Yo-Yo Ma and His Passion

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble

By Jake Miller

INAUGURATION DAY: Violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero (in back), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill appeared in freezing weather that put their instruments so far out of tune that a recording they'd prepared was used while they played to dead mics.

where to learn more Silk Road Highlights

The Silk Road Project burst onto the world musical scene at the Tanglewood Music Center, near Lenox, MA, in 2000. Since then, 60 musicians, composers, and storytellers have participated in its traveling schedule of performances around the world.

Videos of performances and interviews indicate why it has become such a phenomenon. Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet and Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon collect many of the more than 70 original pieces commissioned and developed by the Silk Road Project.

The Silk Road Project offers its own curriculum materials.
Marking its 10th anniversary in February, 2009, its passion-driven educational model was unveiled in New York City, to be used in the city's public schools.
Catch a Performance

Upcoming events are announced on the Silk Road Project site well in advance.

If you can't go in person, use YouTube.com to get a taste. You can see and hear Alim Qasimov singing mugham, for instance.

AN EARLY MUSICAL MASHUP: A thousand years ago, when horse packers and camel drovers herded caravans laden with silk and spices, medicine and musk between the shores of the Mediterranean to the heart of Imperial China, travelers from different worlds met in the shade of Central Asian desert oases to trade their goods and to share their cultures, their technology and their songs. As wondrous as those meetings were, they would pale in their diversity next to a small group of musicians and students who met in an auditorium at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence early this March.

On stage sat Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the premier cellist in the world and one of the best known classical musicians ever, accompanied by members of the Silk Road Ensemble, Ma's decade-long cultural experiment melding the ancient and contemporary art of the East and the West with the vibrant but often overlooked culture of Central Asia.

Also on stage with the musicians were violins, a contrabass, and a cello alongside a pipa, a tar, and a kamancheh, plus a range of Middle Eastern and Asian drums, and Japanese and Chinese flutes. A number of the musicians are considered rock stars or living treasures in their home countries. The audience included dozens of middle and high school students from Providence and its hardscrabble satellite cities—Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Pawtucket, where the American Industrial Revolution was born and is currently dying a slow, rusty death.

For several months, the assembled students had been studying the geography, history, and mixing of cultures along the Silk Road, with support from Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project and local arts organization FirstWorks. This was their chance to experience what they had been learning about as the ensemble played a lively mixture of traditional and contemporary music from the region.

The show started with an improvised duet between Chinese and Japanese bamboo flutes, followed by works for the whole ensemble, a piece for drums, and a pair of traditional Azerbaijani mugham songs. It was a challenging program, drawing on the folk and art traditions of diverse cultures from the other side of the earth, and after every song, the kids exploded with standing ovations and cheers. The only one who seemed happier to be there was Yo-Yo Ma himself.

Ma's Passion for Learning. Later in the month, when I reached Ma at his hotel midway through the ensemble's 10th anniversary tour, I asked if he was surprised that these young people took so enthusiastically to this otherworldly music—particularly the sometimes passionate, sometimes mournful mugham singing of Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana—so different from anything they might have heard on the radio or seen on television.

"I can still remember the first time I heard Alim sing," Ma said. "I knew about mugham, but when I actually heard it, it was so deeply expressive it was totally entrancing. I think the kids responded the same way, viscerally. That's where the power of live music and performance come in."

Ma said he always remembers being curious about how the world worked. He read the newspaper and wondered how the different stories fit together. When he began to travel as a young musician, the puzzle slowly started to take shape.

"I always feel slightly embarrassed to be a musician. I ask myself what's the purpose of music. I love music but I always felt like I had to have a reason to do it." Lately Ma has come to believe that the power and the purpose of music is not the music itself, but the process of bringing people and cultures together and sparking new creativity.

"Out of 30 years of living, I've been gone maybe 20 years from my home," he said. "When you go to different places, people open up their world to you. I sometimes feel as if I've lived many lives." The experience is so intense, he said, that the only way to make sense of it is to try turn the spotlight back onto those extraordinary people he's met along the way. He hopes that his passion for learning and sharing will be contagious and that people will find a way to translate this excitement into their own lives.

"If it's worthwhile, they need to find a way to fit it into their world," he said.

Musical Conversations. This kind of sharing formed the basis for the cultural exchanges along the Silk Road that helped spread Buddhism and technology like the compass, gunpowder, and stirrups for horsemen. It's not about giving a concert, it's about sharing music. Onstage, working without a director, often playing music that includes improvisations, the musicians lean in toward one another, raise their eyebrows, and gesture with their heads to indicate changes in tempo and tone. They also laugh and smile when they hear something they particularly like.

During a question and answer period in the workshop, viola player Nicholas Cords said that improvisations are "not 'just making it up.'" Some of the musicians were trained to read music, others to work creatively within the framework of their particular style. When they work together, they need to find new ways to play that can work for all of them, and for the music itself.

"In order to really communicate with each other in a musical language," he said, "we need to get off the page. It's not reading a text, it's having a conversation."

These conversations can be formal, like the years-long process of developing a new piece of music, or casual, with musicians trading melodies like jokes. At a rehearsal before the U.S. premiere of their new arrangement of the celebrated Azeri opera Layla and Majnun (a more intense Romeo and Juliet), the musicians were warming up and playing riffs while they waited for the sound crew to tweak their microphones and monitors. A collection of scales and fiddle riffs from one violinist evolved into a motif from the Beatles "Day Tripper," which was soon echoed by pipa player Wu Man. I would have thought I had imagined it, but several of the other musicians on stage laughed.

With the Silk Road Ensemble, the conversations aren't confined to the musicians on stage. They have built multi-year residency programs and deep relationships with students and faculty at Harvard and RISD. Their residency in Chicago featured concerts and storytelling and piloted the Silk Road curriculum (which was developed in collaboration with Stanford University's SPICE (for the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education). This February Yo-Yo Ma played for a collection of middle school principals and sixth grade teachers in New York City, where the public schools are rolling out the latest version of the curriculum, with collaborations in the works with Teachers College, the Manhattan School of Music, and the American Museum of Natural History.

A key part of the curriculum is the engagement of students with artists who are living the musical traditions of the Silk Road. Another key is that the engagement and the conversations flow both ways. At a workshop earlier this winter at Hope High School in Providence, one of the students approached pipa player Yang Mei and asked if he knew any reggae. He said he didn't but he was excited to learn, so the student got out his guitar and Yang Mei strummed along on his Chinese lute.

Sharing the Passion. It's not easy bringing together musicians from around the world. It can be hard to get a visa for an ensemble member from Iran, and then when he arrives he has to find a way to work with musicians who speak five different languages with none in common, who were trained in different musical systems (some without written notation or with unfamiliar scales and modes). Then, if you're lucky, some high school kid will ask if you can play reggae.

Yo-Yo Ma seems to look at these things as opportunities, not obstacles.

At the RISD workshop, the percussion section gave a quick master class in drumming. They explained that in many cultures young drummers first learn the basic cadences of their music by using their voices to emulate the different sounds of striking the skin, the side or the rim of the drum—chanting combinations of dum, pah, or tek, for example. The whole crowd joined in, dum dum pah, dum pah, dum dum pah and kept up for a minute or two as the drummers picked up the tempo and began to play their actual drums. When they started adding teks and riffing off the basic rhythm, most of us quickly gave up, but Yo-Yo Ma was sitting, cello leaned to one side, chanting, trying to keep up, a look of intense concentration on his face until finally, he shook his head with a laugh and let the virtuoso drummers fly away on their own.

Later, ensemble member Sandeep Das, a tabla player from New Delhi, India, answered a student's question about how long it takes to master the paired clay drums. But Das—a three time All-India drumming champion and one of the leading drummers in India—doesn't consider himself a master. "It's a journey throughout your life," he said. "When you study, you get techniques, which are like materials: sand, concrete. You can make a bridge or a multi-story building or something much more beautiful. Every day is a learning experience."

The Silk Road Project is trying to leverage this passion for learning by partnering with other institutions and serving as a catalyst for chain reaction of passion-based learning.

"We see ourselves as a catalytic cultural organization," Silk Road Project executive director Laura Fried said in an interview after the RISD workshop. While they were working on adapting Layla and Majnun, the Project drew on the breadth and depth of scholarship at Harvard, working with experts on the philosophy and literature of Islam to deepen their understanding of the complex intertwining of romantic and divine love in the classical Arabian poetry that inspired the Azerbaijani opera, Fried said.

The Project's residencies at RISD have allowed ensemble members to explore the relationships between the visual and performing arts and to work with people who create in a very different way, isolated from the audiences that appreciate their art.

After participating in the 2008 Silk Road Project residency, Henrik S¿derstr¿m (RISD '08) was selected from a national pool of candidates to design the set for the Ensemble's multimedia reinterpretation of Layla and Majnun. His paintings recall the textiles and ceramics of classical Islamic art, an art form that was developed using pigments and techniques dispersed along the Silk Road.

Speaking of cultural exchange, Layla and Majnun was also one of the sources of inspiration for Eric Clapton's hit song, "Layla" (one other was George Harrison's then wife, Pattie, the future Mrs. Clapton). The story of two ill-fated lovers didn't realize it was crossing borders and boundaries, it simply flowed from culture to culture, touching people and being touched and transformed themselves as the story was re-imagined.

Expanding Awareness with Music. "Part of playing music is believing in a world that's bigger than ourselves," Yo-Yo Ma said. "I don't think anyone today grows up listening to just one musical tradition, we come across many different musics all the time—they're all around us."

As lovely as the music was, the most beautiful thing in that RISD auditorium was that those young people didn't notice or didn't care that the music they were listening to was 'different.'

"We perceive them as different, but it's all very much the same," Yo-Yo Ma said. "The things that separate them are really tiny. A couple of little changes can create something that seems radically different. If we can solve that, if we can get a better understanding of that in music, that wouldn't be such a bad start."