Monday, September 24, 2007

Yo-Yo Ma: The Rest Is Noise Interview


© 2001 Cylla von Tiedemann

How goes the Silk Road Project? Since I wrote about Yo-Yo Ma's innovative multicultural music series in The New Yorker back in 2002, I've kept an eye on its progress across the country and around the world. On the occasion of the release of the latest Silk Road CD, New Impossibilities (Sony Classical), I spoke to Ma about how the project has evolved and how it has affected his musicianship. This was the first interview I’d conducted exclusively for the blog, and I wasn’t sure what form it should take. I decided simply to let the ever-affable and articulate cellist speak for himself, with minimal intrusion on my part. He does so after the jump.

I first asked Ma to talk about the concept of “classical music” both in the West and in the Near and Far East. He said: “I don’t know what classical music is, just to start off. I have no idea. I think I remember Bernstein once saying something like, ‘It is exact music.’ I have a slightly different view of it. In this world in our era nobody grows up with one kind of music. Listening to, say, Stravinsky, you immediately get a sense that he is working with many different kinds of music: religious music, secular music, written-down music, folk music.

"I have always been interested in the question of what it is that people need to know to be a musician. As a writer, as a composer, as a performer, or as a listener — what are the core values? When I started the Silk Road Project, I began to understand the geographical and musical connections between all these incredible cultures — all these ‘other’ classical musics, the Persian classical music and Indian classical music and mugam in Afghanistan and so on. I got a sense that at one time these connections were much closer and over time that certain things got split off and developed independently, in the way that the French spoken in Louisiana and Quebec broke off from the original. The same is true of, say, Persian music and Greek music. And at the edges of the traditions you always find people looking to cross over between what eventually got perceived as different traditions. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh grew up in Baku, where Rostropovich was born, and she was born trained as a classical pianist and joined the Soviet avant-garde. And then she started listening to the mugam and began creating works that are essentially mugam written down but informed also by her training and the twentieth century.”

One core value, Ma said, had to do with intonation. He pointed out that schemes of tuning are not consistent within Western classical music and that they vary widely from place to place. What matters, he said, is that different kinds of music require idiosyncratic tunings, and that learning the tunings takes you toward the core values of the art. “Working with Pablo Casals and Alexander Schneider and the Budapest Quartet, you were always taught that half steps should be really close together, the leading tone should be really close to the tonic. That’s correct intonation for classic string-playing. But it is not the same tuning as the piano. You make that adjustment. Then, when I started working with Mark O' Connor, everything he did was always unbelievably consistent, but it was not my intonation, and it was not piano intonation either. When I worked with Ton Koopman, nothing I did was in tune. All that opened my mind.

“Finally I started learning the Persian dastgah scale, where, if you started on D, the E-flat immediately sounds sharp. But with about an hour’s work any musician can acknowledge these as the desirable notes and the beautiful ones. You can quite easily get your ear inside a scale or mode. And then of course there are the different understandings of rhythm, falling in with West African grooves or with the amazing rhythms created by the tabla player Sandeep Das. What he did on his piece Vocussion was so mindboggling that all our percussionists’ jaws just dropped. And when we were learning from each other and when this great virtuoso was sharing with us so generously his unbelievable skill and his communicative powers and what he needed to express, then I realized that the core principle was exactly this: sharing what you know, passing on this knowledge.”

Ma then talked about the creative process behind several Silk Road works. “In modern times, the lines between writing and performing were separated, and we’re trying to bring them back together. For Kayhan Kalhor’s piece The Silent City, we were based at Harvard, meeting regularly with students from Thomas Kelly’s course 'First Nights,' about famous premieres in history. The idea was that we would create our own ‘first night.' We wanted to do something that came out of our project, and asked Kayhan Kalhor to write a piece for us. We though that he might do something involving Hafiz, or Rumi, or someone from Persian tradition. But he didn’t want any of that. He’s of Kurdish ancestry; he had Persian classical training as a kemancheh player; and he has studied classical composition and performance as well. He has lived through a number of tragedies in his life, and playing music is a very spiritual tradition for him. It's what kept him together. So he had in mind this piece, which is a memorial for all Kurdish people.

"The music came to us in bits and pieces. We developed it as Silk Road players and talked to the class throughout the semester about what we were doing. Finally we received the last little bit of the kemancheh part. Everything else happened within the group. Although it is about the destruction of the city it winds up with a sense of hope in the dance at the end. Colin Jacobsen in particular devised how we could get to the point where the Sufi dance enters. The piece also benefited tremendously from Ljova's arrangement of it. So The Silent City ended up being mutually created. We tend to forget how many classical compositions depended on composers' collaboration with performers, whether it was Brahms talking to Joachim or Dvořák's encounter with Victor Herbert for the cello concerto, or in early music the freedom allowed to performers to realize figured-bass or add on ornamentation. There is this idea in the modern West that we must all be original; we all must be authors in the sense that authorship is individual. I think we got too hierarchical and the idea of originality was developed almost to the point of absurdity. This is a different model, and a much older one."

I asked Ma whether his Silk Road work might have changed his playing of works such as the Dvořák concerto. He talked about how Mark Morris had heard him play at Tanglewood this summer and told him afterward that it didn’t sound entirely like equal-tempered intonation — that he was adopting some other tuning. Ma didn’t say that he did so consciously, but he certainly is experimenting with introducing different intonations into classical works, because, he believes, they are already there. “Dvořák was very open in the process of finding his voice, in playing with folkish melodies and folkish grooves. The rhythmic invention is often overlooked and quite amazing. The inner voices almost never repeat the same rhythmic patterns — it’s a constant invention that is almost a subtext for his modus operandi, for the coding of his voice.

“All this work makes me wonder whether we are heading toward something like world classical music. People right now do partake in a recognizable tradition, but they want that tradition to acknowledge the world as we experience it, especially after the nineteen-eighties, when suddenly we became more conscious than ever before of living in a global culture, or on a globe of many cultures. Nothing is totally distinct. Every great world religion has elements that are taken from other religions or overlap with them. It’s a sort of biological or ecological need to keep evolving. If we don’t, then a tradition gets smaller and may eventually die out. If we want to preserve a tradition, the best way to preserve it is to let it evolve.

“That is what we have in mind in calling the disc New Impossibilities. We want to show how this one group has evolved over seven or eight years. We are also very proud of how the ensemble has interacted with local communities, especially during our experience in Chicago, working with five hundred kids at Millennium Park, in neighborhoods, at the Chicago Symphony, developing new habits as musicians that affect us as musicians as radically as the music from thousands of miles away. And now we go to China!”

Rastrelli Cello Quartett Piazzolla - Oblivion

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Viola da Gamba: Carl Friedrich Abel

The correct title is - Pieces (27) for Viola da Gamba: no 20 in D minor, WKO 205.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hindemith - sonata for cello solo, 1 & 2 m.

Classical-music magazine voted the cello the 'sexiest instrument.'

Dorothy Lawson performs in New York City earlier this summer.
Courtesy of Stephanie Berger

For the cello, an amplified role in the avant-garde

Around the world, cellists are pulling up a seat next to indie rockers, pop bands, and DJs. No wonder readers of a classical-music magazine voted the cello the 'sexiest instrument.'

As one of the few cellists to have made a career as a jazz soloist, Erik Friedlander believes his instrument is comfortable in the worlds of jazz, popular, and avant-garde music. "Musicians are opening up to what the cello can do," he says. "If you play saxophone you have the weight of history on your back. We don't have that to live up to so we can create our own way."

Mr. Friedlander's fellow downtown musicians might agree. The cello is becoming the preferred instrument among many experimental rock bands, forward-thinking composers, and promoters of avant-garde concert series.

This past June, at the Bang on a Can Marathon, an annual festival of new music in New York, cellists were the backbone of several of the headlining groups including Real Quiet, a chamber trio consisting of cello, piano, and percussion; Odd Appetite, a cello and percussion duo inspired by Balinese gamelan and South Indian music; and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the organization's house band, which features the amplified cello of Wendy Sutter.

Elsewhere, cello soloists are tweaking the instrument's serious image. The Canadian cellist Jorane has released five albums in which she simultaneously sings and plays the cello in songs by artists such as Donna Summer and Daniel Lanois. On Friedlander's new album, "Block Ice & Propane," he evokes American roots music by using lots of banjo-style plucking along with traditional bowing.

The cello's popularity outside of the classics is partly driven by necessity: The lean standard repertoire for the instrument consists of four or five major Romantic concertos.

"There isn't this huge weight of repertoire," says Mary Lawson, a cellist in Ethel, an amplified string quartet. "A pianist can't even hope to learn the complete piano repertoire in a lifetime. A violinist can barely manage the major violin repertoire. But as a cellist, you can definitely play the whole cello canon. You very quickly start looking beyond that."

Friedlander points out that rock musicians are becoming more aware of the cello's range and see it as an alternative to the violin, with its folk fiddling or jazz associations. "Because it's not saddled with bluegrass, 'le jazz hot,' or any of those things the violin has, you can put the cello into an indie-rock situation and it doesn't have baggage," says Friedlander, who has performed with indie-rockers such as the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice.

A major inspiration for many cellists seeking to expand their repertoire is Mstislav Rostropovich, who, before his death at age 80 in April, helped bring about some 100 cello pieces including concertos by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. "He was such an inspiration not just as a cellist or musician but as a creative force," says Ha-Yang Kim, a cellist and composer who performs in Odd Appetite.

Indeed, there is evidence that the cello repertoire is growing at a faster rate than a decade ago. Music publisher Boosey & Hawkes reports that it published 52 new pieces for the cello in the past eight years, up from 41 works in the previous eight years.

Many recent cello works incorporate pop-style ingredients. In May, cellist Matt Haimovitz joined the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra to première Tod Machover's "Vinylcello," which pairs the cello with live electronics controlled by DJ Olive. Cellist Maya Beiser frequently gives recitals with a video component.

Cellists concede that there are drawbacks to the instrument – it is difficult to learn, expensive to own, and with its dark amber tone, it struggles to cut through rock textures. Yet it also seems to benefit from a certain sex appeal. Recently the British classical music magazine Muso surveyed its readers and found that, of all of the instruments in the orchestra, the cello is the "sexiest instrument."

"A certain kind of personality is attracted to the cello," says Mr. Kim, who cuts a sleek, black-clad figure on stage. "Cellists tend to be laid-back and cool. Besides, it's a really gorgeous instrument."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Feuermann plays Dvorak and Popper

Definitely one of the greatest musicians to ever live on this pale blue dot.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Clara Rockmore plays "The Swan" (Saint-Saëns)

If you think she is singing that tune under her breath you are WRONG. She is playing an early electronic music device known as a “Theremin”.

Léon Theremin playing an early theremin

Monday, September 3, 2007


This excerpt is from a 1989 recital in Tokyo, Japan.


This is not cello related but it is written by Casals. The piece is new to me, I just discovered this beautiful piece yesterday. Enjoy!



Sunday, September 2, 2007


Was the cello once played like a Violin? Violin maker Dmitry Badiarov believes it was and has recreated an instrument he calls the Cello Piccolo Da Spalla. Visit his site here for more details.


Hans-Ludwig Becker is a left handed European cellist who has listed 27 videos of himself playing various Bach Suite movements. After losing his left pinky in an accident he re-dedicated himself to learning the cello left handed. His dedication is inspiring and should send us all back to the practice room! You can see the rest of his videos here.


Hi Rich,

Thanks for your message and your interest for my left handed playing. The story is quite simple: I started playing cello at the age of seven. Two years later I had a stupid accident with my bicycle and cut one finger on my left hand. The situation at this time was, that in our big family everybody was playing an instrument and my parents wanted me to continue with the cello. So the only possibility was to get an instrument changed, which is quite expensive and not healthy for a very old and fragile instrument. But all the three cellos I have didn't suffer of this "operation".

Later on I studied with Karine Georgian, Johannes Goritzki and on masterclasses with Daniil Shafran, became principal cellist for seven years in a small German opera house. Since nine years I've been 2nd soloist of the Flemish Opera Antwerp/ Ghent.
From my experience I can say, that many orchestras don't accept "the other way 'round", but luckily there are some which do accept.

Your question, what strings I am playing: A and D "Jargar", G and C Wolfram spirocor. I tried for A and D different ones, but came back to Jargar, because of the sound. The weak point is that you cannot play very long on them.

I hope you got the right information. Let me still say you, that you play the Bach beautifully. I didn't have the time to check all your videos, but in one of these days I will do.

Best greetings from Belgium,
Hans-Ludwig Becker