While the music of the movie is beautiful and enjoyable, many people of faith may find these explorations disappointing. It would be interesting to see the moviemakers dive deeper into the faiths of the members of the ensemble, dealing with the ideas of how they serve their beliefs through creative expression and God-given talents. The idea of being created to create goes untouched in what is mostly a culturally relative and tolerant, multicultural view of beliefs. The story may still be worthwhile to those who appreciate the music, or the beauty of cultures coming together during times of turmoil. The movie does have, however, some moral, redemptive themes of loving your neighbor, the power of community, mentorship, and hope can still be found throughout the movie. As one member of the ensemble puts it, “The arts is more about opening up yourself to possibility. Possibility links to hope. We all need hope.”
So, THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS has an eclectic, pagan worldview containing a mixture of Romantic, pagan, moral, and redemptive elements. There is no objectionable content otherwise other than two “f” words and one “h” obscenity.