It fits Ma’s profile. Curiosity about people drives him on.
From heal-the-world gigs at the United Nations to “Sesame Street,” his mission is to connect with people, and connect people with each other, through music. Every concert, every interview, is a chance for him to weave another strand of his web. At 58, he talks like a man who is just getting started, as a musician and educator.
“I would be interested in looking at what a universal language is, so we could get a universal and common cultural literacy going for 7 billion people,” he said. “What is it that really allows people to communicate deeply and understand each other's values so we can actually operate better in the political, economic and cultural spheres?” Consequently, total mastery of Bach and his buddies isn’t enough for Ma. His genre-crossing ventures, Goat Rodeo (classical-folk-bluegrass) and the Silk Road Project (classical meets Middle and Far East music), roam the Earth for common ground among cultures. Ma plays for popes and presidents but goes anywhere his curiosity takes him. On Oct. 22, he performed with a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, George Horner, in Boston. One of the pieces Ma will play in East Lansing on Monday was scrawled on a scrap of paper in a German prisoner of war camp in 1940.As soon as we started talking, Ma zoomed in on two champions of the “common cultural language” he is working for.
“You've interviewed two of my favorite people in the world: Dave Brubeck and E.O. Wilson,” he said.
Brubeck merged classical forms with mid-20th-century jazz and worked all his life for racial integration. Wilson, the world’s foremost naturalist, investigates social life in animals — especially ants — and champions the blending, or “consilience,” of the arts and scientific knowledge.
Ma called Wilson “a wise, enlightened humanist scientist.” I told him Wilson got me hooked on ants. “That’s just great. You've always been aware of ants,” he said. “You're just now aware of them in a different way. We think we're so special but we're really part of that continuum.”
Not long ago, Ma was delighted to learn that 7 of his 158 pounds consist of bacteria (his figure, not mine), to which he is a gracious host. “We kind of accommodate each other, and there's certain things we do that are actually very useful,” he said. (Yes, he said “we.”) That did it. I dropped my list of canned questions and ventured that our whole bodies, not just the bacteria, are on loan from star stuff.
“Absolutely! Which makes it kind of interesting when we get deep into human affairs, and we realize that people are saying so many things with great certainty, but sometimes not having a larger perspective,” he said.
I suggested that music offers that perspective, because it comes into being, has duration and passes away, like life.
“You hit just the right note,” he said. (Now I’ll never wash that ear again.) “Everything we look at in music is in the zone, the area between life and death. Music can be useful, because it helps us equilibriate our sense of the relationship between our self and the world.”
Even when Ma is doing a straight-up classical tour, as he’s doing with pianist Kathryn Stott this fall, he keeps on weaving his cross-cultural web.
Monday’s Wharton recital is riddled with trapdoors through time and space. There’s “Suite Italienne” by Igor Stravinsky, a bridge from Russia to Italy and a one-of-a-kind blend of modern and Baroque forms. There are pieces by jazz-tinged tango legend Astor Piazzolla and Heitor Villa-Lobos, supreme blender of classical music and Brazilian folk, and on and on.
To Ma’s deep satisfaction, two disparate minds — religious skeptic Johannes Brahms and devout 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen — anchor the recital by reaching the same transcendent spot, via music.
Ma explained the connection by slowly reciting the name of the Messiaen piece he will play, scrawled in desperation in a German POW camp. “‘Praise to the Eternity of Jesus’ from ‘The Quartet for the End of Time.’ How weird is that? Is it the Mayan calendar, the Apocalypse? What is Messiaen trying to do?” Ma demanded. “He' s trying to describe an infinite world, the world of divinity that exists way beyond. And then we go to quintessential Brahms, the secular humanist who will give his all to try to reach what Messaien describes.”
(He slyly admitted “appropriating” the Brahms violin sonata for cello, a privilege long ago conceded to him by the classical world.)
Ma has toured with Stott, on and off, for more than 30 years. They do a lot of living between reunions. “It's the same way you see a really, really good friend and you haven't seen them in a while,” he said. They do more than pick up where they left off. “Look at what's been happening lately!” he said, as if talking to Stott. “’I just did this, and this is what I found out, and these are incredibly exciting things.’ We download onto each other these experiences and they translate into some form of musical expression.”
Ma has plenty to download lately. In 2011, he co-launched the supergroup Goat Rodeo with fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile. Ma’s epic Silk Road Ensemble has drawn musicians from Iran, Armenia, Korea, China and many other countries along the old trade routes from Europe to the Far East. The bridge-building Silk Road Project is about to outlast the United States’ wars in the Middle East — no small feat.
Far from distracting him, such ventures, Ma said, only fortify his classical chops.
“Every time you hear new sounds it's like you're cleaning your ears out,” he said. “To go back to something you know, you bring freshness to the gaze and to the auditory system. You're open to rediscovering the old as something new all the time.”
Rolling with change, both mental and physical, is more on Ma’s mind as he approaches 60. “What we're less aware of from day to day is that we are changing physically all the time,” he said. “So the things that seemed right to do when I was 12 or 20 or 30, at 58, I might have found other ways to make certain things easier, or certain things, maybe, harder.”
He concentrates on the mind-body connection. “You have to recalibrate your physical system with your changing perception of things,” he said. “It's like reading a book again that you read when you were a teenager. You'll get different content from the same words.”
Between playing presidential inaugurations, piling up medals and weaving the world’s cultures together, does Ma get any fun? Rest assured that he does.
“I have a tremendous amount of fun,” he said. “I love my family and I work with great people.
I feel incredibly lucky and I'm happiest when I can be in nature. Being around trees. That's where the inspiration is.”
“And ants. They can teach us so much more about ourselves. That's where all the inspiration lies.”
Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott
7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall $15-125