Yo-Yo Ma: Still Honored, Still Exploring

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma is among the most famous names in classical music today, but his reputation extends far beyond that world. The famed cellist has worked in and melded a wide array of genres including bluegrass, jazz, Brazilian, Asian, and film music. He's performed for presidents and at the Oscars; been on television shows like The Simpsons and PBS’s Arthur; and he’s won highly prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and multiple Grammy awards.

This spring, Yo-Yo Ma will recieve the 2013 Vilcek Prize, which honors outstanding achievements from immigrants who have made "lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research and the arts and humanities.” Only two awards — one in science and one in the arts — are presented each year. Ma -- who emigrated to the United States from China with his parents when he was seven years old -- reflects his his diverse and lasting musical career with Soundcheck host John Schaefer.

On biomedical science’s fascination with the connection between music and feelings:

“Every piece of music I could claim deals with a different set of states of mind, of states of feeling. So every music, every genre, every piece of music that is legitimately put together -- in other words, that is consistent with itself — represents a certain world of feelings.”

On how his career has been shaped by his experience as an immigrant:

“The most important thing about immigration is that it forces you — it forced me — to think along two tracks for the rest of my life. Because what I realized is that you can’t be in two places at once, even though you really, desperately want to... I had to understand that the wish to be on two tracks meant that there were always going to be blank spaces. So if I’m spending a year in the States, it means that I’m not growing up that year in France, right? So the comic books, the children’s stories all change. So my stubborn wish to want to keep two tracks going made me develop an imagination that needed to be filled in.”

On being part of The Goat Rodeo Sessions, which won a Grammy award for Best Folk Album:

“Of course, it was love at first sound. It’s all through trusting friendships, which means we share a curiosity about one another. Obviously, everybody is fabulous at what they do. And we share values — the values of collaboration, of being flexible. The more I live, the more I think that common values [are] the basis of being able to invent or jump from one idea far enough to get to another place.”

On  the art of improvisation:

“I think more and more that the biggest improvisation one does is life. That’s where there is no playbook. You do have to make it up. I do ultimately think that’s it. I’m not a great improviser, but on the other hand, you give me something and you say, ‘Okay, you have to fill this in…’ I’ll do it. But it’s not a mystery. What I’m so happy to see is that more and more young people are coming out of our schools, they can improvise, they know several different musics really well.”