Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble heads for the Proms

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble
The Times (UK)

By Richard Morrison

One of the most brilliant cellists on the planet has set up the multicultural Silk Road project, which is coming to the BBC Proms in September

There are two things that everyone in the music business says about Yo-Yo Ma. The first is that he’s probably the finest cellist in the world. The second is that he’s so laidback and friendly (how apt that “yo” means friendship in Chinese) that he would have made a wonderful bartender had fate not yanked him on to a somewhat different path. Here, after all, is a man as comfortable clowning on Sesame Street as playing Bach at Carnegie Hall. “He’s utterly and compulsively gregarious,” one of his many friends told me. “And he doesn’t really accept the normal constraints on time and space.”

I can vouch for that. When we met — in the lush wooded grounds of Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Massachusetts — Ma instantly offered to chauffeur me round the 400-acre estate in his Mercedes-Benz. Then, in an exciting crescendo of ripping metal, he ran his car over a large rock. In his defence, he was executing a sharp right turn while expanding his theories about the globalisation of culture in the Middle Ages, at the same time pointing out the house where Serge Koussevitsky, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland plotted the future of American music in the 1940s. And I hope I don’t get him into trouble with Jill, his wife of 30-odd years (“she already thinks I drive terribly”), if I reveal that he was also holding a cup of coffee as he drove.

Even so, it was a difficult moment when we climbed out to examine the debris scattered across the track (not much change from $1,000, I’d say) — especially as a small crowd quickly gathered to observe this curious scene. It’s not every day, after all, that you see a musician who has performed at the White House for five presidents prang his Merc on a boulder.

But here’s the strange and wonderful thing. Throughout the entire episode, the smile never left Ma’s face. What’s more, after we had stuffed the ripped underbelly of the Mercedes in the back seat, next to his priceless 300-year-old cello (the other one, I think, not the one he once left in the back of a New York cab), he proceeded to talk eloquently about music and society for the next hour, then spent half an hour posing for the Timesphotographer — all the time practising bits of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 1 (which he was playing two days later) while reciting a list of his favourite British comedians and actors. All this took place only hours before he gave a recital of intensely demanding chamber music. As his friend says, Ma doesn’t really accept the normal constraints of time and space.

That is one reason why, about 12 years ago — in his early forties, and already one of the richest and most famous classical musicians on the planet — the Chinese-parented, Paris-born, US-educated Ma set off in a new direction: one that triggered bemusement, amusement and scepticism in roughly equal proportions among his colleagues. He could have sailed through the rest of his life comfortably, endlessly reprising the same dozen concertos to his worldwide army of fans (as well as enjoying himself on movie soundtracks such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Seven Years in Tibet). Many other virtuosi, past and present, have done exactly that. Instead, he launched something quite unique in the musical world.

The Silk Road Project is a loose collective of about 60 brilliant people — not only instrumentalists and singers, but also composers, storytellers and visual artists — from many corners of the globe, but particularly the regions through which the Silk Road trading route ran, from China through India to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In the past decade the project has played in more than 25 countries. And it is some of these richly assorted virtuosi, performing an extraordinary repertoire that seeks to crosspollinate music from many traditions, whom Ma brings to the Proms on the penultimate night of the season.

A major reason for starting Silk Road, he admits, was a quest for personal renewal after decades of working within the comparatively narrow parameters of classical music. “One frustration of being a performer is that everything is so ephemeral,” he says. “I’ve always felt that. I recall the first time I played a concerto with an orchestra. I was maybe 10 or 11, and it was a big deal. Afterwards, riding back on the New York subway, I just broke down — because it was such an intense experience that I had no place to put it, no way to make sense of it. I remember saying to myself, even then, that what I really wanted to do was understand. And trying to understand has consequences. It can be uncomfortable. You have to cross the line into the unknown. You are no longer safe in an environment you know.”

The Silk Road was Ma’s way of crossing that line. Of course classical, jazz, pop and world musicians had worked together occasionally before. But nobody had thought of setting up a permanent ensemble without frontiers — a “creative lab”, as Ma puts it, that would constantly ask its members to learn from each other’s cultures.

“We are not posing as experts in everything,” he says. “But each of us is an expert in something. We were all infused with a particular musical culture almost from the cradle. So our sessions are like when a friend says: ‘Hey, come and play with my toys, and I will show you how they work.’ Of course we try not to fall flat on our faces in performance. You don’t really want to go on stage and say, ‘Actually I don’t know what I’m doing, but try to listen anyway!’ ”

But in Ma’s mind there’s a much deeper raison d’être for the Silk Road. He is acutely conscious of having personal roots in three continents: China, where his family came from; Europe, which gave him his earliest memories; and America, which nurtured him in a series of hothouse music academies after he was spotted as an infant prodigy by the violinist Isaac Stern. That sense of the globe as an interconnected entity, and of the human species as a single family, was probably intensified when (in addition to his musical studies) he did a degree in anthropology at Harvard. He believes that creativity has always been at its strongest in societies that have been open to influences from outside.

Ma calls this the “edge effect” — a term that he has borrowed from science to describe the point where two ecosystems meet and mingle. “It’s where you have the least density but the greatest variety,” he explains. And he says that, far from being a unique characteristic of our modern global-village age, this cross-fertilising of cultures has always gone on.

“Antiquity had its internet too, you know,” he says. “People think that globalisation was invented in the 1980s, with the coming of the information revolution. But go somewhere like Petra in Jordan and look at the architecture. It’s a synthesis of all the different architectural styles in the ancient world. People have always traded. The Scandinavians were trading with Constantinople, the gateway to the East, 1,000 years ago. With trade came the exchange of ideas. What we discover, if we look into history, is that the places that had the best trading links were also the most tolerant and had the greatest creativity.”

So the Silk Road, in Ma’s view (if not always in the eyes of the critics), is far more than a glorified jam-session band for lots of world musicians and a few classical stars. It’s a serious intellectual attempt (backed by a residency at Harvard) to forge a new kind of music: one that draws on all cultures, mixing written and oral traditions, arthouse and vernacular. The ensemble’s Prom should give a flavour of that. One piece will offer an interplay of many different flutes, in cultures from Lebanon to Japan. “What’s interesting is that the flute is used for meditation in Japan and in the Sufi tradition of Persia, while in China it is played by lovers to each other. So you start to see the connections.”

Another piece was commissioned from, in Ma’s words, a “crazy Sicilian cellist called Giovanni Sollima — well, he’s not crazy, just incredibly imaginative, and he writes music that depicts all the influences on Sicily, from the Romans and Greeks to its two centuries under Arab rule.” And the programme ends with the traditional Chinese piece Ambush from Ten Sides, about an epic battle in China 2,000 years ago, “It’s traditionally performed on the pipa, the Chinese lute,” Ma says. “But we use all the instruments, plus percussion — partly because we are in the Albert Hall, and partly because, as the title suggests, there’s an awful lot of ambush to portray!”

Ma’s thinking extends well beyond music. He maintains that the modern world has become much too specialised, even (or especially) at the highbrow end. “I’ve been fascinated by a new book, The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes,” he says. “He talks about how scientists and poets were very much aligned in the Age of Enlightenment, around 1800. Coleridge, Byron and Shelley were all interested in scientific progress. What was discovered, whether in labs or in the cliffs of Tahiti, excited and inspired everyone. I was gripped by that, because it comes at a time when Harvard and other universities are starting to question why different university departments should feel so separate when the purpose of a university is supposedly to bring all the sciences and humanities together.”

His view is that an essential function of education is to discipline the imagination so that we can empathise with many different cultures and professions. “We must move away from those shallow stereotypes,” he says. “You know: ‘You’re a businessman, all you want is money; you’re a journalist, all you care about is your scoop; you’re a scientist, so you must be a nerd; you’re a musician, so you are narcissistic and crave applause.’ Not necessarily so! We need to move towards a new age of wonder when we can share our different knowledges and cultures and get really excited about each other’s achievements.”

And perhaps make love, not war? “Well, it took me until I was about 49 to realise that my real passion in life isn’t music. It is, and always has been, people. That realisation has liberated me. And I think it has made me a better musician too.”

Hard to see how, in Ma’s case, that could be possible. But his driving? Room for a little improvement there, perhaps.