Yo-Yo Ma's Journeys
A warm, breezy day in July, and beneficent providence has set for me a sumptuous lunch overlooking God's own landscape near Tanglewood, on the patio at Wheatleigh, the poshest hotel in the Berkshires. This is theoretically a business lunch. But never has duty been less stern, for my lunch date is the ineffable Yo-Yo Ma. Radiating sunshine, in Izod shirt, shorts, and boat shoes without socks, he bounces lovingly from the car valet who parks his red Mercedes to the owners, whom he hugs effusively, to the waiter who brings lunch, joking with him in French. Ordering roast potato soup, he says, "Didn't that used to be called vichysoisse?" Then tuna carpaccio. "I love the food here," he exclaims. "You just have to come here for dinner. Hey, can we talk about food instead of real life?" Deer are grazing at the bottom of the sloping lawn and a few yards away, a family of wild turkeys bobs along in unison. "Oh boy, supper!" he whoops. The soup arrives, adorned with a huge, gorgeous morel. He sleight-of-handedly spoons it into my dish. "I already had one," he lies. "Maybe it's the hills," he sighs contentedly, "but I get so calm and psyched when I get close to Tanglewood." Next summer Ma '76, D.Mus. '91, and his family--his wife Jill, son Nicholas, 16, and daughter Emily, 14, musicians all three--will be in their own Berkshire summer home in nearby Tyringham.
Ma is at Tanglewood for chamber music with Emanuel Ax and for Strauss's Don Quixote with Seiji Ozawa leading an orchestra comprising young musicians from both the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the Mahler Youth Orchestra of Europe. After our lunch, he is to do a master class at Tanglewood, then drive to a concert in Saratoga, New York. In a couple of days, he will be off to Weimar, Germany, where he and Daniel Barenboim are to inaugurate the West-Eastern pan Chamber Orchestra--50 young musicians from Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and other countries in the testy Middle East, where hatred and mistrust seem to be as indigenous as the rocks.
Hate and mistrust, on the other hand, are utterly alien to Yo-Yo Ma. "It is so easy to be cynical," he cautions. "It's an accurate reflection of reality. It's much harder, it takes a philosophical point of view, to be optimistic. You have to work at it every day. One of the joys of working with children is that they are still unspoiled by cynicism." The nurturing of young talent is a priority for Ma. "I'm proud to say," he boasts a little, "that I knew Elmo before he became Tickle-me Elmo, the star. When he was starting the violin, I helped him learn a very difficult note." His appearances on Sesame Street, with Mister Rogers, and as a giant bespectacled gray bunny on Arthur, he says, are "the things I am most proud of; I love being invited into the world of children."
His remarks call to mind an icy day in February, when he gave a master class at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. In spite of absolutely no publicity, it was standing room only. "Is this awesome or what?" exclaimed one young ticket-taker. What was awesome as well was Ma's bounteous encouragement of the three young cellists, occasionally touching their shoulders, borrowing their instruments to illustrate a point, hopping into the audience to hear from a distance. Many of the students' questions involved stamina and endurance. "Go with the energy around you," he urged Lauren, who, having just played the prelude to the cello concerto of Eduoard Lalo, was concerned at how drained she felt. "I used to get very tired playing this movement," he reassured her. "Use the power of the orchestra to help you, that's the secret. Save a little, so you can give a little more."
Ma's own colossal stamina has inevitably led to comparisons with great athletes. Conductor David Zinman, a frequent collaborator, says, "I see Tiger Woods as the Yo-Yo Ma of golf." (Others have called Michael Jordan the Yo-Yo Ma of basketball, Yo-Yo Ma the Wayne Gretzky of music, and so forth.) "On our last tour," says Zinman, "Yo-Yo tried to define energy for me. He said, 'You have to expend energy in order to produce energy. If you empty yourself, you're going to fill yourself even more.' Sometimes he sleeps; sometimes he doesn't. He's one of those people who can sleep on a dime. If he has 10 minutes before a concert, he can just zzzzzzz out, then throw some water on his face and be radiant."
At that wintry master class, Longy director Victor Rosenbaum had introduced Ma as "our Cambridge neighbor, the most famous cellist of our time, and one of the most celebrated musicians of all time. The connections he makes between music and life imbue his music with humanity. At Harvard, he did many things with enthusiasm. Probably, at one time or another, he could have gone in several directions." Ma's riposte: "While I was at Harvard I tried to do many things; the reason I'm a cellist is that I could only do one."
Rosenbaum was right, of course, on all counts. But at our midsummer lunch, Ma protests, "Come on, there are millions of things I can't do! Have you ever seen me on the dance floor?" About Harvard, his connectedness, and his "several directions," however, he is happy to expand...give or take the occasional elusive riff. "I think I am pushing the envelope--by the way, what does that mean? I know what it means to lick the envelope--in that I'm seeking to join, to connect things, that were not previously joined together: from Bach to the Kalahari to music along the Silk Road, to country fiddling and the tango.
"And yes, Harvard has everything to do with my trying to stretch boundaries," he says. "My Harvard experience informs my life to this day. As a kid, I had lived in different places, but still I was fairly protected. Harvard was the first place in my life where I was systematically introduced to different worlds and ways of thinking. I learned there how science and art are joined under philosophy.
"So much of what I do today is based on the first introductory courses I took," he explains. "You might say I'm still acting on some of the information I received then. My favorites? Fine Arts 13, with Seymour Slive. A course on Dostoevsky taught by Setchkarev, which I loved; I used to call people in the middle of the night to talk about Dostoevsky. 'Rice Paddies' [Soc Sci 11a and 11b] with
Cathy Barbash '74, an arts consultant and former manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the manager of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra in 1971, when Ma, still in high school, played Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the HRO. Her parents, Lillian and Maurice Barbash, were in the audience that night, and so smitten were they by the young cellist then and at his concerts through the years that they decided to celebrate their fortieth anniversary by commissioning a concerto for him. Ma chose for the composer his preceptor and friend Leon Kirchner. The result was Music for Cello and Orchestra, premiered in 1992 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under David Zinman, and later recorded by the same forces, together with two other Ma commissions, Richard Danielpour's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, and Christopher Rouse's Violoncello Concerto. The recording, made against hilarious odds during Philadelphia's huge blizzard of January 1996, earned Ma a Grammy, one of 13 he has collected. Says conductor Zinman, that CD, Yo-Yo Ma Premieres, was "another victory for American music."
Fairbank and Reischauer. German literature in translation with Dorrit Cohn. And then, of course, anthropology with Irv DeVore. My whole life was in a sense changed by that course."
A few weeks earlier, I had spoken to Irven DeVore, Moore professor of biological anthropology. DeVore remembers Ma with fondness as a student in a forerunner of his Core course, Science B-29, "Human Behavioral Biology" (affectionately known to undergraduates as "Sex"). A music lover, DeVore had become familiar with the playing of the Puerto Rico-based cellist Pablo Casals while doing research on that island. One evening at Harvard, DeVore and his wife heard Ma play a concert at the Busch-Reisinger Museum: "Blew us away completely." The next morning, DeVore opened class by saying, "'I know that the prestige of this University tends to focus on the accomplishments of our athletes, who this year, bless them, are doing superbly. But I want to tell you that last night I heard a Harvard freshman play the cello, and his expertise puts any athlete in the shade, and far exceeds that of the acknowledged master of his field, Pablo Casals. That freshman is sitting right up there.' I pointed to Yo-Yo, and the poor guy turned purple."
DeVore is one of the world's foremost authorities on the Ju/Wasi (the name means "the proper people"), a subgroup of the hunter-gatherers known as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, a desert region bordering Namibia and Botswana. The Bushmen became for young Ma a revelation, even something of an obsession, and the urge to visit them tugged at him for 20 years until he finally acted on it, in one of the quests we'll return to. "Was I an influence?" asks DeVore. "The only influence I had was playing some music and talking about the Kalahari, and he sucked that right up. Or perhaps it was just touching my garments."
Ma laughs appreciatively when I repeat this to him. "Harvard got me going on all kinds of searches," he says. "And Harvard was also the first community where I lived with people who were not specialized music people. On the musical, intellectual, and social level, I lived with and was the audience. I played everything and everywhere: in the Holmes Hall living room, in the Currier House senior common room, Eliot House, Lowell House, the HRO, the Bach Society. Someone in class would say, 'I've written a piece; do you want to play in it?' Sure, why not? Or 'So-and-so needs someone to play in that musical,' or in the orchestra for the Gilbert and Sullivan. This was a real community. I am so glad I didn't opt for a music school.
"Often," he continues, "I meet young people getting really involved in music early. You know, the child-prodigy syndrome. Based on my own experience, I tell these kids and their parents: 'Remember that what you do between the ages of, say, 12 and 21 is creating your emotional bank account. You'll be withdrawing from that account the rest of your life, so make sure you put in stuff that really counts. If you do nothing but tour during those years, if you are center stage from concert hall to hotel to limo rides to the airport, that is what you will be withdrawing from because that is all you'll know.'" And competitions? He laughs. "Are you kidding? I lost every competition, except once when I was five. Today, I won't even be a judge. I'm against them."
It was when he was five that Yo-Yo Ma, the archetypal child prodigy, played his first public concert, at the University of Paris. He played both the piano and cello, including the prelude to the second Bach suite for unaccompanied cello. Ma's father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, a violinist and a professor at Nanjing University, had left China for Paris in 1936. His mother, Marina, a singer from Hong Kong and former student of Hiao-Tsiun's, emigrated to Paris in 1949, where she and Hiao-Tsiun were married. In 1955, Yo-Yo was born. Some years ago, he told interviewer David Blum that "Yo," which in Chinese means "friendship," was the generational character chosen for him and his sister, Yeou-Cheng '73, M.D. '77, now a violinist and pediatrician, who is four years older than he. "With me," he said, "they seem to have got lazy and been unable to think of anything else, so they added another Yo."
His father, he says, "was the pedagogue of the family, very strict. I was born when he was 49, so he was an older parent, very old-world. He loved painting, and himself studied musicology, composition, and violin in Paris." Hiao-Tsiun tutored Yeou- Cheng and Yo-Yo in French and Chinese history, calligraphy, and, of course, music. Each day, Yo-Yo had to memorize two measures of Bach; by the time he was four he was already playing a Bach suite. He was sent to study with Michelle Lepinte; Yeou-Cheng was accepted for violin study with Arthur Grumiaux.
At about this time, an important friend and advocate entered Ma's life in the amiable person of violinist Isaac Stern. "When Yo-Yo was about six," recalls Stern, "a good friend of mine, a luthier in Paris, Etienne Vatelot, said to me, 'You know, there's this young Chinese boy that you must hear.' I went to listen to him, six years old, and the cello was larger than he was. It was extraordinary. Not a professional setting, he was very much a student. His father was extremely careful about that." Stern was to be invaluable in helping the family get established when they immigrated to the United States.
This move took place when Yo-Yo was seven. "After 27 years in Paris, my father brought our whole family over to the States. Not an easy thing. The reason was that he wanted to convince a brother of his not to move back to China." (Ma's mother currently lives in New York; his father died in 1991. His last request was that his son play the sarabande from the Bach fifth suite at his bedside.)
"I went to several different schools in New York," says Ma: "Trent, L'Ecole Française, where my father got a position teaching music, and Trinity, a professional children's school." In 1962 his father founded the Children's Orchestra Society. Still operating under the direction of Ma's sister and her husband, Michael Dadap, it offers the students coaching, theory, and performance opportunities with celebrated soloists--like Yo-Yo Ma.
In New York, Ma continued his cello studies with Janos Scholz. Soon, the ever-watchful Isaac Stern buttonholed his friend, the great American cellist Leonard Rose. "I said, 'Lenny, you have to teach this boy,' and Yo-Yo played for him, and of course he instantly took him. He studied with Lenny for many years in the Juilliard precollege program. Everybody noticed that extraordinary talent, not only his astonishing memory and his virtuosity, but his natural feel for being on stage, the way most people feel in their old clothes with a beer in their living room. The stage for him is the same thing as home. Anyway, he started to play publicly, and I suggested him to several conductors. They would engage him on the spot and re-engage him after the first concert."
Shortly after arriving in this country, Yo-Yo and his sister had played at a fundraiser in Washington for a national arts center, which eventually became the Kennedy Center. The event, attended by President and Mrs. Kennedy, was hosted and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It was one of television's first specials. The film clips show a boy who is already displaying what Isaac Stern has called "charisma in spades."
The violinist Lynn Chang '75 was in the Juilliard precollege pision with Ma and spent the summer after graduation with him in upstate New York at Meadowmount, the music camp run by Ivan Galamian--"all the talented [string] players wanted to study with Mr. Galamian," says Chang. But this was a historic moment for young Ma: it was his first extended time on his own. As he told David Blum in 1989, "Suddenly I was free; I had always kept my emotions bottled up, but at Meadowmount I just ran wild, as if I'd been let out of a ghetto. The whole structure of discipline collapsed. I exploded into bad taste at every level."
"I was confused," he says now. "My family, like many Asian families, was not very big on dialogue. I didn't know what my opinion was on most things. But I knew enough to say to my father, 'Listen, it's a clear choice; I can be a really obedient son or I can try to be a really good musician, but I can't be both.' If you want to be a musician, you have to identify what your own voice is."
Chang and Ma had each been accepted at Harvard for the class of '75, but Ma decided to defer, lived at home, and attended Columbia--an experiment that lasted barely a semester--while continuing his studies with Leonard Rose. Between drinking and prowling and cursing and skipping class, he qualified as a bona fide American rebellious teenager, but to his family this renegade behavior meant shame. However, it seems to have been a necessary evil: kicking over the traces was producing a new freedom and abandon in his playing. Leonard Rose saw him patiently through this phase and gave him more latitude--for example the Beethoven C major sonata, to work out completely on his own. His engagements at the age of 15 included a performance at Carnegie Recital Hall and the Saint-Saens concerto with the San Francisco Symphony.
He spent the summer before entering Harvard, when he was 16, at the Marlboro Festival, where he played under Pablo Casals and where he became reacquainted with Jill Hornor, a junior at Mount Holyoke whom he had met briefly when he played there a few months earlier. Jill, who had been a violinist in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, was working in the office at Marlboro. "The first thing that attracted us was probably the recognition factor," he recalls. "She, like me, was brought up in two cultures; she had lived for many years in Europe. But more important, she was probably the first person who really wanted to find
out what I truly thought," Ma recalls. "She used to say, 'What do you really mean by that?' That totally dumbfounded me." Jill went to Paris for her junior year, and after finishing Mount Holyoke, did graduate study in German literature at Cornell. Ma courted her by phone and mail, and they were married a year after his graduation from Harvard. (The first three years of their marriage were spent at Leverett House, where Ma was artist-in-residence and Jill a tutor in German.)
Ma describes the years before and during Harvard as meshuga: "totally lazy and undisciplined." His freshman year he lived in North (now Pforzheimer) House in the Quad, under the solicitous eye of his sister, a senior. If he was indeed "lazy and undisciplined," he somehow managed, as a freshman with a full academic schedule, to play about 30 concerts all over the world. He did, however, limit his out-of-town appearances to one a month for the following three years.
Which was Harvard's gain, says pianist and psychiatrist Richard Kogan '77, M.D. '81, Ma's roommate in Currier House (where he moved in his senior year) and, along with Lynn Chang, his frequent chamber-music partner. "Yo-Yo made a conscious decision not to concertize as extensively, so he was on campus most of the time and got completely woven into the musical and social life of Harvard," says Kogan. "No one ever knew when he practiced; he was always available. Even then he felt it his mission to bring music to everybody. We played a lot in Sanders Theatre, and even back then, the word was out about this phenomenon, and there were never enough seats. One of my enduring images is Yo-Yo inviting a crush of people, who couldn't get tickets, into the transept of Memorial Hall at about 7:30 and playing Bach suites for them, right up to the moment he had to go on stage."
Asked for the psychiatrist's take on this phenomenon, he laughs. "You can't explain a phenomenon. Ultimately it's unexplainable, even supernatural. I mean, he has of course a healthy narcissism, but there isn't a trace of the pathological narcissism you see in people in his talent category. He was the most regular guy at college--funny, carefree. You could say he was raised with a lower sense of entitlement than most prodigies. His mother was probably the more overtly expressive of his two parents; he got much of his charm and wit and graciousness from her, while some of his discipline and analytical skills he got from his dad. But if you're looking for Citizen Kane's Rosebud, something to unlock the mystery, I'm not sure there is a lot more than what you see."
Along with Luise Vosgerchian, now Naumburg professor of music emerita, Ma's "beloved teacher, who set me on the course in music that made it possible for me to interpret the sound world," Ma's principal mentor at Harvard was composer-conductor Leon Kirchner, now Rosen professor of music emeritus. Father of the legendary Music 180, "Performance and Analysis"--where Ma, Chang, Kogan, and other gifted students honed their considerable skills--Kirchner admits to being what Chang calls "the boulder in Yo-Yo's road." "I was a severe critic, but only because even then I was in awe of him," says Kirchner. "I was always telling Yo-Yo that he didn't have the true center of his tone yet. Meaning there was something more spiritual, the center of his person, of his being, that was not coming through yet. Well, in 1976, Rostropovich came to Sanders Theatre to do a master class and asked me for five cellists. Of course Yo-Yo was at the top of my list. When Yo-Yo began playing for him, he stopped him and said, 'You know you have no center to your tone.' The audience was not happy with this criticism of Yo-Yo, but they didn't understand that Rostropovich, too, recognized that here was something very different, something worthy of the deepest criticism. It wasn't long afterwards that he invited him to play in Washington. Needless to say, Yo-Yo has long since found that center.
"I used to tell him," continues Kirchner, "'Yo-Yo, you have one of the greatest medulla oblongatas in the world. That means you have a fantastic hind brain, but you have to develop your forebrain.' I was ragging on him in a way, but I wanted him to develop that enormous machine of his.
"Once, Lynn and Richard and Yo-Yo were doing a Beethoven trio in my class, and we were talking about the slow movement. I used the word 'careen,' that this music was moving into areas that had never been known to man, that it was suddenly moving from a general line of linear playing into some kind of multiple playing. He seemed taken aback by the 'careen' thing. So I said something like, 'Oh, it will take you 10 years to understand this.' Well, he has gotten back at me, very subtly. Every time he played with some major orchestra, like Berlin or Vienna, he would send me a little note saying that he still didn't understand the concept of careening. Here he's playing with von Karajan, and he's sending me little messages that basically say, 'Those who can't, teach. Those who can are out here playing with von Karajan.'"
Kirchner was of course struck by the enormous force of Ma's personality from the outset, but he says it was not until 1982 that he found himself directly in the field of what he calls Ma's "fearful magnetism, comparable to a rock star or a Mike Tyson, not altogether a benign thing, but something he just can't help." ("There's nothing he can do about it," agrees David Zinman. "People are always bringing babies to him to be kissed, and pushing folks in wheelchairs. I asked him once if he was planning to raise the dead.")
As the founder and music director of the Harvard Chamber Orchestra, Kirchner conducted a program in July of 1982 in Sanders Theatre that included the Beethoven Triple Concerto, with pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Young-Uck Kim, and Ma. "The line outside was so huge, so intense, it was almost frightening. We usually filled the hall long before the concert started, but this was of an entirely different order of magnitude. It took ages just to start the concert; the second trumpet couldn't even get into the hall. John Updike never got in, and the people like him who usually came were furious because they couldn't get near the place."
But Kirchner also tells a story about his elegant wife, Gert, who died last year. "When Gert was in the hospital, Yo-Yo visited her with his cello, and she was not doing well. He played one of the Bach suites for her. For me he managed to bring a beautiful little silver flask filled with wonderful Scotch. Then one day he came back again with his cello, and Gert, who had been having an astonishing penchant for pickles, was not quite there. So I said, 'Gert, Yo-Yo is here. Do you want pickles or do you want Yo-Yo?' She said, 'I want pickles.' The next thing I knew, Yo-Yo left his cello and took off. He came back about 30 minutes later with about six jars of pickles, all different kinds."
Ten years ago a story about Yo-Yo Ma might suitably have ended right there, an attempt to capture the unique conjunction of prodigy, celebrity, musicianship, and humanity. But during the last decade or so Ma has leaped off into multiple new trajectories, exploring perse worlds of folk, crossover music, and multimedia experimentation. Critics, not always sympathetic, have asked why. Composer Richard Danielpour tries to answer. "Some people think Yo-Yo should just be content to be the greatest cellist in the world," he says. "And indeed there are very few masters of their instruments today--real monsters, I mean. Those who exist keep themselves very cloistered within the world of what they do. But the cello repertoire is extremely limited, and a cellist like him simply can't keep repeating himself for the rest of his life. He doesn't have to prove anything anymore. He's been there for so long--he mastered the instrument so early and conquered every frontier for a cellist. Great artists, especially artists like Yo-Yo with his deeply inquisitive mind and concern for human beings, know they have to keep moving, searching, exploring, so they don't atrophy."
Says Richard Kogan, "All these directions he's off in, it's not surprising to me, because even back in school he was eternally curious, constantly wanting to do new things and search for new connections. I think what he was most afraid of was getting bored."
Would he be less restive if he were, say, a violinist, with the violinist's immense literature? "Possibly," says Lynn Chang. "Last week, for example, I finally covered the entire work of Brahms. But I think that Yo-Yo, even as a violinist or pianist, would somehow still find a way to explore different things."
One way Ma has dealt with the problem of limited repertoire is to commission new works. "Between Yo-Yo and Rostropovich," says Isaac Stern, "the amount of new music written for the cello in the twentieth century surpasses all the music written for cello in the past four centuries."
But even in the standard repertoire, Ma is searching, rummaging. The works so intimately connected with his childhood, which he has performed so often, and which he recorded in 1983--Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello--became in 1998 the focus of a novel multimedia experiment, a project Ma had been mulling for many years. What he did was re-record the suites along with a series of videos, Inspired by Bach, for which he invited six artists from disparate fields to develop a work. For Suite No. 1, he asked Julie Moir Messervy to join him in creating a "music garden"; for Suite No. 2, he played "inside" computer renderings of eighteenth-century architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi's prison engravings; the collaborator for Suite No. 3 was ebullient choreographer Mark Morris, whose troupe performed a work entitled "Falling Down Stairs"; for Suite No. 4, filmmaker Atom Egoyan produced a story featuring Ma as himself; Suite No. 5 focused on Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando, who dances female roles; and Suite No. 6 spotlighted ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, an actor playing Bach, and Ma with his cello turning up in a dizzying assortment of urban locations.
It was probably the most controversial project Ma has ever undertaken. He was castigated, gently, by virtually everyone, from music critics to his old friends at Harvard--not for his playing of the suites, which many think has deepened and broadened since the first recording--but for what Leon Kirchner calls the accompanying "baloney, unworthy of a supreme musician like Yo-Yo. I told him he should have saved a suite for Tiger Woods."
Christoph Wolff, Mason professor of music and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, a friend whom Ma refers to as his teacher, says, "I found a number of things rather embarrassing in those videos. If I hear the cello suites, especially the intricate sections that are so sophisticated, I close my eyes. Yo-Yo also closes his eyes. I think that is what a serious musician and listener does naturally. Visuals are at best distracting."
But Wolff also suggests an alternate response: "Yo-Yo did not do the video for professional musicians. I think he's trying to reach out to a broad audience to whom Bach means nothing, to transmit the excitement of these pieces, by bringing in a contemporary visual dimension that he feels might really enhance the musical messages. And who knows? Maybe visual assistance will help people to get into it; maybe then in the next round they will do without these visual come-ons. Maybe Yo-Yo will ultimately find a way to connect popular culture with 'elite' music. Perhaps he is trying to turn the cello suites into world music, something never before attempted."
Asked about the unforeseen fallout, Ma responds, "I can only tell you that this project was another college education for me. I had to learn other media, work with filmmakers, learn about lighting, get to know a Kabuki actor, find out how things can fall apart in the civic arena [like the music garden, which failed to obtain funding in Boston, but was welcomed by Toronto, where it opened last June]. You really have to step outside of the box to learn how other people operate, people you respect and want to work with. I loved seeing how these artists responded to the suites. For me the connections were real, not gimmicks. Yes, even the garden. The first suite has, you might say, regenerated into that physical space. The sarabande, for example, which is sort of the heart of the suite, has become the Poet's Corner, a rock with a tiny fountain, a meditative space. The minuet and gigue, in fact the 'populist' movements, are the public spaces, where performances will take place. And even though the series is done, I know I'll be continually involved--in performances at the garden, for instance. And Mark's group and Torvill and Dean have taken their Bach on tour. So the project has a life of its own now."
Ma's digging along the paths he says were opened to him at Harvard has uncovered paramusical layers of curiosity--in anthropology, ethnography, archaeology--"partly," he says, "because I wasn't such a good student, and I knew what I was doing was incomplete, with lots of holes left to fill. Those courses sort of identified what in the world was interesting and made me want to know more. At some point, I would say to myself, 'Wait a minute. Unless you do something about it, it's all wishful thinking, and life is running by.'" Hence his trip to the Kalahari, in 1993.
In Distant Echoes, a filmed record of his trip, he explains that he is on a personal quest to find the connection between the music of the Bushmen and his own, "to learn whether I could find any common ground between us." His guide and translator, arranged for by DeVore, is Richard B. Lee, the prominent chronicler of the Bushmen. Ma becomes genuinely engaged in the stories of this aboriginal, destitute, but serene folk--think The Gods Must Be Crazy--and plays Bach for them. "I felt a little awkward," he says, "about playing my instrument here. Such a booming sound. Bach seems so young here, old by my standards, but compared to the Bushmen's cultural history, it's no more than an instant." He is deeply interested in their simple, home-made instruments, and sits cross-legged and absorbed by the sounds of the musical bow, for instance, where the upper end of a hunting bow is placed at the corner of the player's mouth as a resonator, while he uses his thumb and a stick to strike the string. "Very beautiful," he says. "Tell me, how do you change the sounds? Do you put it in your mouth? You move your teeth and tongue? What happens if you don't move your thumb?" And here he places his ear very close to the bow.
The scene is repeated as he listens to an elderly musician play the gwashi, a sort of harp made of wood, hide, sinew, fiber, resin, and twigs. The melody vaguely recalls a modal "Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde," which Ma tries to notate in his notebook; then, with laughter all around, he takes the instrument and plays it. The thumb piano, however, resists his attempts; "Where the hell is the F?" he murmurs. The venturo, played by an ancient musician named Kai, has a beat-up oil can for a sound box, with a metal string and a bow that appears to be made of a twig. Ma says it is the Bushman version of the cello, but demands a different feel. It takes him several tries to approximate what Kai is doing, and then he says to the translator, "Tell him the sound he makes is so much more beautiful."
The high point of Bushman music is the N/um chai, the curing ceremony that is known as the trance dance, which Lee says is 40,000 years old, one of the oldest of human rituals. Ma explains it as a "synthesis of music and religion, a meditation, a gift from heaven." Later he says, "I can only speak for myself, but I think the cumulative power of a trance dance is as great as a Beethoven symphony...the Ninth. Like Beethoven, it gives life, and is nourishment for the soul. The whole community participates and feels the tremendous power."
DeVore confirms that the trance dance is "extremely powerful, based on complex musical themes: no instruments except a deep drum beat, women singing and yodeling contrapuntally and clapping their hands--a sound much like dry sticks--and the men dancing in a hard-packed circle, their legs cocooned in dance rattles. It's one of the most impressive things a human will ever see. I don't know about Beethoven's Ninth, though. That may be a bit of a stretch."
Near the end of the film, Ma says that as a result of his visit to the Kalahari, he is going to try to play different kinds of music. And so he has: the tango, for example--in the soundtrack of The Tango Lesson and on his Grammy-winning recording Soul of the Tango, where he performs the tangos of the late Astor Piazzolla together with some of the world's most accomplished tango players. One set, called "Tango Remembrances," was written especially for Ma and was recorded using outtakes of Piazzolla himself playing the bandoneón, the Argentinian version of the accordion, with buttons rather than keys.
Back in the Berkshires, Ma talks animatedly about the tango project, about the bandoneón, the low-life origins of the tango, and Piazzolla. "The way I understand things, the deeper you go into anything local, the more you find the global. Piazzolla goes to live in New York, where he listens to jazz and works as a barber; he studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; then, when he goes back to Argentina, people absolutely hate his music, with its jazz and other 'foreign' influences. His friend Horacio Malvicino [a featured guitarist on the recording] told me Astor used to get death threats! Now, of course, everybody loves it. So here is this specific national music, and yet look at the sources. That's why it has that incredible tight rhythmic sense, but also the Italian rubato and the erotic tensions which that creates. That's what makes you go nuts!"
Suddenly something Isaac Stern had told me jumps into my mind. He'd said, "Yo-Yo reminds me of an enormous walking sponge. He just picks up characteristics wherever he is, and becomes completely at home with the music or food or local life. He's also a spiffy dresser, and very attractive to the ladies."
Spiffy and attractive, Ma is sipping iced tea and saying, "It's now two years after we made the recording, and I just did a Piazzolla tour with many of the same people. And they made me feel great because they said to me, 'Hey, you're getting better at this!' I think maybe my ears are more attuned. That doesn't mean I'm the genuine article, but maybe I am moving ahead."
Though critics have taken aim at these "crossover" activities, Ma clearly considers them salutary for his art--as do friends like Kogan, who says, "When he returns to familiar music, just as when he returns to old friends, he brings the energy of where he's been. All these forays cannot help but deepen his artistry."
One of the projects that has invigorated him most heartily in recent years is his collaboration with Texas-style fiddler Mark O'Connor of Nashville, with whom--and with bassist Edgar Meyer of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society--he made the popular recording Appalachia Waltz. "With Mark and Edgar," he says, "I got tuned into a number of traditions that I had been peripherally exposed to and knew nothing about--the oral tradition, music that traveled from Norwegian fiddling, Scotland, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Appalachia, down to Texas--I used to say, 'Yeah, I know that music. It's nice.' Well, it took a year of their telling me, 'No, you're not doing it right!' Gee, I thought, I'm a pretty good player; I have fairly good ears. But I couldn't hear what they heard. It's what Bartók and Kodály were saying [and, thought I, Ma himself in the Kalahari]: It's so hard to really understand what the oldest person in the village might be singing to you, to notate it and really get it down."
Finally getting the sound into his ears, he found himself modifying his bowing to match both the sound and the articulation, holding the bow at the bottom of the frog, as O'Connor does. Interestingly enough, this brought him round to playing more like a Baroque cellist, and--circles within circles--he now often uses O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz" as an encore in performances of the Bach cello suites.
Subsequently, in another move that brought him less than thunderous approval, he had his 1712 Davidoff Straparius surgically altered by London and Paris luthiers to approximate a Baroque cello. (His second instrument, a 1733 Montagnana, is the "more baritone" of the two; "earthier, like a Burgundy," he says in a Rolex ad.) The retrofitting included removing the end pin; replacing the steel strings with gut--giving the instrument a looser tension, and therefore less volume and brilliance; and flattening the bridge. He also commissioned a copy of a Baroque bow, which--curved a bit differently from the modern bow--has a little more flexibility.
"The cello," he says, "is a remarkable mix of art and technology. Over the centuries, people have constantly improved on how to make it sound better, more resonant. When you start to strip away the technology, though, you get back to a wonderful sound, having nothing to do with 2,700-seat halls, where you spend about 60 percent of your energies trying to create the largest acoustic sound possible. And the flexibility of articulation in Baroque playing has everything to do with the tradition of the fiddlers. Also, in Baroque tradition people improvised and did things with bass lines, which is true as well of the fiddlers." In any event, what's done can be undone, can't it? "My Baroque cello may revert, yes. But then again, it may not. I've become very attached to it in its present state."
And now, Ma is involved in a project that may ultimately take the cello into an altogether new realm. In a life devoted to stretching boundaries, here is the most ambitious stretch of all, a fusion of all his roads into one: the Silk Road Project, which he founded in 1998 and of which he is artistic director. Broadly speaking, Ma's goal is to study the ebb and flow of ideas among different cultures along the ancient Silk Road that connected Europe to Asia, finding and performing traditional music and commissioning new works. Lynn Chang calls the Silk Road Project Ma's "senior thesis, his grand unification, his Sistine Chapel."
Here is an excerpt from Ma's official statement, published by the Silk Road Project:
Throughout my travels I have thought about the culture, religions, and ideas that have been influential along these historic land and sea routes, and have wondered how these complex interconnections occurred and how new musical voices were formed from the persity of these traditions. How did a biwa, a medieval Japanese stringed instrument, become decorated with Persian designs and African gemstones, for example; how did ancient Roman glass influence objects made in Kyoto; how did such string instruments as the Arab oud, Chinese erhu, and Indian sarangi come to influence both East and West?
Some of the themes to be investigated, he says, are interconnections among sacred musics along the Silk Road--Eastern Orthodox, Sufi, Jewish, Tibetan, and Confucian chants; silk in music, dance, and theater; music of the proto-Gypsies; and fiddles and lutes along the Silk Road. By commissioning music from composers based in the region, he says, he seeks to identify the current voices representing these ancient but still living traditions.
"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done," he says. "The Silk Road is a metaphor for a number of things: as the Internet of antiquity, the trade routes were used for commerce, by religious people, adventurers, scientists, storytellers. Everything from algebra to Islam moved along the Silk Road. It's the local-global thing. In the cultural world, you want to make sure that voices don't get lost, that fabulously rich traditions continue to live, without becoming generic."
One of the first fruits of the project is a recording entitled simply Solo, on which Ma plays solo pieces, among them "Seven Tunes Heard in China," composed for him by Bright Sheng, a professor of music at the University of Michigan and a consultant on the Silk Road Project. "The last movement," says Sheng, "is called 'Tibetan Dance.' When Yo-Yo played it at the Kennedy Center, a lady from Boston--Chinese like me--who plays the pipa came up to me and said, 'That's Tibetan?' You see, the Chinese love Tibetan music, but there is only one kind they know; they don't know a lot of the folk music that comes from Tibet. I heard it because I lived in the Qing Hai province of northwestern China, a territory that once belonged to Tibet. Through the Silk Road Project we can encourage this kind of new awareness."
Sheng's first composition for Ma was the 1997 "Spring Dreams," a concerto for cello and Chinese instruments such as bamboo flute, pipa, and erhu. "You can see that this fits right into the Silk Road concept," says Sheng, who is is planning to spend the summer in China doing extensive field research.
The Chinese-American composer Tan Dun, another active participant in the Silk Road Project, is working on a concerto for Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to be premiered in early 2001 as part of the project. "This piece relates to the Silk Road in time and in space," he says. "It is a kind of media-concerto for cello, counterpointing a videotape of folk musicians along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to Iran to Central Asia, Inner Mongolia, and China."
Ma and Tan Dun are also collaborating on another Silk Road undertaking, a soundtrack for a forthcoming movie by Ang Lee. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, says Dun, "takes place in the nineteenth century near the Chinese gate to the Silk Road. This film needs a lot of fiddling sounds, from the Mongolian horse-head fiddle to the rawarp to the erhu. Yo-Yo is planning to learn these instruments and will play them in the film. My interest is to seduce Yo-Yo into this big jungle of fiddling, and I am positive that through this Yo-Yo will develop the cello into something else. Just as the cello changed from Baroque times to our time, Yo-Yo will be the one to take it to a new stage of development for the twenty-first century."
Ma himself will devote most of next year to his project, which will take him to sites in Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East. We are talking here about some of the most religiously and politically vexed areas of the world. "Don't worry," Tan Dun assures me. "Yo-Yo has no boundaries; all kinds of people follow him. No danger; he's like one of those ritual dancers who passes through fires." Others draw an analogy with the Pied Piper, and Orpheus.
Practical concerns, however, are taken seriously by ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin, an associate professor of music at Dartmouth, who spent last autumn traveling through Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia commissioning composers to write new music to be performed by Ma and others at 15 festivals planned throughout Europe, the Far East, and the United States. These celebrations will begin at the Salzburg Festival in August 2001 and culminate, in the summer of 2002, on the Mall in Washington at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival, which projects an audience of more than a million. Levin says he is also looking forward to the "reciprocal, mirror part of the festivals, which is our bringing some version of them to Central Asia--in other words, back to their origins."
But one of his jobs as executive director of the project, Levin says, is keeping a reality check. "Yo-Yo is obviously someone with extraordinary enthusiasm and optimism and hope for the world, and we all desperately need that," he says. "At the same time, one does need to be aware of the harsh political realities--including all too many cultures trying to eradicate other cultures and their legacies. I am constantly hammering this home to him; it is a tough world out there."
At the same time, Levin is eager to hear Ma play the Bukharan shash maqâm (roughly, "six suites"), Islamic high-classical court music which he likens to the Bach suites. "They're actually quite similar in the way they work," he says. "The maqâm are like Baroque variation suites; you take a melodic idea and run it through a series of rhythmic treatments. Like the Bach suites, there's a certain sacredness in that music, as well as a certain playfulness; it runs the gamut from prayer to dance."
Can this music be played on the cello? "Absolutely," says he. "In fact, there is a beautiful instrument, a bowed tanbur, in Central Asia called the satâ, which sounds very much like a cello, very expressive. We mustn't forget that all the European bowed instruments almost certainly originated in Inner Asia.
"Last year," he continues, "I brought Yo-Yo some recordings of maqâm played on the satâ. I sat and watched him while he listened, and it was beautiful. He immediately grasped the connections both at the technical level and in the broader, deeper musical sense, which is what he will communicate to the audiences. I'd long dreamed of hearing him play the satâ."
It is a dream shared by Ma, but as he begins describing spiritedly the wonderful old instruments he is learning for the Silk Road Project, he realizes that it's time for his master class. Gulping the last of his iced tea, he runs inside for a minute, and I glance again at his printed Silk Road statement. This catches my eye:
We live in a world of increasing awareness and interdependence, and I believe that music can act as a magnet to draw people together....
Taking his good-byes, he says, "That just about sums it all up! Only be sure not to let cynicism get in the way, promise?" He waves good-bye, and I notice it has become just a little chillier.
Janet Tassel, a contributing editor of this magazine, wrote "First Nights" in the January-February issue.