Yo-Yo Ma: Music and the Meaning of Life

Yo-Yo Ma has always used his gifts in the service of spreading humanistic values — via cross-cultural musical collaboration, civic engagement and huge amounts of heart

Photo: Photo illustration by Bráulio Amado. Source photograph by Jeff Vespa/Getty Images.


20 November 2020 | David Marchese | New York Times Magazine

The immensity of Yo-Yo Ma’s talent is such that he would be globally admired if all he ever did was appear onstage or in a recording studio and then vanish after the last notes faded from his cello.

That Ma has instead used his gifts in the service of spreading humanistic values — via cross-cultural musical collaboration, civic engagement and huge amounts of heart — means that his connection with the public goes far deeper than mere admiration. Ma’s compelling instinct for compassion has been on much-needed display during this pandemic year.

In the spring, he streamed a performance series, “Songs of Comfort,” on YouTube and social media. During the summer, he broadcast a performance of Bach’s Cello Suites in honor of those lost to Covid-19. And on Dec. 11, he will release “Songs of Comfort and Hope,” an album recorded with the pianist Kathryn Stott. “People need each other for support beyond the immediate staples of life,” Ma says. “They need music.”

Do you think music is fundamentally good? That’s a good question to ask and very hard to answer. It’s as if you’re asking me “Are people fundamentally good?” I don’t think people are fundamentally bad. But in the interaction of figuring things out or wanting more of something or less of something, then complex things come into play.

I ask because your work is rooted in the idea of music as a value-positive, ennobling thing.11For example, as part of his ongoing Bach Project, Ma, who was honored as a U.N. Messenger of Peace in 2006, organizes discussions on social progress with activists, educators, students and local leaders in the cities where he performs. But music is also used in every possible awful context. Can we delineate music from the intentions of the people using it? Music connects human beings. It brings people together. You can also describe it as energy: sound that moves air molecules. So a marching band will energize an athletic game or bring people to war.

The bagpipe is used for war, for entertainment, for funerals, for weddings. Music is not one thing. It’s something that people react to. But your question — “Is that good or bad?” — it depends on circumstances and individuals and timing. The invention of something starts out being more or less value-neutral. Agriculture: Nothing bad about it. But if you’re able to grow a lot of vegetables and I can’t grow any on my land, I might want to get some of your vegetables.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about, particularly over the last four years, and I’ll raise it with you fully aware that my engagement with music is minuscule compared with your own. Don’t say that. I know you like music. You’re interested. You think about it. So don’t assume I know more than you.

I’ll accept that! All right, I’ve been wondering if in the past I had too easily allowed myself to believe that engaging with music — or culture more generally — was also a way of engaging with politics. In the sense that doing so was implicitly promoting humanistic values or empathy. Now I can’t help thinking that was at least partly a complacent waste of time, and while I was doing that, some parallel Neanderthal was probably spending the equivalent time figuring out how to advance odious politics. Is my rambling making any sense to you? Of course it makes sense. It’s about whether you believe in a utilitarian world or you believe that if you look out on the night sky, you see the infinitude of variety in nature and the unreachable wonders of what it is and how we fit in.

Morons are generally not thinking about the infinitude of the universe. They’re thinking of a different world. And you have to be able to extract certain truths. When you write something that’s beautiful, you think you’ve found a bit of truth. It flows. It sings. You can do that, David. Is that useful? I know the lady22Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti, who is the director-general of the CERN nuclear research facility in Switzerland. who spent 20 years helping to find the so-called God particle, the Higgs boson. Is that useful?

I just read this piece that says that Newton, because of the bubonic plague, had to leave university and went back to the family farm, and during that time he developed all these incredible theories that we are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years later. Is that useful?

Physics is useful. Is spending years overvaluing the political utility of art? All I’m saying is, if you dropped out and just focused on politics, then where are you drawing from? Where are your inner resources? What’s going to keep you going for 50 years? And do you know that you’re actually going to make more of a difference by focusing on politics than on the culture you’re passionate about? You don’t know what you might help make happen. Our world is full of the result of unintended as well as intended consequences. The two naturally go together.

What was your own evolution with music and politics?33Ma’s politics have been more gestural than overt, but the gestures — like performing at the U.S.-Mexico Border and for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the U.N. — are clear in supporting values of global unity and cooperation rather than division and isolation.I think of it almost in terms of young children and how they engage in the world. Growing up is becoming familiar with a series of rolling concentric circles. You’re kind of circling your space, your home, your family. You’re exploring all around.

So to your question, becoming a parent was a huge thing. Once you have a child, your sense of time completely changes. You start thinking about a longer stretch of time, where you have to be responsible for another person’s life. You have to think differently about responsibilities. If you have a parent who becomes ill and you’re there, that’s a familial responsibility. A friend is in trouble; you help the friend.

These are extensions of that concentric circle. New neighbors move in; you try to welcome them. It’s all the connections we make in life. Once you’re connected, you feel responsibility. And “connected” means that it’s a circular loop. I know you, but you have to know me, too. There’s an energy circle that goes back and forth.

And you believe culture can drive that? That’s right. I knew fairly quickly in my career that you had to create memories. In order to have a career, you have to make sure that somebody remembers your name — as opposed to “Oh, that Asian dude who does the violin-type instrument.” It’s about connection. And culture — I used to ask people, “What is culture?” It’s so complex. My latest try for “culture” is that it’s everything that humans have invented that helped us survive and thrive.

Think about language, think about agriculture, think about navigation, think about engineering. Think about politics: We invented our nation. And guess what? The people who invented our nation — they were younger than you. That’s my vote for giving custodial responsibility to younger people sooner rather than later. They’re willing to sacrifice certain things in order to have an authentic life in what they buy, whom they buy from, how they live. They’re going to live through moments of change that I know I’m not going to be capable of helping with, but I can be a cheerleader. That’s one way of looking at responsibility.

It’s not about: “Oh, I have to care about society. I’m using culture.” It doesn’t need to be defined as “I’m going to play for you this piece of music.” It’s not that. It’s more like you and I talk, and a connection is activated. Because you’re a thoughtful person, I’m going to get something from this conversation that is going to help me build a mental structure: “I met this guy, David, who’s interested in a broad number of people and really does his homework and is a modest person, but he cares a lot and is curious.” That’s a good frame to remember somebody by. That’s important.

There have been arguments in the air lately about cultural appropriation. I’m curious how you see them, because you’re someone who has obviously thought hard about how to engage with other cultures.44Most notably through his Silkroad Ensemble, which performs music inspired by the Eurasian silk road trade routes. Ma has also recorded tango, bluegrass and Brazilian music, among other styles. That’s in addition to music from the European classical tradition.Look, my favorite subject in college was anthropology.55Ma graduated from Harvard, where he studied anthropology, with a degree in liberal arts in 1976. Studying early cultures was interesting because so much of this conversation that we’re talking about is stuff that comes from essentially the last 500 years. Anthropology gave me a method of looking at value structures of different societies. These things take me into beyond the contested 300-to-500-year era that we’re all really focused on.

So you see contemporary cultural arguments as blips? In order to try to understand, I’m trying to gain perspective. The anthropological part of that is that you start out from a position of beginner’s mind. No judgment. Tell me about yourself. What’s important to you? I just want to know. I’m not going to be judgmental. Later on, I can go back and think: Who is David? What made him curious? Was he born that way or did something happen in his life? And how did having children change him? Because he said something about “the last four years” — his kids are 3 and 5. So is that sort of family, child-related?

Are you asking me for real? Yes!

The change comes from having kids and then looking at the way politics is going and thinking about what kind of world my girls are going to grow up in and what I can do to make it better. Exactly. I’m a grandparent.66Ma and Jill Hornor, an arts consultant, were married in 1978. The couple have two children, Nicholas and Emily. Teddy and Oliver are both preschool age. Teddy’s going to be 83 years old in the year 2100. I will be long dead by then. But what kind of world is he going to live in? It’ll be past the singularity moment. Are there going to be 500 million people already washed under the ocean? Are we going to live with this fractured sense of the world? This is my two little grandchildren. It’s not an abstract thing.

Are you confident that your work is helping bring about the world that you would like your grandkids to live in? Not that you’ll necessarily get the result you want, but that you’re doing what you can to achieve it. [Pause.] I don’t know. That’s the kind of question that I ask myself.

I can’t tell if the way you answered my earlier question about cultural appropriation — by talking about anthropology and getting beyond a post-enlightenment perspective — is just how your mind works or was a noble way of sidestepping a potentially controversial subject. Well, subjects are controversial for a reason. This is something that people have to argue out. I can tell you, my mind is very weird. The bushmen of the Kalahari desert — I actually studied them, and I loved that group.77Ma’s collaborations with the Kalahari are the subject of the 1996 documentary “Distant Echoes.” 

I spent time there. And the thing — I’ll give you the fast takeaway — is that they did trance dancing. They did this dance for hours. Women in a circle clapping; they got into trance. The next day, I interviewed the women and said, “Why do you do this?” They gave me the answer, “Because it gives us meaning.” Their answer has been my answer for culture since that time. I’m not a crackpot person. I am absolutely a science-based, evidence-based person. But because of the practice of music, I delve into the inner life of whatever we are.

I don’t have any answers, but I keep poking around to try to figure out a little bit more. So in terms of cultural appropriation, I just want to say that academia has certain standards. Business has certain standards. The arts have certain standards. Politics has certain standards. They’re very different standards. If you tell me something that’s precious and I then take it as my own, when I use it I need to give credit. We do that in academia. We don’t do that in the arts. Acknowledge where it’s coming from and share in the wealth.

During the pandemic, people, as always, turned to music for solace. Have you noticed common denominators in music that comforts? I’ve been asking myself all my life, “What is the purpose of music?” It’s like trying to find the meaning almost every day, because the purpose yesterday may not be the purpose today. What the pandemic has crystallized in my mind is that we need music because it helps us to get to very specific states of mind. It’s not like, “Listen to my music; it will help.”

But rather, everybody wants to get to certain states of mind during the day, during the cycle of the season. And during a pandemic, with the alienation of not having social contact, music is also that physical force. It’s energy. Then you get to more complex things, like how certain songs elicit memory. Certain smells can get to an immediate childhood memory of your grandmother’s baking apple pie. Music can do the same thing.

Your first kiss. Your wedding. And unfortunately, during this time, we’ve lost a number of friends, and you have virtual memorial services and you play music for that. All of which is to say that you do whatever is needed with music. We need music to make us feel at equilibrium through hard times and good times.

People have drawn so much from Bach’s Cello Suites88Ma has released three recordings of the cello suites, in 1983, 1997 and 2018, which he said would be his last time scaling that particular mountain. this year. Those pieces were originally composed as study exercises, and yet they’ve become these icons of catharsis.

What’s their magic? A couple of things. Bach wrote the Cello Suites in the only time that he was not in the service of the church. It’s something like 1720 to ’22. This was a time when he didn’t have to write cantatas for Sundays. He could experiment further. So the way I look at the Suites — and this is a roundabout way of getting to your question — is that I imagine Bach saying to himself: “Hey, I play a lot of instruments. I play the organ, I play the piano, I play the oboe, and there’s the cello. I’m going to figure out what I can do with the cello.” He says, “I’m going to learn everything about the instrument.” He writes the first suite, second, third suites. What does he discover? “Wow, I now know exactly how the cello functions.” Then he says, “Now, because I have an experimental nature, I want to figure out what the cello can’t do.” One thing the cello can’t do is hold many notes at once. So he says: “OK, how am I going to do that? Maybe I can figure out a way to invent something. Aha! How about if I use the listener’s ear to fill in what I can’t do polyphonically?

I give you one note so it’s in your memory, then maybe I leave it, but do it in such a way that in about seven seconds I have the following note but you still remember the first note.” He does that with different voices, and especially with the bass line. And starting with the fourth suite, he gets more and more inventive in creating larger structures — sort of like a universe filled with neutron stars and galaxy black matter. Sort of like saying, “I can get you into a different world by fiddling with my permutations and your subconscious reception of them.”

The fourth, fifth and sixth become more experimental. The fifth one, he tunes down the cello by a note, so he gets richer chords. The sixth one, he actually writes for a five-stringed instrument instead of a four-stringed instrument, the viola pomposa.99There isn’t consensus on the nature of the viola pomposa or how it was played, and it has often been conflated with another small cello-like instrument, the violoncello piccolo. He’s expanding the range of the instrument and literally changing it.

Where does emotion come into this? What does this have to do with healing or solace? Let’s say if you’re depressed and you’re stuck, you’re essentially kind of paralyzed. Your neurons are operating at low level and low capacity. Music is a stimulus. You respond to it, but you’re responding subconsciously to something that makes your brain active.

So the ingenuity of Bach’s music fires the neurons, which causes positive feelings? Exactly. In a way, it’s the Socratic method: Musically, the Suites are asking, “How would you find an answer?” Maybe that’s all a fantasy of mine, but the evidence is that people find something in this music. I know I do.

Do you think about your public presence at all in the context of being Chinese-American? We are in this moment of rising anti-Chinese racism in the United States, and your persona seems directly in contrast to negative stereotypes about Chinese-Americans. Is that intentional? You’re asking a pretty broad question vis-à-vis the United States. It’s almost like six or eight different countries of very different characters that have been stitched together to form the United States of America. But here’s one way of answering: When I started playing concerts on a regular basis in my early 20s, in Europe the most often asked question was, “How can an Oriental like you understand music?”

That was a bit of this stereotype of the Asian with a slide rule. Being a musician at that time was an anomaly. Now the numbers of Asians in orchestras, it’s fairly large. When I started out, Seiji Ozawa1010The Japanese conductor was the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1973 to 2002. was the conductor of the Boston Symphony, and I always credit him with breaking the mold. He was a long-haired, hippie-ish kind of conductor. He was a cool guy. Because of him, I’m almost second-wave. It was easier.

Now people are talking about, “How does it feel to be one of very few African-Americans in a major orchestra?” — Anthony McGill1111The principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic. is now being featured. He’s a great artist. He is such a beautiful soul. There are fabulous African-American musicians, but I think the environment needs to be more comfortable.

More broadly, how do you think about the specific environment in which you’re playing music? For me as a musician, I try to be aware of where I am. As a performer, my job is to make the listener the most important person in the room. The only way to avoid burnout is to care about where you are. My good friend Manny Ax

The pianist Emanuel Ax, Ma’s longtime friend and collaborator. would always say to me that it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday; if you’re here today, that’s what counts. Being present. Caring. You’re working with living material. That goes back to memory. The living material is only living if it is memorable. Not only that it’s memorable but that you pass it on. That is what I’m thinking about with every single interaction. Whether it’s a kid, someone on the street, in a concert hall or with you, David. It’s the same thing: How to be present. Because if you’re not?

Then why are we here? That’s it. You are acknowledging someone’s existence by being present. It may take a lot more energy, but boy, is it much more rewarding. It makes me happy. It makes people happy. It’s wonderful.

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