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!”

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