The On Being Project

  • Yo-Yo Ma

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.

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  • Yo-Yo Ma

    Yo-Yo Ma

    has won 17 Grammy Awards, and has received the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 2014 Fred Rogers Legacy Award. He's also the founder of the Silk Road Project. His latest album with the Silk Road Ensemble is Sing Me Home.


March 3, 2016

MR. YO-YO MA: While I’m on stage, you’re all my guests, because that’s sort of like the 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.

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]

MS. TIPPETT: 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 steeping — 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: So, yeah, I’m just going to jump in.

MR. MA: So you’ve prepared.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m prepared, yeah.

MR. MA: Oh, no.

MS. TIPPETT: So you were born to Chinese parents in Paris. And then you straddled another world when you moved to the U.S. as a child. You know what? 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: And 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 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’s definitely — that question then echoes 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: OK, so, one day we — there’s a very over-sized 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, 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, 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 then — you didn’t immediately pursue that. You went to Harvard and studied anthropology. [laughs] Do you think, even at that point, did 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 just trying to figure things out, trying to decipher people. I think my life-long 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 in the morning, when you go by a patisserie, and it’s just like... [laughs] You want to grab the closest loaf of bread or croissant in your hand. And then to, 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 almost — it’s an overused word, and it’s almost too cold for what we’re talking about — all that richness, all that variety. Is that right?

MR. MA: Absolutely. I think Pablo Casals used to talk about — 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,” 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 reach to get to the — 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]

MR. MA: 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.

[music: “Song Without Words in D Major, Op. 109,” composed by Felix Mendelssohn, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the singular cellist and citizen artist, Yo-Yo Ma.

[music: “Song Without Words in D Major, Op. 109,” composed by Felix Mendelssohn, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax]

MS. TIPPETT: Were there kinds of 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 have 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 first, 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...

[music: “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major: Sarabande,” by Yo-Yo Ma]

MR. MA: ...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]

MR. 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. And 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 is kind of — the definition of it bears reexamination. 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 the Hudson River, there’s New Jersey, then there’s the West Coast. [laughs] And then there’s Asia. So 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, classical music is — 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? And when something ...

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, 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]

MR. MA: So he went and continued to write in that style. So he now has jazz in his background. He’s had 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.” [laughs] 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 good musicians that, as people 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. So 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: You can listen again and share this conversation with Yo-Yo Ma through our website,

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Playlist For An Extreme Occasion - Part Zero” composed by Vijay Iyer, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]

MS. TIPPETT: 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. And when somebody — 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, 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. So I think 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. So I’m the host of a wonderful party.
You’re all my guests, because I have the floor. While I’m on stage, you’re all my guests, because that’s sort of like 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. Because — 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...

MR. MA: Yeah. There’s something that’s so ...

MS. TIPPETT: ...all these things that could go wrong.

MR. MA: Absolutely. It’s so — rewind to September 11. On the morning of September 11, I was in Denver. At nine o’clock, 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 so, 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. And 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. So, to this day — 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, and 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 in a more — 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? What — who are we? And I often ask musicians, what 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. So, 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.

MR. MA: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: 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: I love this language of 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 see, 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.

And I think that’s where the basis of a cultural citizen or 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 — so 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.

[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 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. 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 cords. So I think of instruments as sort of the extension of the lungs and the vocal cords. And the instruments are great pieces of, in a way, sculptural architecture, designed to give life to sound and beauty and all of those aspects. And I can talk a lot about sort of the golden periods of certain instrument making and why it became that way, whatever. But for now, it’s really — 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 that 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. And so there are differences, the way there are differences in wines, in all kinds of …

MS. TIPPETT: In voices, in human voices also.

MR. MA: And in human voices, right. And then you try and balance out what needs to be in another space, which is — if it’s a concert hall you’re playing in, I think of each concert hall as a different instrument. Because each concert hall has separate qualities. So 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. And 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 drier side, if it’s — so 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 because ...

MS. TIPPETT: So you’re never even just working with the instrument. You’re working with the instrument and the environment.

MR. MA: Absolutely. So it’s the environment. And, 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. And 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 playing, of doing live music, is that it’s like a communal witnessing of something.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. So, somebody said to me, who’d seen you perform up really close — I think maybe when you — it’s one of my producers — I think maybe it’s when you did a performance at NPR. She said, in a way that she had never seen before or since, she said that you radiated joy. And I’m curious about — and I’ve seen that at more of a distance in your performances. And I wonder if — is that something you’re conscious of? Is it something that developed over time — 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: Right. [laughs] But is this a presence that you grew into — that you settled into?

MR. MA: Possibly. I mean, 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 can’t — you don’t have to be joyful, right? And I don’t think that’s something either that you can manufacture.

MR. MA: You can find ...

MS. TIPPETT: You can be gracious without being joyful.

MR. MA: True.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s some quality to your presence in — when you’re playing your music. Maybe all the time.

MR. MA: Well, maybe the joyfulness could be the hope of joy.

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. The intention.

MR. MA: Yeah. I think — 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. And 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 that musician …

MR. MA: …that 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: Well there’s — I looked back, getting ready to interview you, at that appearance that you made on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

MR. MA: Oh.

MS. TIPPETT: Back in the 20th century.

MR. MA: I love Mr. Rogers.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, I know you do. It was clear that you do. And I was so struck. Now, 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. But to the point you just said about the great — potentially, the great responsibility of 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, he — so 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. I mean, there’s so many legions of people that grew up with him and they’re still, in a way, growing up with him. And he, of course, was a minister.

MS. TIPPETT: I forgot that.

MR. MA: And the children were …

MS. TIPPETT: I had forgotten that.

MR. MA: Yeah. And he — 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 of, to have accomplished?” I am so proud to have been 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] Yes, 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 think I can’t say the word “beauty” without also equating it with the word “transcendence,” because it seems like there’s 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, when, 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 — so if 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, is also a wonderful way to talk about music, about what happens when you 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 where — Kojiro Umezaki, the shakuhachi player, which is a bamboo flute — when he 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 kind of — 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]

MR. MA: Or if — Cristina Pato is 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]

MR. MA: People have, for ages, been trying to code the awesomeness of the infinite variety of possibilities…

MS. TIPPETT: There we are, back in infinite variety.

MR. MA: …of creation. 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 Songs from the Arc of Life with pianist Kathryn Stott, and his most recent release with the Silk Road Ensemble is A Playlist Without Borders. 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]

MS. TIPPETT: At, you can sign up for a weekly email from us, a Letter from Loring Park. In your inbox every Saturday morning — a curated list of the best of what we are reading and publishing, including writings by our weekly columnists. This week, you can read Courtney Martin’s essay “New Friendship is the Last Great Romance.” Find her column and others at

[music: “Briel” composed by John Zorn, arr. by Mike Block, performed by the Silk Road Ensemble]

MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Tess Montgomery, Aseel Zahran, Bethanie Kloecker, and Selena Carlson.

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