Yo-Yo Ma: On the Silk Road

Cellist and classical music icon Yo-Yo Ma discusses his world-music project
by Edith Eisler

Yo-Yo Ma is one of those rare people who can make even a hardened cynic believe that artistic and personal integrity go together. He is not only one of the greatest, most versatile cellists of his or any other time, but is endowed with an extraordinarily inquiring, adventurous mind that leads him into far-flung intellectual, cultural, and historical explorations. Lesser men and musicians might be suspected of engaging in these enterprises to generate publicity, but the sincerity of Ma’s involvement with his projects is never in doubt: he throws himself into them whole-heartedly and absorbs them into his musical and personal life. Completely open to people and ideas, he radiates a genuine, embracing warmth; totally natural and unassuming, he is always eager to learn. In a notoriously competitive, slippery profession, not a disparaging word is ever heard either from him or about him.

Yo-Yo Ma is one of those rare people who can make even a hardened cynic believe that artistic and personal integrity go together. He is not only one of the greatest, most versatile cellists of his or any other time, but is endowed with an extraordinarily inquiring, adventurous mind that leads him into far-flung intellectual, cultural, and historical explorations. Lesser men and musicians might be suspected of engaging in these enterprises to generate publicity, but the sincerity of Ma’s involvement with his projects is never in doubt: he throws himself into them whole-heartedly and absorbs them into his musical and personal life. Completely open to people and ideas, he radiates a genuine, embracing warmth; totally natural and unassuming, he is always eager to learn. In a notoriously competitive, slippery profession, not a disparaging word is ever heard either from him or about him.

I have been his ardent fan and admirer for a long time and have had several opportunities to talk with him. When I first met him at the 1991 Tanglewood Music Festival (see “Yo-Yo Ma: Music from the Soul,” May/June 1992), he was experimenting with a piece by MIT composer Tod Machover for electronic and acoustic cello and four computers. By the time he telephoned me for our latest conversation in February, he had, in addition to his regular performing and recording activities, undertaken numerous fascinating journeys through time and space, from the world of Bach and the Baroque to Appalachian folk fiddling and the Argentinean tango. As he talked about these projects, a connecting thread between them emerged despite their diversity, which he described as “a linear continuum in the pursuit of learning something.” Indeed, the word “learn” runs through his conversation like a Leitmotif.

Ma’s recent collaboration with Chinese composer Tan Dun, whose music calls for Chinese and European instruments on the soundtrack for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which has just won several Oscar nominations), is clearly linked to his current adventure: the Silk Road Project. Described as “a new initiative aimed at exploring cross-cultural influences among and between the lands comprising the legendary Silk Road and the West,” its activities include concerts, festivals, and educational outreach in North America, Europe, and Asia. Shortly before our interview, I heard Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, an international group of young musicians who play both Western and Eastern instruments, present a sampling of their programs at Columbia University’s Miller Theater. The event featured musical excerpts and commentary by Ma and several scholars, including the Silk Road Project’s executive director, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin, professor of music at Dartmouth College. Naturally, the Project became the interview’s first subject.

What sparked the idea for the Silk Road Project?

YO-YO MA I’ve been traveling all over the world for 25 years, performing, talking to people, studying their cultures and musical instruments, and I always come away with more questions in my head than can be answered. One of these is the idea of culture as a transnational influence, and the Silk Road, though basically a trade route, also connected the cultures of the peoples who used it. The Project started with several symposia of scholars, and it was eventually decided to form a nonprofit, knowledge-based organization that would combine new and traditional information about places where people have been making exciting, wonderful music. When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it. But an innovation, to grow organically from within, has to be based on an intact tradition, so our idea is to bring together musicians who represent all these traditions, in workshops, festivals, and concerts, to see how we can connect with each other in music.

How do you find them?

YO-YO MA We did a lot of field work; Ted Levin and others went to Central Asia, China, and Mongolia, located composers, and listened to their works, and just yesterday we heard more compositions from Armenia, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Japan, and Korea. Then about two years ago, we asked 16 people to write pieces, and last summer, we invited about 60 musicians to Tanglewood for a 12-day workshop to play them so we could make some sensible programs. They came from Iran, Uzbekestan, Tajikistan, China, and Mongolia, but many master performers can also be found in Toronto, Chicago, and San Francisco, and there is a large contingent in Queens, New York. However, they keep up a strong tradition of their native music, even though, like many emigrants, they often have to do other things to make a living.

Did your 60 musicians speak English?

YO-YO MA Some did; language is a problem we have to address. Many of the Central Asians know Russian, and Ted Levin speaks it fluently. I speak Chinese, but Mongolian is completely different, so we had to have translators.

Are you including Western music in your programs, too?

YO-YO MA Of course, that’s the whole idea. Music has always been transnational; people pick up whatever interests them, and certainly a lot of classical music has absorbed influences from all over the world. Take Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” When Mahler developed heart trouble, a friend gave him a book of Chinese poetry called The Chinese Flute,and it interested him enough to use it for “Das Lied.” Now we want to perform it in Chinese and are having the texts translated back. Mahler didn’t go to Java or Bali or Malaysia, but Bartók did go to Turkey and talked to Turkish composers; Stravinsky claimed he never went to a traditional Russian wedding, but it later turned out that he did. You can hear all these influences in their music, and seeking out their sources has certainly opened up my ears. In March, I am playing a concerto with the New York Philharmonic that was inspired by the Project and written for me by Richard Danielpour . . .

Whose music you’ve performed before.

YO-YO MA That’s right. He is Iranian-American, and when he was a child, his grandmother sang Persian songs to him; he remembers a lot of them, and when he was writing this piece, he asked her to sing them again. The concerto includes a part for the kamancheh, the Persian spiked fiddle, which will be played by Kayhan Kalhor, a fabulous Iranian musician and composer, who studied in Canada and divides his time between New York and Teheran. He was among the people that came to Tanglewood, and the Project commissioned him to write a piece that we’ll play before the Danielpour; it’s scored for various Eastern instruments and a string sextet and it’s wonderful. Then the orchestra will play Rimsky-Korsakov’sScheherazade, a 19th-century Russian view of Persia.

Tell me more about some of the Eastern instruments.

YO-YO MA The odd-shaped one I played the other day is the Mongolian morin khuur, which means “horse-head fiddle” because of the shape of its scroll. I was given and taught to play it by some Mongolian musicians at Tanglewood. It has two strings, tuned to F and B-flat, and each can be used as an open drone while the other is fingered. But like the Indian fiddle, the sarangi, it has no fingerboard; you play by pulling the strings sideways or rubbing your nail against them. The bow has no screw—you tighten the hair by feel, pulling on it with your fingers. It is held underhand, as with the gamba and the Chinese er-hu, which also has two strings. These instruments were probably the precursors of the viol family, certainly of the gamba; the cello was a later upstart.

But in one piece you played the cello. How do you make it blend with the Chinese instruments?


YO-YO MA By getting into a different sound world. In the history of classical music, the rate of change in Europe since 1500 has been astronomical, but before that it was much slower. When you strip away some of the innovations of the last 500 years and get into a pre-1600 playing mode, you can relate to other styles and instruments. I think I learned about that from playing Baroque cello, and folk music with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer.

I’ve long been anxious to find out more about those projects. How did you transform your Strad into a Baroque instrument, apart from taking out the endpin and putting on gut strings?

YO-YO MA I used a different bridge and tailpiece. I could have changed the bass bar and got a shorter neck, but I didn’t want to do that: it was too radical. The basic idea was to remove pounds and pounds of pressure from the cello by using different materials to produce sound. I also played with a Baroque bow, which took a good deal of adjustment—physical, mental, and aural.

Have you returned the Strad to its normal state?

YO-YO MA No, it’s still a Baroque instrument. Working with Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and its fabulous players was a great opportunity for me, and the repertoire is so rich and beautiful, I want to continue to play it.

But for the Bach Suites you didn’t use a Baroque instrument.

YO-YO MA No, I just hold the bow slightly differently and sometimes tune low.

I’ve heard you play them many times and always loved it; I’ve also seen the film series, Inspired by Bach. Would you tell me how that came about?

YO-YO MA Essentially, the idea was to ask, What is a piece of music? I think its materiality is much more than just the notes. It’s a code that opens a door to a world everybody interprets differently, because our aesthetic and sensory values are different and each generation has to discover its own. So we said, Suppose we regard a piece of music as almost genetic material, like DNA, to the mind of a person who is both very receptive and imaginative. How would that person think of it, not in terms of the cello, but of their own medium? So for Julie Messervy, who is a garden designer and a family friend, the First Suite became a garden, a living thing, which, like a piece of music, only exists if it’s nurtured. And it now exists in Toronto, as a concert hall without walls, a place where people partake in its living form, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. (See “The Toronto Music Garden,” Encore, April 2000.)

feature94The Second Suite film was inspired by the fact that Bach actually tried to do the impossible: to create polyphonic music on a single-line instrument. The idea came from François Girard, who had directed The Red Violin and films about Glenn Gould. He is a very creative person and he wanted to do something on architecture. He chose Piranesi, because he, too, tried the impossible: to design structures that could in fact not be built. But François made them exist in virtual form in the film. And in the Sixth Suite, ice dancers Torvill and Dean, who are great favorites in my household, also did on film what is impossible in reality: to skate [at that level] for 27 minutes.

For the Third Suite, Mark Morris created a dance with incredibly masterful, inventive choreography. When we perform it, I feel that the dancers are living notes; as I watch them, I am literally reading the text, and we sense a very profound interactivity. Mark took the code of, say, irregular patterns, and then superimposed his own irregular code on Bach’s patterns; this breathed a different life into the piece without taking anything away from it. The work continues to live in the company’s repertoire, and that makes me very happy.

The Fourth Suite film explores the question, How does a piece of music exist in a society? How does it live within a person who is ill, or an amateur musician, or someone who becomes absolutely obsessed with it? The Fifth Suite film asks, What does this music have in common with the world of Kabuki? Tamasaburo, a dancer I’ve admired for a long time, took almost a year to get inside the piece; finally, it was the idea of a candle, of lighting something, and also of the flames being gradually extinguished, that was the unifying factor for him, visually and choreographically. The result was a feeling of resignation, of giving up, but of still nurturing that fire, that life in the piece.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film project was collaborating with so many people—directors, filmmakers, and writers—over a five-year period. I learned that there are two components to this. One is that you have to take time, lots of time, to let an idea grow from within. The second is that when you sign on to something, there will be issues of trust, deep trust, the way the members of a string quartet have to trust one another. Things can fall apart, or threaten to, for many reasons, and then there’s got to be a leap of faith. Ultimately, when you’re at the edge, you have to go forward or backward; if you go forward, you have to jump together. For me, those two lessons and working together with all those idealistic, dedicated people constituted a second college degree. It took me way beyond what I knew, into places of which I was totally scared, but as I became less frightened, I welcomed new ways of thinking and approaching something. It made me an infinitely richer person, and I think a better musician. No matter what people said about the project—and it raised a lot of eyebrows—I’ll never regret having done it.

I actually got the courage for the Bach project from two earlier experiences. One was a symposium, “What is the Meaning of Schweitzer’s Life in the 1990s?,” arranged by Mark Wolf, a federal judge in Boston and the head of the Albert Schweitzer Foundation. He invited musicians, doctors, social workers, theologians (members of the professions in which Schweitzer was active) to meet for a weekend and talk about him. He asked me to talk about Bach, so I had to reread many of Schweitzer’s books. That weekend made me realize that, just like Bach, these people were all trying to do something impossible, because the work of a doctor, a social worker, a theologian, is never finished. The other was a lecture on Bach by a fabulous historian and Bach scholar from Yale, Jaroslav Pelikan, in which he asked me to participate.

This happened in the early ’90s, so it can take a long time for an idea to be realized. It’s like the Silk Road—if you trace the origin, it goes way back. Everything has a beginning somewhere and one thing leads to another, though they may not seem connected: from Bach to Baroque to Appalachian folk fiddling . . . Actually, those have some common elements. Think of the drone and the way Bach uses pedal notes. They’re all over classical music, and all over Celtic music, too. In the second Gavotte of the Sixth Suite, you hear bagpipes, because at that time, people in the cities were looking for an idealized rural environment, and Bach wanted to evoke a country atmosphere.

How did you come to hook up with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer?

YO-YO MA I heard Mark play at Stephane Grapelli’s 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall. I went backstage and said, “You are phenomenal—can you teach me?” And I found Edgar’s music making just as amazing. Eventually we got together and the first thing we decided was that we needed a lot of time. So we’d meet somewhere about every month and, to me, every meeting was very exciting. The music sounded wonderful and I thought, “This is great, I’m doing pretty well!” But not well enough for Mark and Edgar. Mark hadn’t taught me very much but I could see he wasn’t happy with what was coming out of my cello. Edgar is more verbal, and he could explain what specifically I was doing wrong. It took me a long time to satisfy them.


What did you have to do?

YO-YO MA I had to learn a whole different style of playing, in terms of intonation, and even more in terms of rhythm. The idea of rubato is deeply ingrained in much classical music; we think that time, with harmony as a pillar, can be bent slightly when playing a melody, a motive, or an interval. I realized that Mark and Edgar have a different set of priorities. What’s of highest value to them is absolute precision, a groove-like rhythm that’s very hard for a classical musician to acquire; it demanded a real cultural switch. Then, for Edgar, over-vibrating is a terrible thing, so I found myself remembering the time I was listening to Casals and wondering how he achieved such incredible expressivity with so little vibrato. I’m trained to play in 2,700-seat halls, to project, and vibrato of course helps the sound projection. This was closer to Baroque, and I also changed my bow grip toward a much more Baroque feel.

Was most of the music written down or improvised?

YO-YO MA Mark is a natural improviser, so most of the improvisation came from him. As for me, I’m comfortable trying it in a private environment, but hardly feel equipped to do it in public. One of the most important things they taught me was how this oral tradition of music was passed along from generation to generation, from Scandinavia to Ireland, Scotland to Canada, through Appalachia to Texas, with slight variations, yet very precisely, in an unbroken line by people who didn’t go to conservatories.

Are you still playing together?

YO-YO MA I hope we shall never stop.

Playing Piazzolla’s tangos must have required another cultural switch.

YO-YO MA The tango is really a combination of many cultures, though it eventually became the national music of Argentina. And the bandonéon, which we think of as an Argentinean instrument, was actually invented in Germany by a man named Band. It was the poor man’s church organ, became very popular in France, was taken to Italy, and from there to Argentina in the 1800s during the great emigration. The music came from African sources and incorporated Spanish and Italian influences; it started from the bottom of society. Piazzolla absorbed all these strains, then went to New York as a teenager, listened to jazz, and studied in France with Nadia Boulanger. I feel he is a great musician who influenced dance, jazz, and modernism, and developed a new style of tango music. Playing it was another wonderful learning experience. My good friend [pianist] Emanuel Ax says one of the reasons he loves music is that you learn something new every day, and that is what keeps us alive.

I was so happy to hear you play with him again last fall, after what seemed like a long time.

YO-YO MA Yes, we are both very busy, but we’ll always play together. It makes us so happy; there is so much joy in music making when you know each other so well. We try to save time for it every year, but during the last few years, we’ve used it to play piano quartets with Isaac Stern and Jaimie Laredo. However, this year was our 25th anniversary, and we couldn’t let that go by without doing something by ourselves.

Do you still have time to do master classes?


YO-YO MA Sure, everywhere; that’s part of reporting, of sharing with a community of people what I learn from other places.

Learning to play all this new music and all these new instruments also seems to me to be doing the impossible. Where do you find the time and energy?

YO-YO MA Well, I’m 45 years old and I’ve been playing since I was 15, professionally since I was about 20. I’ve spent at least 12 and a half years of my life traveling, and one thing that’s very depressing and that I’m determined to avoid is not being able to remember what I did in the course of a year. This means you must have a reason to be in the places to which you go, and you must do only things that you really care about.

So what’s in the future? What’s your next project?

YO-YO MA Well, I’m going to Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. I’m going to do something with [guitarist] John Williams. He’s written a cello concerto, and solo pieces that I really love, so I think I’m going to learn and record them. I’m going to premiere the Danielpour Concerto in Lyon, where the French silk industry is located, so there’s more than one reason to go there. I’m going to Central Asia and to Turkey, where I’ll play some new pieces by Turkish composers. Turkey, of course, is culturally so rich that I can’t wait to check it out.

I remember your telling me in Tanglewood years ago that you were planning to cut down.

YO-YO MA I have cut down, not in terms of activity, but in terms of the number of concerts, so I can do all these other things. I’ve been home a lot this winter and that’s good. And I’m not likely to forget where I’ve been and what I’ve done and learned.


Yo-Yo Ma plays a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and the 1712 Davidoff Stradivari, which he now uses only for Baroque music. However, he also has two modern instruments: one that Moes & Moes made for him a couple of years ago, and one he has only had a few months, made by Mario Miralles, an Argentinean who lives outside Los Angeles. “I love the Moes & Moes,” says Ma. “I think it’s extraordinary. I played on it for about four months last year and would have continued, except that I had to go to Japan, where I had to play the Montagnana.”

Since he seems to switch between them easily, I ask whether they are the same in size and dimensions. “No,” he says, “the Montagnana is bigger than the Strad, and the Moes & Moes is in between. It’s their own model; they collaborated on the instrument, and it’s like the child of both of them.

“I think it’s just as important to play new instruments as to play new pieces. The old ones are getting scarcer and the new ones more and more wonderful. We may be coming to a new golden age of instrument making. I also like Miralles’ work a lot, though I haven’t played his cello in public yet. It takes me a while to get the feel of an instrument.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these cellos is that when I heard Ma play the Moes & Moes last summer, I had no idea it was a new cello and thought it was one of his Italian instruments. It goes to show that a great player sounds like himself on any instrument.

Ma’s bow is a Tourte, and his strings, on all cellos, are Jargar and Spirocore.