Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Yo-Yo Ma

Ask someone to name a classical musician, and they'll likely reel off names such as Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, or Tchaikovsky. Ask them to name a classical musician from the 21st century however, and the task might become a little more difficult. Yo-Yo Ma, however, is an exception. Since picking up the cello at the age of four, the musician has become a household name. Even many children are familiar with the musician thanks to his appearances on Sesame Street, Arthur, and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Ma has garnered awards such as the Avery Fisher Prize (1978), the National Medal of the Arts (2001), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), and over a dozen Grammies, and is currently a member of the Dave Brubeck and Paquito D’Rivera, and recently worked with bluegrass/folk musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile on the album The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

For those in the DC area, Ma will deliver the 26th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy on April 8 at the Kennedy Center. In anticipation of the event, we recently spoke with Ma via e-mail about his life, his art, and the magic of live performance.

NEA: Can you describe what it feels like when you play the cello?

MA: I try to focus on three things: content, communication, and reception.

Content is the story, the narrative, the overarching emotional journey as well as the moment-by-moment feelings. Communication is the actual part of playing the cello---making sounds that reflect the emotional narrative, creating an energy architecture in physical space, projecting character and feeling with simplicity and directness. Reception is how all the content and communication is received by the listener(s), with the ultimate goal that the content, once received, lives inside and is part of the listener.

When all of three parts are activated and flow uninterrupted in a circle, the magic of live performance is created, resulting in memorable communal moments.

NEA: You have traveled and performed all over the world, and in 1998, you founded the Silk Road Project. How do you think music can serve as a cultural connecter?

MA: Music creates communal moments. It is a form of intimacy that is socially acceptable. It creates a common communal memory, or cultural memory, the accessibility of which transcends time and space.

NEA: How do you balance preserving cultural and musical traditions with your own need for artistic exploration and innovation?

MA: Often tradition and innovation don't sit comfortably together because one is being chosen at the expense of the other. The truth is, all tradition is the result of successful innovation. Being engaged in both allows us to recognize the dynamic qualities of each, and the need for any form of culture to evolve in order to survive.

NEA: You first performed at the White House at the age of seven. For most of us, that would be a classic example of “it’s all downhill from here.” Not for you. Tell us, in your extraordinarily accomplished career, what have been one or two of your proudest moments?

MA: I'm proudest of two moments. The first is my participation in a number of children's television programs such as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and Arthur. When I did those programs I was a guest in the children's space, rather than requiring them to come to me. The second moment was when I saw both my children graduate from college, each filled with the wish to make a contribution in society.

NEA: Is there a particular quality you look for or are attracted to when choosing artists with whom to collaborate?

MA: Generosity, virtuosity, and kindness are always good to start with.

NEA: Where do you look when in need of inspiration?

MA: Nature and humanity.

NEA: How do you view the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

MA: I think each holds a mirror to the other. At its best it's a symbiotic relationship, each enriching the other, promoting the feelings and imagination that hold society together as well as an early warning system to avoid lemming-like behavior.

NEA: What are you listening to/reading/watching right now?

MA: I just watched the film Lincoln, and just read an article on the "The Nature of Feelings: Evolutionary and Neurobiological Origins," by Antonio Damasio and Gil B. Calvaho. I’m about to listen to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony to prepare for rehearsals with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as part of Citizen Musician work I’m doing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.



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