Music Happens Between the Notes
The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a citizen artist and a forensic musicologist, decoding the work of musical creators across time and space. In his art, Yo-Yo Ma resists fixed boundaries, and would like to rename classical music just “music” — born in improvisation, and traversing territory as vast and fluid as the world we inhabit. In this generous and intimate conversation, he shares his philosophy of curiosity about life, and of performance as hospitality.
Yo-Yo Ma has won 18 Grammy Awards and is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the inaugural Fred Rogers Legacy Award. His newest album is Brahms: The Piano Trios, released with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos. His most recent release with the Silk Road Ensemble is featured on the soundtrack to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War.
Yo-Yo Ma: While I’m on stage, you are all my guests, because that’s sort of the unsaid agreement. While you’re my guest, if something bad happens on stage, I often think of Julia Child, “Oh, the chicken’s fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back.” And you know what? Everybody’s with you.
So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.
[music: “Suite for Solo Cello No. 6 in D Major, I. Prelude” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma]
Krista Tippett, host: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most famous musicians in the world. In this generous and intimate conversation, he shares his philosophy of curiosity about life and of performance as hospitality. In his art, Yo-Yo Ma resists fixed boundaries. He’d like to rename classical music just “music” — born in improvisation, and traversing territory as vast and fluid as the world we inhabit.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Suite for Solo Cello No. 6 in D Major, I. Prelude” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma]
Ms. Tippett: In addition to his numerous Grammys, Yo-Yo Ma has received the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 2014 Fred Rogers Legacy Award, of which he said, “This is perhaps the greatest honor I’ve ever received.” I spoke with him that year from Boston, where he lives.
Ms. Tippett: Let’s dig in. I’ve been listening to your music forever. And then, getting ready for this, I’ve been reading a lot of other interviews you’ve given and things you’ve written.
Mr. Ma: Uh-oh.
Ms. Tippett: I’m just going to jump in.
Mr. Ma: So you’ve prepared.
Ms. Tippett: I’m prepared.
Mr. Ma: Oh, no.
Ms. Tippett: You were born to Chinese parents in Paris. And then you straddled another world when you moved to the U.S. as a child. I want to ask the question this way — was there a religious or spiritual background to that childhood of yours? However you want to define that.
Mr. Ma: Well, as you can tell from the brief bio, I grew up pretty confused because there would be all these languages floating around, different messages floating around. And in terms of a spiritual worldview my mother was Protestant, my father was more or less Buddhist, and, I grew up more or less Episcopalian.
Ms. Tippett: Confused. OK, got it.
Mr. Ma: So, I think I’ve tried for all my life to make sense of things. I remember, as a five-year-old — at the age when people want to say, when I grow up I want to do whatever. I thought that what I really wanted to do was to understand. That was a five-year-old’s wish. But that gives you a little bit of an indication on where my mindset was. And I believe, that was before we first came to the United States. So already I was kind of thinking “hmm? I wonder how things work in this world?”
Ms. Tippett: Well, that question then I think echos through the rest of your life. So we’ll keep coming back to that. Now you had already given up the violin by the age of four, when you took up the cello. And you have said that coming to the cello was a compromise and an accident. Can you tell that story?
Mr. Ma: There’s a very oversized double bass, that’s maybe about eight feet, nine feet high, in the Paris Conservatory. We went by, saw it, and of course, as a four-year-old: something huge, something big. Oh, I like it. [laughs] I want to play that. So I was haranguing my parents about saying, “Give me this instrument.” And of course, it was not possible for a four-year-old. And then the compromise was the next largest instrument, which was the cello.
Ms. Tippett: And that gave us Yo-Yo Ma, the great cellist.
Mr. Ma: Yes. I’m a firm believer of accidental meetings between objects, people, circumstances. And, because so much of my life seems to have been orchestrated in that way.
Ms. Tippett: Right. There is this parallel — really not just parallel, but interconnected, interwoven fascination for you or passion alongside music, within music, with this whole adventure of what it means to be human. So I think it’s interesting that, even though you were something of a prodigy, that you didn’t immediately pursue that. You went to Harvard and studied anthropology [laughs]. Do you think, even at that point did these things take up comparable places in you? This fascination with humanity and culture, and your life with music?
Mr. Ma: Well, I think you point to a very consistent parallel development. Skill at an instrument versus sort of just trying to figure things out, trying to decipher people. I think my lifelong preoccupation in the human realm has always been: who did it and why?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Say some more. You mean just everything that comes along, those are the questions you want to ask?
Mr. Ma: Absolutely. Imagine a seven-year-old’s mind going from a Parisian landscape of not tall buildings, but very interesting rooftops — tiled rooftops sometimes with chimneys and whatever, to the landscape of rectangular buildings with an odd, at that time, water tower; a wooden sort of barrel at the top of it. It made me think, gee, who would have built that? What happened here? Somebody did it, right? And this would go to practically every asset of life. Why do people have different habits? Why is the bread square, white and sliced, versus, a baguette with that wonderful scent of baked goods and in the morning, when you go by a patisserie and [laughs] you want to grab the closest loaf of bread or croissant in your hand, and then, obviously, to language and to behavior, to all kinds of things that I was receiving unconsciously, but probably early on starting to at least pose the question: why? How come?
Ms. Tippett: So what you just described about experiencing this spectrum of how humanity expresses itself in different cultures with all these things — architecture, food, and where you are a master, is this realm of music. And the way you just talked about that actually helps me think about my sense that you are steeped in music as an entry point to all that — I don’t even want to use the word diversity, because it’s an overused word and it’s almost too cold for what we’re talking about, right — all that richness, all that variety. Is that right?
Mr. Ma: Absolutely. I think Pablo Casals — the great, cellist from Spain, from Catalan — talked about infinite variety.
And I think that’s what I seek in the mind’s eye. If you look at the, to quote Carl Sagan, “the billions and billions of stars out there,” [laughs] and what stirs the imagination of a young child. You look at the sky and you start wondering: where are we? How do we fit into this vast universe? And to Casals saying that within the notes that he plays, he’s looking for infinite variety to Isaac Stern saying, the music happens between the notes. OK, well what then do you mean when you say music happens between the notes? Well, how do you get from A to B? Is it a smooth transfer; it’s automatic, it feels easy, you glide into the next note? Or do you have to physically or mentally or effortfully reach to go from one note to another? Could the next note be part of the first note? Or could the next note be a different universe? Have you just crossed into some amazing boundary and suddenly the second note is a revelation?
[music: “Song Without Words in D Major, Op. 109” composed by Felix Mendelssohn, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax]
So it’s about merging different aspects of one realm, which in the realm of playing an instrument, is pure engineering. But the mental process, the emotional process, the psychic investment in trying to make something easy infinitely hard.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with the singular cellist and citizen artist, Yo-Yo Ma.
Ms. Tippett: Were there pieces of music or experiences of working with other musicians or particular concerts — have there been cathartic moments where you discovered this or started to be able to articulate it — or even something going on now? I’m just wondering if you can embed that in a piece of music or a story?
Mr. Ma: Sure. Well, I’ll give you two. So one of the composers that wrote for cello alone, Bach, wrote six of these wonderful suites. And they’re different movements. I’ve a moment of going between the moment at the end of a movement to the beginning of the next movement, so actually not necessarily coded or written in by the composer — they’re just separate movements — that I remember often playing, loving the connection between the end of the Sarabande of the G Major Suite, going into the Minuet, the next movement, because there was something — a Sarabande is like a slow dance, and it goes into a Minuet, which is a slightly more lively dance.
And there is something about the incredible restfulness of the way the first movement ends. And suddenly, the sunlight comes in.
[music: “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major: Sarabande” composed by J.S. Bach, performed by by Yo-Yo Ma]
There’s a moment where you can go into nature — always, at any moment, and figure out some parallel to what is happening in a sound-centric world. And that moment was amazing for me. I wouldn’t want to end the day playing just the end of one movement without also including the other. So there was a connective thing. So that’s an early-age memory. I think you like to say that sound can be visual. Well, it’s telling stories, giving narrative, giving substance or meaning to something that’s coded, that I think gets us to want to be involved in a specific world that one is describing.
Ms. Tippett: So you play and celebrate and encourage many, many kinds and forms and genres of music. But, this example is classical music. And I did want to speak to you about classical music in the modern world, in a modern sensibility. I wonder if you would say something about how classical music distinctively works for us and with us. It seems to me that you were just describing there is this fullness and drama and sweep that a classical piece is capable of, and that’s quite unusual, even compared to other kinds of complex music. But I don’t know if that generalization works.
Mr. Ma: I don’t know either because, I both like to make sweeping generalizations, and I also don’t like to make sweeping generalizations.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I know. Me too.
Mr. Ma: So I’m always conflicted in that sense. I think, I would first of all say that the idea of classical music, the definition of it bears reexamination. That, in some ways, it’s a false category. It’s certainly a commercial category, because you can then, with that category, you can go into a certain world and assume that there’s a certain number of things that are going to be there.
Some people would say, well, classical music is really — its roots are church music, court music and popular music. So they’re all mixed in. So the sacred and secular definitely are part of it. And the sacred, secular and certainly the folk elements in Haydn and Mozart and Brahms — the Roma people. It’s all over the place.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but you’re right. That’s not something that’s consciously pointed at very often or named.
Mr. Ma: Exactly. And that’s what I mean by large generalizations. There’s that great famous New Yorker cartoon that says for New York-centric people, it’s Manhattan, there’s a Hudson River, there’s New Jersey, then there’s, the West Coast. [laughs] And then there’s Asia. You get to a larger and larger way of collecting an immense amount of information into one word. And obviously we know it’s not true, not quite true, but it serves a purpose.
Ms. Tippett: Even thinking about music as geographies rather than a timescape, right? Which is “classical music,” you’re right, it sets it in time and makes it sound like something that once was.
Mr. Ma: Right. It’s, oh, yes, it’s dead white European music. Well, what about the classical great composers that came to, not just North America but to South America, that took in all of the influences of indigenous people, especially in places like Brazil, the African traditions, and then created a different sound, a different thing that we all treasure.
Ms. Tippett: So who would you think of in that category? Just give me an example that people might know.
Mr. Ma: Well, OK. Let me use Argentina first. The music of Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla, tango, nuevo tango. So here’s a man who was born in Buenos Aires. His father was a barber. He came to New York for a better life when he was a teenager. And he heard, went in those days went to jazz clubs in Harlem, loved the music. Then they had to move back because they couldn’t make a go of it. Later on, he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, one of the greatest teachers of music ever, who influenced Stravinsky, Copland, and tons of musicians from everywhere. And she looked at his work and said, “Oh, not bad. It’s a good — you’re trying to sound like Bartok, and it looks pretty good. Let me see some other stuff that you’ve written.” And he shows her his tango-influenced music. And she said, “Wow. The other stuff is OK, but this stuff you should really continue, because that is just outrageously fantastic.”
[music: “Andante and Allegro from Tango Suite: Andante” composed by Astor Piazzolla, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Sergio Assad, and Odair Assad]
And so he went and then continued to write in that style. So he now has jazz in his background. He’s had sort of the contemporary classical skill sets in his background. He has tango music in his background. Piazzolla, to this day, is claimed by everybody. He’s claimed by world music, classical musicians, jazz musicians. He’s one of us, because he’s put in and people recognize, in his music, their own DNA in it.
Ms. Tippett: So if you could replace the words classical music with another phrase, or some other words, what would they be?
Mr. Ma: I would say that, most people who’ve tried, they just say, “music.”
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. [laughs]
Mr. Ma: Music of our world. And obviously classical music, which had roots in improvisation; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven were some of the greatest improvisers of their time and, in fact, were renowned for what they were able to do, but then also wrote things down. We know their work because there were no recordings at the time of the music that they wrote down. So, I would have a template for just good musicians, as people who, who know something very, very …
Ms. Tippett: Good music. [laughs]
Mr. Ma: Yeah. Good music. Look, or any type of music can be part of good music in the sense that — but I’m not even saying good music. I’m saying good musicians would be able to compose, to improvise, to be virtuosic in what they do, and can easily absorb other influences and make it organically their own. So that new influences are embedded. So there’s the process of constant growth. And then, finally, the last quality would be the musician that actually is able to transfer, to inject all of their knowledge and give it to somebody else so that they can actually look at the world and figure it out for themselves without the first musician being there. It’s a process of birth. It’s a process of constant cultural rebirth.
[music: “Playlist For An Extreme Occasion: Part Zero” composed by Vijay Iyer, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. Subscribe to On Being on Apple Podcasts to listen again and discover produced and unedited versions of everything we make.
I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, in a spacious conversation with one of our greatest musicians, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. We’re exploring his philosophy of life and of performance. He’s described himself as a “forensic musicologist” — dedicated to decoding the music of creators who are no longer with us.
But Yo-Yo Ma also makes music with a vast range of living artists, from Bobby McFerrin to the Kalahari Bushmen. His Silk Road Project, named after the ancient trading route that joined the Mediterranean and the Pacific, knits far-flung contemporary worlds together by way of musical encounter and understanding. His Silk Road Ensemble involves musicians from this array of cultures.
Ms. Tippett: So it seems to me also that even as you described — you’ve sometimes thought of a “forensic musicology” that you were asking, “who did this and why?” It seems to me you’re also doing that all the time in your life of music with musical creators who are with us; playing music, making music with so many others. If somebody sees you on stage, and even if you’re together with someone else, this other person is very skilled and there’s a feeling of mastery, perfection. But I think that the state you’re in and the experience you’re having — and that you’re making — is much more vulnerable than an audience might realize.
Mr. Ma: Yes, a lot of artists will say, “Oh, I have to make myself so vulnerable.” And that is absolutely true. If you’re well defended: “I’m going to show you how strong I am.” Then that precludes the idea of saying, actually, “I’m very weak.” Because weakness can be a strength as a form of expression.
So if you only show strength, you’re showing a one-dimensional aspect of something that you’re trying to describe. If you only show weakness, that’s obviously, one thing. But if you show both and you show the variety in between, you’re describing a multi-dimensional world, which is what we are, I guess.
Another state that I’m fond of describing is: when I come to Minneapolis, I’m a guest in your town. But when I’m on stage, all of you that are in the hall are my guests. I’m the host of a wonderful party. You’re all my guests, because I have the floor. While I’m on stage, you are all my guests, because that’s sort of the unsaid agreement. So while you’re my guest, if something bad happens on stage, I often think of Julia Child, “Oh, the chicken’s fallen on the floor! Yes. Oh, well pick it up and put it right back.” And you know what? Everybody’s with you. And even if nobody’s going to touch the chicken, they’re not going to let that moment spoil their evening. They’ll remember, “Oh, yes, oh remember when Julia dropped that?”
Ms. Tippett: Oh, that’s so great. That’s such a great image for life.
Mr. Ma: [laughs] Yes, exactly. So, it’s like, “Oh, well, this happened. Boom!” But, actually, that’s not why we’re here, to watch the bad things that happened. So whatever you practice for on the engineering side that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose; the greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all?
So it’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.
Ms. Tippett: It’s about being whole together, too, isn’t it? Which includes all these things that could go wrong.
Mr. Ma: Absolutely. Rewind to September 11. On the morning of September 11, I was in Denver. At 9:00 my wife calls me and says turn on the television. Something bad is happening. I turn on the television. I’m supposed to go to Colorado Springs on the 11th and to Denver to play another concert on the 12th and the 13th in Phoenix, Arizona — three different orchestras. And in the wake of this horrific thing, every orchestra had to decide, do we cancel or do we play?
And what every orchestra decided was, we’re going to play. We may change the program a little. We’re going to actually be together and have a moment, literally, of being together. Music will be the way that we will come together, because we’re asserting ourselves as a community, as a people, as a city, as whatever. And we need to be together. To this day — now, this is now, how many, 12 years later — when, if I go back to any of those places, not a single person does not remember vividly what that evening meant.
Ms. Tippett: I think that’s a wonderful image for some language you use of being a citizen artist; that this insistence that this must be at the table, arts, in music, as we define ourselves culturally and weight it as defining alongside politics and economics and the things we discuss that we sometimes seem to take more seriously.
Mr. Ma: Well, I think it depends how much room we have for what. And the thing is, again, what is it and why? What are we doing here? Who are we? And I often ask musicians, “Do you think of yourselves as the instrument that you play, as your identity? Or do you think of yourself as a musician? Or do you think of yourself as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three?” I think that the citizen part is somewhere towards the human part, because we’re looking at how we fit in within society. And if we look at our Constitution, we have an ideal of what our nation could and should be like. So, how do we participate? I know I, for one, often feel frustrated and say, “There’s so many things that are happening, and I have nothing to do with it. I’m not connected to it. Therefore, I can’t care about it, because it’s just a waste of time and energy, because it’s all beyond me.” Now, that’s kind of like giving up. It may be true.
Ms. Tippett: And I think that’s an experience so many people have, so many people who do different things in different corners.
Mr. Ma: But ultimately, if we are the democracy that we claim to be, it does require full participation. And that’s the anomaly that I’m sort of trying to wrestle with in myself, too. As a musician, I’m thinking, OK, well what in the world can I do? Essentially it’s like what my wife always says to me, “Don’t just make lists. Just ask, what can I do to help?” And I think if we ask, if we even start to look, you will find lots and lots of needs.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I love this language Rilke about living the questions. And I think there is something powerful about posing the question. You can’t live into it unless you ask it.
Mr. Ma: Right. But once you ask it, you already put yourself in a position of slight vulnerability because you don’t know the answer. And I think that by doing that, you can actually begin to see where the solutions may lie. At least you start to open yourself to someone else who might propose a solution that starts to lead us in a certain position. I think that’s where the basis of a cultural citizen or a citizen musician comes in, because I think that as musicians, music actually very easily crosses spaces?
You go from people’s earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars; it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.
[music: “Mohini (Enchantment) [Solo Cello Version]” composed by Sandeep Das and Indrajit Dey, arr. by Ljova Zhurbin, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today, with cellist and citizen artist, Yo-Yo Ma.
Ms. Tippett: I’m curious about your relationship with your cello or your cellos, probably. Do you have more than one? Or do you have one?
Mr. Ma: Yeah, I play on a number of instruments. Two of them are old and several of them are new.
Ms. Tippett: I’m wondering, is it like a part of your body? Is it like a friend? Is it like a family member? Can you talk about that?
Mr. Ma: As usual, I feel two ways about it. [laughs] See how conflicted I am? It’s a wonder I can get up in the morning. Should I get up? Why should I get up? Who am I that thinks I should get up? It gets very confusing. I love the instruments I play. But I also like to be separate from them. And so I think the image I have of the four strings of the instrument and the bow I use is that, the bow, which draws out sound, are the lungs. And the strings that are on the instrument are the vocal chords. So, I think of instruments as sort of the extension of the lungs and the vocal chords.
And the instruments are great pieces, in a way, of sculptural architecture designed to give life to sound and beauty and all of those aspects. And I can talk a lot about the golden periods of certain instrument making and why it became that way, whatever. But, for now, these are relationships with separate instruments. And each of them has a different quality. The Stradivarius I play on is more of a tenor instrument, meaning that the core sort of sound — the greatest string might be the top string. A Montagnana, the Venetian instrument I play on, may have, as its core, the lowest string. So it become more like a bass baritone. There are differences, the way there are differences in wines, in all kinds of…
Ms. Tippett: In voices, in human voices also.
Mr. Ma: …in human voices. And then you try and balance out what needs to be in another space, which is if it’s a concert hall that you’re playing in, I think of each concert hall as a different instrument. Because each concert hall has separate qualities. Obviously in a theater, it has a dry acoustic, because you really want to hear words. But in a place like Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, it is reverberant, because it wants to blend the sounds of various instruments. So it has a longer reverb; two seconds or something. And then there are multipurpose halls that are configured for whatever the needs may be. If it’s a conference, obviously on the dryer side.
I think knowing the space that you’re in is really important. I’m not saying that you match the instrument to each hall, but that you just want to know the characteristics so you can start to work in a way that works for the listener.
Ms. Tippett: So you’re never even just working with the instrument. You’re working with the instrument and the environment.
Mr. Ma: Absolutely. It’s the environment. As I love to say to people that want to listen to me, is that, if you’re going to perform some place, please don’t fall in love with what you’ve constructed. It’s like in the Marines, don’t fall in love with your plan, because the plan’s always going to change. You need to make sure that the audience is the most important person in the room, because, if you want to make something that’s memorable for somebody else, as well as for yourself — the purpose of doing live music, is that it’s like a communal witnessing of something.
Ms. Tippett: Somebody said to me, who’d seen you perform up really close, one of my producers, I think maybe it’s when you did a performance at NPR.
In a way that she had never seen before or since, she said that you radiated joy. And I’ve seen that at a little bit more of a distance in your performances; I wonder is that something you’re conscious of? Is it something that has developed over time?
Mr. Ma: Well, I think it has some connection to the hosting and guest thing. Imagine being a host of a party and walking out and saying, “Oh, so you’re here.”
Ms. Tippett: But is this a presence that you grew into, that you settled into?
Mr. Ma: Possibly. I don’t have that good a memory for a state of mind of from 30 years ago, 40 years ago. So I think that it’s part of that host thing. You can’t be a pessimist on stage.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, but you don’t have to be joyful, right? And I don’t think that’s something either that you can manufacture. You can be gracious without being joyful.
Mr. Ma: True.
Ms. Tippett: There’s some quality to your presence when you’re playing your music. Maybe all the time.
Mr. Ma: Well, maybe the joyfulness could be the hope of joy.
Ms. Tippett: The intention.
Mr. Ma: Yeah. I often say optimism is a philosophy. Unless you’re obviously 24/7 optimistic. Well, then, it could be a blessing and a curse. “Your dog died. Oh, really? How wonderful.”
Ms. Tippett: But I think I hear you saying you choose joy.
Mr. Ma: I think so. Well, certainly, in performing, I think that is a choice, because it really doesn’t matter where I am in life, but I truly am happy and grateful that people have taken the time to show up. So, if I’m a host, I’m entertaining guests. I’m not saying that that elevates or cheapens it, but in the tradition that we’re talking about — and with the example of Nadia Boulanger saying that.
Ms. Tippett: About the musician…
Mr. Ma: You are a priest. You are entering into a priesthood. You serve that. You’re looking for an elevated sense of being in existence. At least that the music should, somehow, make us better. Now, of course, we live in the 21st century. And I’m not sure whether something like that works. I would like to think that that’s certainly part of what we try to do.
Ms. Tippett: I looked back, getting ready to interview you, at that appearance that you made in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, back in the 20th century.
Mr. Ma: Oh. I love Mr. Rogers.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I know you do. It was clear that you do. And I was so struck. I think I was watching, I don’t know where this came from, YouTube or something, but I didn’t hear you answer this question. To the point you just said about potentially the great responsibility, the priesthood of being a musician, he ended by saying, “Do you know what a present that is, when you play something for somebody? It’s just like giving them a present.”
Mr. Ma: That’s so typical of Mr. Rogers, isn’t it? Speaking of which, we think of him as, the children’s program that he created for so many decades. And what’s funny is, Mr. Rogers lives on. There’s so many legions of people that grew up with him, and they’re still in a way growing up with him. He, of course, was a minister.
Ms. Tippett: I had forgotten that.
Mr. Ma: And the children of the show, in the neighborhood, are his ministry. And what a beautiful thing that is. So I, to this day, when someone says, “What are you most proud to have accomplished?” I am so proud to have been a part of that.
Ms. Tippett: It’s a wonderful image, also, of — as you say, he was also an entertainer, for tax purposes, probably. But entertainment is a kind of gift economy.
Mr. Ma: A gift economy, I like that. Can I borrow that?
Ms. Tippett: Yes, you can absolutely borrow it. Relational, not transactional.
Mr. Ma: [laughs] Krista said. Yes, exactly. A gift economy.
Ms. Tippett: We just have a few minutes, but I think maybe where I’ll end is — I’m collecting definitions of beauty. I feel like beauty is — well, so I’ll give you some that I love. In Islam, beauty is a core moral value. Scientists and mathematicians, and you’ve named a few, talk about if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it’s probably not true. There’s this equation of beauty with truth. The philosopher and poet, John O’Donohue said, “Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.” I wonder, beauty is a word you’ve used in this conversation. You use it a lot. Obviously it’s just there in what you do, whether you’re talking about it or not. I wonder if you’d talk to me about the meaning of beauty for you, or the power of beauty in the world?
Mr. Ma: Wow. What a simple question you’ve posed.
Ms. Tippett: I know. [laughs]
Mr. Ma: I can’t say the word beauty without also equating it with the word transcendence, because it seems like there are so many different things that are beautiful to so many different people. But I think beauty is often an encapsulation of a lot of different things in a certain moment, a frame, let’s say.
It could be music. It could be a poem. It could be an event. It could be in nature, and often, possibly most often, in nature. But, when that encapsulated form is received, there’s a moment of reception and cognition of the thing that is, in some ways, startling.
And the moment you solve an equation. The moment that something is revealed, either in your own head or physically, materially revealed. When that moment happens; in the Sistine Chapel, when you see the finger, Adam, just about to touch. There’s that moment where something is being transferred. I think, even when we observe nature. We are part of nature and we observe nature, but we’re part of the human realm, and there’s that moment, which essentially there’s a transfer of life.
So even if you think nature is inanimate, and therefore, but the beauty of nature — it’s the human cognition of that vastness, the awe and the wonder, something that’s, in a way, bigger than yourself.
Ms. Tippett: That phrase, it’s “a transfer of life,” I think it’s also a wonderful way to talk about music, about what happens in the experience of music, of playing it, making it, or receiving it.
Mr. Ma: Well, I think that’s true. In the Silk Road Ensemble, I’m fond of being able to quote a number of incidents when Kojiro Umezaki, the shakuhachi player, which is a bamboo flute, plays a piece of music that was written after, let’s say, I think the Tokyo fire of 1927, and he plays this sort of thing over and over again. And it’s certainly deeply spiritual and mournful. I’ve had more people come to me and say this is the most extraordinary thing I’ve heard.
[music: “Lullaby from Itsuki” traditional Japanese, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
Or if Cristina Pato, the Galician bagpiper, plays the gaita, and she and Wu Tong come across the stage at one another, or with Ko — so a bagpipe and a shakuhachi. And they walk across the stage and that to me — I get the goosebumps of seeing this incredibly wonderful, but very powerful and penetrating instrument. I get a time-space-geography crossing moment that cognitively makes me aware of the vastness of what, basically, humans all over the world have been trying to express for millennia.
[music: “Caronte” traditional Galacian, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
I mean people have for ages been trying to code the awesomeness of the infinite variety of possibilities of creation.
Ms. Tippett: There we are, back in infinite variety.
Mr. Ma: With the Silk Ensemble, it’s really that kind of thing, where we’re trying to join people together in what might be an unusual way, but, in fact, has become more and more the usual, which elicits — sometimes in people, you can turn fear into joy when you receive something that’s living, that goes inside you, because it becomes your own.
[music: “Briel” composed by John Zorn, arr. by Mike Block, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
Ms. Tippett: Yo-Yo Ma’s newest album is Brahms: The Piano Trios with Emanuel Ax and Leonidas Kavakos. And his most recent release with the Silk Road Ensemble is featured on the soundtrack to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War. He’s received over a dozen Grammy Awards, as well as the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 2014 Fred Rogers Legacy Award.
[music: “Briel” composed by John Zorn, arr. by Mike Block, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Damon Lee, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.