Yo-Yo Ma's Other Passion | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Yo-Yo Ma's Other Passion

In celebrating the cultures of the ancient Silk Road, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has found a second calling

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Yo-yo ma creeps catlike across a Brussels stage to the spooky rhythm of kettledrums. “What animal am I?” he asks a group of rapt 10-year-olds. “A tiger,” a boy calls out. “Right,” Ma says. “Do you see how the music creates a picture? Now listen to this Chinese ballad. A grief-stricken man is telling a terrifying tale about his mother getting eaten by a tiger.”

Ma strikes up the band—in this case a cello, violin, timpani, marimba, and, from China, a pipa(lute) and a mouth organ, or sheng. Again, the rumbling timpani signal an approaching tiger. Suddenly, Wu Tong, the sheng player, lets loose a bloodcurdling solo in Mandarin, flinging back his long black hair and looking like a wild man. The children give each other startled looks. The music grows softer, then fades away. The youngsters erupt in applause.

Now Ma asks what the fifth graders think was going on when the music quieted. “The singer’s mother had been eaten?” offers a girl. “Exactly,” says Ma. “The story is from Szechuan opera, and the performers sing like this,” he says, rising on tiptoe and warbling a few wobbly falsetto notes. The kids titter. “Better stick to my cello, huh?” he says, flashing a mock frown.

Touring the globe as a performer for over 25 years, Ma became fascinated with the way that music and its instruments metamorphosed around the world, particularly along the East-West trade routes known as the Silk Road, connecting Europe and Asia. Over time, he came to wonder if music could promote greater understanding among disparate, even conflicting, cultures. Beyond playing the cello, Ma began to experiment with fostering a sort of musical multiculturalism. “If I know what music you love and you know what music I love, we start out having a better conversation,” he says. Four years ago, he launched the Silk Road Project to, as he then put it, “study the flow of ideas among different cultures along the Silk Road.”

Ever since Marco polo talked his way out of a Genoese prison with tales of the fantastical East, images of the Silk Road have stirred the West’s imagination. Stretching from Japan to the Mediterranean, this network of trade routes flourished for some 1,600 years, from around 200 b.c. through the 1400s. German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name in the 1870s, but silk was only one of the precious commodities carried by camel caravans across frozen mountain passes, parched deserts, verdant pasturelands, and peach and pomegranate orchards. Furs, ceramics and medicinal rhubarb moved west along with gunpowder and printing presses. In return, gold, glass, textiles and ivory traveled east. More important, the Silk Road encouraged myriad peoples to intermingle and trade not only goods but also art, music, literature and ideas. Merchants, monks, adventurers and musicians converged on Samarkand, Kashgar, Bukhara and other oases. With the explosion in commerce that came from trade, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism and, later, Islam spread across the region. But like all economic bubbles, this early foray into globalization burst when traders abandoned caravans in favor of faster sealanes. By 1500, the Silk Road had been eclipsed.

But its influences hardly waned. In 1998, Ma organized two symposia of experts from museums, the music industry and academe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Paris to figure out how the Silk Road Project might best work. Shortly after the first symposium, Ma invited Ted Levin, a pianist and a DartmouthCollege professor who had been studying and recording central Asian music for nearly three decades, to become the project’s executive director. Levin introduced Ma to Silk Road musicians from near (an irrepressible band of ethnic Bukharan Jews who imported the lyrical tradition of maqâm, a type of Islamic classical music, to Queens, New York) and far (in Amsterdam, Levin and Ma met with Mongolian street musicians). Out of these early encounters emerged the Silk Road Ensemble, a peripatetic collective of musicians from 17 countries that fluctuates in size from 12 to 32 members. Since its first performance at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany in August 2001, the ensemble has given dozens of concerts in France, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States. (In addition, the project has produced films and sponsored storytelling performances, open rehearsals, exhibitions, festivals and lectures about the Silk Road region to audiences around the world.)

Soon after forming the Silk Road Project, Ma realized that the existing repertoire of music blending Eastern and Western instruments was limited, so in 1999 he and a panel of composers, musicians and musicologists began commissioning 20 new works by composers from nine Silk Road countries. Weaving together traditional instruments from many cultures, their contemporary compositions draw from hypnotic Sufi trance music, exuberant Uzbek folk chants and thunderous Korean drumming, updating musical traditions that go back more than 3,000 years.

After rehearsing and polishing the new compositions in the United States and France, the Silk Road Ensemble, with Ma as artistic director, kicked off a 20-month world tour last August in Germany. In January, the group performed in Amsterdam and Brussels, and last month at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The ensemble will go next to Washington, D.C., where they will play a series of concerts at the ten-day Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 26-30 and July 3-7 (see “From the Secretary,” page 20). Unlike previous ones, this year’s festival has a single theme: the cultures of the Silk Road and their influence on the world.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in 1955 in Paris, to which his parents had emigrated from China. His father, a composer, violinist and musicologist, taught Europeans about Chinese music. Yo-Yo initially spoke Mandarin and French, and picked up English at age 7, when his parents moved to New York City to join Yo-Yo’s uncle and his family. Before Ma left for the United States, he made his professional debut at the University of Paris on both the cello and the piano. Isaac Stern was in the audience and said that he “could sense then that Ma has one of the extraordinary talents of this generation.” When Ma was 9, Stern arranged for him to study with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music. Yo-Yo gave his first performance at Carnegie Hall at 15. Emanuel Ax, who now performs with Ma, attended that recital and said recently, “It was the most incredible exhibition of string playing I’ve ever heard from such a young player.”

Two years later, Ma began his studies in humanities at Harvard; during college summers he performed at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. There he started dating Jill Hornor, a student at MountHolyoke. The two were married in 1977 and now have two children— Nicholas, 19, and Emily, 16. Ma’s full-time music career took off in 1978 when he won the LincolnCenter’s Avery Fisher Prize, awarded to a musician annually, based on excellence alone. Since the earliest days of his music career, he has performed with major orchestras and toured internationally as soloist, recitalist and chamber musician. Widely acclaimed for his interpretations of the Bach suites, Ma broke new ground in 1998 when he made six films exploring each of the suites, collaborating with artists from other disciplines: choreographer Mark Morris, filmmaker Atom Egoyan and garden designer Julie Moir Messervy. Ma has also explored the traditional music of Appalachia and the Argentine tango.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus