Yo-Yo Ma is no stranger to taking creative risks. As a classically trained cellist, he has recorded in a wide range of genres, collaborated with jazz greats, and contributed to movie scores. He even played for President John F. Kennedy when he was just seven years old.
Why does he explore everything from Bach to country music to the rhythms of the Kalahari? He says he views expertise--whether in a certain composer or style--as somewhat akin to being on a crowded beach on a sunny day.
You only need to take a few steps away to find an area that's relatively unexplored.
"Why stick to one thing? ...I think, when you go to the center of something, there's a lot of density. I think there's probably more overt competition... because there's not enough room. Whether it's a field, or a city, or a discipline..."
This outlook on music has allowed Ma, now 60, to explore different approaches to creativity throughout his career.
On Interpretation and Genre
Musical interpretation, according to Ma, can be aided by small things, like examining the relationship between a culture’s car design and its language.
For example, think of the difference between the word “butterfly” in German, which is “schmetterling,” versus the French “papillon.” Or think of the difference between German-designed cars like Audi and the French Citroën. It's German precision versus French comfort.
“The schmetterling, the language, has a lot of consonants in it, it's more guttural... The French language, the language of diplomacy, right? ‘Je suis tellement contente de vous voir, quel honneur’... it's florid, you prettify it.... the surface components, it's a different kind of aesthetic."
Harnessing that aesthetic requires acknowledging the relationship a composer has to his language and country.
"You realize that, then you would play a piece by César Franck or Gabriel Fauré differently than you would play a piece by Johannes Brahms or Ludwig van Beethoven."
In short, Ma describes it this way: "Car, word, music. It's all part of the same expression of the desires and the aesthetic or philosophical priorities of each country. And if you can get to the DNA of something, of that center, you actually find a workable basic truth.”
On Human Nature
Not everyone is a professional musician. However, music’s role in society provides a means of reflection.
To Ma, music’s role is fundamental to our understanding of the human experience, "[P]eople were trying to actually put in the sound world what they see, feel, and learn about human nature and nature. So, obviously there's a connection.”
But in a world in which nature is increasingly crashing into tech, Ma says that "humans have to up their game. Because common sense and other tests show that when you set a bar high, they will jump over it.”
And Ma believes that there are trends counteracting technology, like the farm-to-table movement or the increasing production of artisanal goods.
Music may be a part of this counter-trend. “My argument is that a lot of institutions were founded, and professions were founded, orchestras were founded, at a certain time when society felt there was a need for this institution... Are these still the same reasons for these institutions to exist?"
Ma says his biggest challenge is to fearlessly try new things: "I think we all have to overcome fear, and I think that the biggest thing that anybody who does anything has to overcome is creating equilibrium, creating a balance. A balance in an equilibrium in an ecosystem where life can exist. And I think for me, as I get older, my life is going to get shorter and shorter but I'm more and more invested in lives for others."
As he gets older, he also wants to focus energy on cultivating creativity for those around him. "If you can't create hope for people, what's the reason to live?… If part of life is to learn what is, to actually appreciate that we have lived, and that we have found meaning, and that we have found love and loss and accomplishment, all of those things are human attributes that are not algorithms, but they're actually essential to the quality of life."