Cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls on culture as building block for stronger society

  • Silkroad founder and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma is introduced by president Michael E. Hill before his lecture Friday, Aug. 10, 2018 on the Amphitheater Stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Yo-Yo Ma let his cello do the talking.

The world-renowned classical cellist and founder of Silkroad Ensemble — a collective of artists celebrating heritage through music — spoke to culture and its role in building a stronger society at Friday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture on Aug. 10 titled “Culture, Understanding, and Survival,” as the finale to Week Seven, “The Arts and Global Understanding.”

Ma spoke to a filled Amphitheater, and an astounded Institution President Michael E. Hill.

“This is a ‘pinch me’ moment,” Hill said. Ma did.

Ma began studying the cello with his father at the age of 4 while living in Paris. Three years later, he moved to New York City, where he studied at The Juilliard School, later graduating from Harvard University with a degree in anthropology. His discography of over 100 albums has earned him accolades, including the National Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and 18 solo Grammy Awards. He has performed for eight American presidents, most recently at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

This was Ma’s third time at Chautauqua; he last performed at the Institution in 1978 at 23 years old.

“When I was young, I thought culture was a cello repertoire,” he said. “… But over time, I started to think differently. I began to realize that culture is both bigger and earlier. I now think culture started with our primal drive to understand our environment, ourselves and others. We needed to understand to survive, and we invented culture to meet this need.”

Culture is ever-increasingly important now, Ma said; with massive disruption, political fraying, the planet’s uncertain health, and increasing segregation, selfishness and xenophobia, culture can unify, repair these fractures and turn “them” into “us.” For Ma, the intersection of politics, economics and culture on a three-circle Venn Diagram is the “sweet spot” of society — disjointed, the pillars are pointless.

The challenge: growing this overlap. Part of culture’s power: its ability to bring the edge to the center.

The edge effect, which Silkroad musician Cristina Pato briefly described in Monday’s morning lecture on Aug. 6, is a concept in which the point where two ecosystems meet produces more diverse species. Similarly, when ideas from the “edges” convene in the “center,” innovation is born.

“You can go to the edge, live there with new ideas, but send the best ones back,” Ma said. “Bring them back to the center. So when you’re at the edge, think about how it matters to the center. And when you’re at the center, make sure you stay open to ideas from the edge, and do that all the time.”

This is a way of thinking and, with practice, it becomes a state of mind, but not without discomfort.

Ma is no stranger to discomfort — he said he never “decided to become a cellist.” Rather, it was his parents’ persuasion. Ma lived with discomfort until he found contentment at 49 years old. From there, he began to use his cello as an instrument of exploration, navigating the edges of music, from working with trance dance music of the Kalahari Bushmen to his 20-year journey with Silkroad.

“Prelude” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is a piece Ma learned at 4 from his father measure by measure, 42 measures in all. Ma said he returned to “Prelude” decades later in preparing for his lecture at the Institution, unearthing the score’s melodic road map to override the destructive, fracturing state of society.

He noted the score’s fermata, a symbol that denotes a disruptive stop, preceded by the score’s lowest note, and the piece’s voracious grand finale, followed by the score’s highest note. Ma played this for the audience.

“Did you feel the rupture in the silence?” Ma asked. “Did you feel the reinvigoration of the center at the end? It took me a long time to understand the power of edge-ceranter communication, which Bach created so eloquently in just 42 measures.”

Culture engages both analytical and empathetic compasses, Ma said. As a young musician, he was focused on perfection — perfect pitch, perfect performance. Eventually, his pursuit of perfection felt “prepackaged,” and he turned to an emotive, expressive approach; he quickly and shockingly learned that expression synthesizes the composers’ and others’ emotions.

“When I’m performing, I’m trying to put myself in a state of mind where I have access to both my conscious and subconscious — a state of mind that allows free-flow between rational thinking and intuitive thinking,” Ma said. “… This is a state of mind, a type of thinking that you can locate and discipline, that culture helps us transforms … It’s a state of mind that gives us access to analytical thinking and empathetic thinking at the same time, any time.”

“The Sarabande” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 combines objectivity, subjectivity, analysis, empathy, conscious and subconscious while being a concise 108 notes, he said.

“It tells a story that we all recognize, a story that speaks to our common humanity. … It is a story of a struggle for hope,” Ma said.

The notes themselves struggle, rising and falling seven times at the end of the piece, which Ma played for the audience.

“I’ve been playing the cello now for over 58 years,” he said. “Bach has been my musical companion for all of them. Bach has taught me to constantly re-explore my edges and then report back to the center. Bach has taught me to balance analytic and emotional thinking. … Bach has taught me to think of my work as a building block so others can build.”

Building upon that foundation is cultural learning — a search for truth, fueled by trust, “a search that denies the arrogance of certitude and a search that recognizes our shared humanity,” Ma said. Culture doesn’t ask for perfection, he said; it asks for trust, love and understanding.

When thinking about his responsibility as a musician, Ma reflects on the words of Pablo Casals, which he paraphrased: “I am a human being first, a musician second, a cellist third.”

“Now, I want to take this philosophy one step further. I want to consider myself as a human being first, a citizen second and only then as a musician. Because music, like all of culture, was invented to serve society, to make society stronger, and that carries its own responsibility.”

-Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist 

This revelation inspired Ma’s upcoming two-year journey, a tour where he will perform Bach’s six cello suites — 36 movements, 36 times across six continents — in political capitals and formal venues, but also along contested borders.

This is not just as a musical feat, but a conversation between community leaders to “make culture a source of the solutions we need.”

“We need each of us to spend time in our own edges, to oscillate between analysis and empathy to treat our work as building blocks,” Ma said.“If we each do this individually, we will soon be doing it together, and it’s no exaggeration to say that our survival depends on it. Culture gives us purpose and meaning; it stabilizes us through change;it teaches us to imagine life beyond ourselves. … We are at a critical moment for our species. … Please, let us choose the next step of our evolution together.”

After the conclusion of Ma’s lecture and an enthusiastic round of applause, Hill opened the Q-and-A by asking how to use edge-center communication when confronted with assumptions about other people.

Edge-center communication is imperative in daily life, Ma said, because each day people encounter dozens of interactions where they are on the outside or inside of any given situation.

Hill turned to the audience for questions; one attendee asked for Ma’s thoughts on French philosopher Louis Althusser’s theory that the economic sphere dominates society.

“No discipline — that I know of — can describe everything in the universe,” Ma said in a humorous, thick French accent.

Finally, a mother of four young musicians asked Ma how to keep her children interested in music.

Ma said to instill agency in her children — let them find themselves.

Tags : and SurvivalCultureThe Arts and Global UnderstandingUnderstandingWeek SevenYo-Yo Ma

The author Maggie Prosser

Maggie Prosser will be covering the dance programs, Institution administration, the board of trustees and the CPOA for her second summer at the Daily. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, she is a rising junior studying journalism at Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College. Outside of her studies, she serves as the editor-in-chief of The New Political, an award-winning political publication at OU, and loves eating gluten-free bread.