Yo-Yo Ma reflects on world experiences

by Ritika Nandkeolyar | 1/24/01 6:00am

In an interview with The Dartmouth yesterday afternoon, cello virtuoso and this term's Montgomery Fellow Yo-Yo Ma reminisced about performing and studying music around the world.

For Ma, his musical career has been a vehicle to learning more about communication and working with others.

Inspired by an anthropology course he took as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Ma went to Africa to study the music of the Kalahari bush people.

There, he learned an important lesson about working with other people

A Dutch health care worker in Namibia told him that when she was leaving, her friends in Africa told her not to come back. Or, if she came back, to come back to stay, not to stay for a short time and fly away in a big white bird, Ma said.

The message was "I may want to claim equality, but I can always leave," so actually there isn't equality. Thus, Ma had to work harder to establish a relationship of trust.

This lesson in building relationships has proved invaluable in his latest project.

Ma is currently on tour with the Silk Road Project, a multi-year exploration of cross-cultural influences along the legendary Silk Road. Ma launched it in 1998 with the intellectual inspiration of Dartmouth Music Professor Ted Levin.

The project involves scholars, musicians and artists from around the world in a program of concerts, festivals and educational events.

And, the public performances are just the tip of the iceberg, Ma said. The project is meant to be a way to use "new knowledge to learn about old knowledge and traditions," and also to promote collaborations and understandings within and across international borders.

Ma said that he became curious about many incongruous things that cropped up in his travels. For example, "how did the Greek signs of the Zodiac end up in 12th century Japanese mandalas?"

The Silk Road Project explores these historical interconnections.

Imagine a world with A, B and C cultures. While B culture can see how A culture has influenced it and C can see how B influenced it, C may not necessarily know how B influenced it, but they are actually connected, Ma explained.

"So many things that we thing of one particular style are in fact fusions of other influences," he said.

"We have a funny way of grouping things," Ma said. "For example, 'classical' describes the music of 500 years and hundreds of millions of peoples of different cultures.

"To me, the specifics of music, cultures, not the generalities, are the important things. They get to the mind, they are the medium of expression, communication" he said.

For Ma, one of the most important criteria in music is its message.

"When I listen to music I'm constantly thinking about what it is trying to tell me," he said.

While the Silk Road Project is currently occupying Ma's time, he also recently collaborated with composer Tan Dun for the soundtrack of Ang Lee's film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (Lee visited the College last term, as a the recipient of the Dartmouth Film Society's Film Tribute and as a Montgomery Fellow).

Ma has played on several movie soundtracks before --notably for "Immortal Beloved," a biography of Ludwig Van Beethoven that has had gold-record level sales.

The process of recording for a soundtrack is very different from performing, or even a regular recording, Ma said.

"You are part of a much bigger team and you don't really know what your work will look like till you see it on screen," he said.

Ma had to serve two masters -- the composer and the director and it was tricky estimating a balance between their demands.

Another challenge that he faced was that while most of the music was taped on-location in China, Ma recorded his cello parts in New York, often before the rest of the music was even scored --a process he described as "jumping ahead" of Tan Dun's imagination.

With over 50 recordings to his credit, Ma has been involved in several other collaborative projects including two albums traditional American fiddle-music "Appalachia Waltz" and "Appalachia Journey" with violinist Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer.

For the "Appalachia" recordings, Ma had to learn a new style, which caused him a bit of difficulty.

"I thought I sounded fine, but they [the other musicians] would have the look on their faces that said that it was not quite right," Ma joked.

The problem was not that Ma didn't have a good ear for music, but that he was not listening for the same things that Connor and the others were.

Ma said that he realized that "it's not how good your ears are, but what you choose to listen to."

Ma said that his current priority was balancing his hectic touring schedule with time for family and reflection. Ma has two children, ages 15 and 17 and credits his wife for being very understanding.