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A Fireside Chat with Yo-Yo Ma

AAJ Staff By

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There is nothing that requires more trust than working in a musical situation together. You just have to rely on each other for everything. It is constant fluidity.
What can you say about a man who has become a pop culture icon? That is exactly what Yo-Yo Ma is. Not only is he the premier cellist of his and my generation, he is also the subject of a Seinfeld episode (or at least his name was). That is immediate inclusion in pop culture history. But musically, both classically and otherwise, Yo-Yo Ma has continued to extend the boundaries and conventions of just we are taught to perceive is classical music. Yo-Yo Ma has essentially brought classical music into a time where Joe Millionaire is the top rated show and Lord of the Rings is not a book, but a movie. In fact, Yo-Yo Ma has done more for classical music than anyone in recent memory. He is beyond genres, beyond history, beyond cultures, and beyond predictable. Take his latest offering, Brazil, his first foray into Brazilian music. It was an honor for me to have Yo-Yo Ma as a guest on the Roadshow, as always, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Your new release, Brazil, documents your interest in the music inherent to that country.

YO-YO MA: With almost anything, there are probably a lot of beginnings. The interest from the broadest point of view, I remember always being interested in Brazilian music from the time when I had a little transistor radio and would kind of listen at night before falling asleep. Twenty years ago, Aldo Parisot, who is this great Brazilian cellist, teaches at the Yale School of Music, but friend of Villa-Lobos, said that I had to know more about Brazilian music. You have to go to Rio. You have to go to the library and discover his music. More recently, Oscar Castro-Neves, who I was working with on this Astor Piazzolla album, we were in Argentina and he spent a lot of time while we were exploring, just talking to me about how he as a seventeen-year-old guitarist hooked up with Jobim and worked on things and just talked to me about Brazil and what it meant to him. He is an elegant gentleman, very wise and very generous. So I started thinking about it. Over the next number of years, listened to a lot of music and then fell in love with Rosa Passos' voice and thought of including her. Listened to Gismonti and wanted to do something with him and the same thing with each person. It just gradually accumulated.

FJ: Did you have to augment your approach to the cello?

YYM: Absolutely. I come from the school of thinking that to actually learn, and this is the way I have learned anything in life, anytime I learn something and felt that I could participate in a style was because someone took me there. I had the best guide to take me into a language, a style, a country, and a way of thinking. It happened with Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor for Appalachian Waltz. It was meeting all the musicians that worked with Piazzolla that got me there and listening to tapes of Piazzolla talking. With Brazil, it was Oscar. It was Mark Suter of The New Power Trio. We played in the Silk Road Ensemble together. But Mark lived in Brazil and Cuba and he, as a percussionist, showed me physically and describing what he thinks of phrasing in a groove, and then finally when I met Cyro and Paquito, it was their incredible generosity and warmth and mastery and willingness to be festive and share that got me through the hump, where I felt I could jump in and swim.

FJ: Are you comfortable with the term "crossover," which has been almost overused in reference to your more recent projects?

YYM: I have a very simple way of working and the simple way of working is this, every time I do something in music, I make sure that the thing that I am doing is not the end, but the beginning. What I mean by that is things have to develop organically and it doesn't make sense if someone sits in a boardroom and says, "We need one of this and one of that." People have to choose each other. There is nothing that requires more trust than working in a musical situation together. You just have to rely on each other for everything. It is constant fluidity. If you don't choose each other, how can you develop the trust? In terms of what I have said to my friends in this recording is that the end of this recording is the beginning of our relationship. We are going to know each other for the rest of our lives and will partake in each other's musical lives in one way or another over and over again. That is what is so nice about longevity.

FJ: Your cello is an integral part of the narration of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. How do you approach not merely background music, but being essentially what amounts to a voice or character in Ang Lee's film?

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