Yo-Yo Ma on What It Means to Be a Cultural Citizen and
Trying a "New Recipe"
By Lou Fancher
World-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a man of questions.
In a 45-minute, wide-ranging phone interview prior to a Cal Performances “Berkeley Talks” appearance this Wednesday, Dec. 10, the 59-year-old, 17-time Grammy winner — who plays his instrument with immeasurable assuredness and technical command — is primed to query and postulate.
He says people on the “super highway” of the digital era are asking the wrong questions. Instead of exploring how to monetize art, Ma asks, “How do cultural citizens, those of us in the arts, science and philosophy, discover arts’ essentials? What is the value of art besides monetary value? Are people getting art in new ways? Are they stopping to think humanistically? Do you know how many drafts it takes to make something readable?”
The last question, a semi-serious quip about preparing the “score” he will use for the lecture at Zellerbach Hall on Wednesday, speaks to the immense preparation involved in not just playing, but in representing music and a musician’s role in the world.
Although many people know Ma from his playlist — an expansive landscape encompassing music from nearly every known canon, country and cultural tradition — his work as an arts activist is equally broad. Through a Citizen Musician project with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, educational initiatives and collaborations with artists from Bobby McFerrin to Michael Tilson Thomas to Sesame Street to “Lil Buck,” Ma is intent on using art as a “shoe-in” tool for cultivating global imagination.
“Art asks us to do all the things that lead to innovation,” he says. “Concept, design, execution, engineering: You figure things out by doing things.”
Ma and Cristina Pato, a member of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and master of the Galican bagpipes and other instruments, will explore with words and musical illustrations, what it means to be a cultural citizen — his term — in the 21st century.
After experiencing the death of CDs, the “iTunes moment” and the domination of music distribution sites like Spotify, Ma has a futuristic dream. Actually, he has two.
“My two fondest hopes are that we could have a cultural platform of 10 million people who get together to decide things and have a cultural voice. Another is a platform that can be used by students that combines education and culture, needs and resources,” he says.
To construct a structure for his dreams, Ma knows people have to feel involved. Using autobiographical moments of frustration as building blocks and believing “we all live in the abstract between the granular and the larger world,” he finds more questions:
“Can we accept responsibility? Can we find a place between conditioned habits and innovation? We love Grandma’s pie, but can we try a new recipe?”
With the world changing rapidly, Ma wonders, “How can we adjust without losing our way of life?”
In search of answers, he recalls falling in love with a Schubert trio at the age of 12. “I looked at it and loved it, but what is the difference between loving something and living inside of it? Different music has it’s own DNA. If culture means you have to live inside something, how do you take something that comes from a culture that is not yours?”
Changing the lens, breaking through bricks-and-mortar school walls to use digital learning platforms, engaging in cross-cultural and multi-genre projects, shifting from boxed-in training for an industrial society to emphasize collaboration, flexibility and imagination, and putting art as an equal partner at the table with politics and economics — ”To me, that’s the direction,” Ma says, at last finding answers.
Cultural citizens, he says, can be like an advance warning system, like scouts, alerting society to dangers and calling attention to overlooked avenues of discovery. But they must not risk losing the message in translation, he warns.
“Sometimes people in the arts are so individual, they don’t come together to have a voice that is listened to.”
And so, back to his score, to composing concept, design, execution and engineering into a symphonic message of innovation.