Yo-Yo Ma brings Goat Rodeo Sessions to Bethel Woods

Yo-Yo Ma
Almanac Weekly

By Lynn Woods

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most accomplished musicians of our time. He has performed before presidents (starting with Eisenhower and Kennedy, when he was just 7 years old) and prime ministers, won 15 Grammies, played on the soundtrack of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and other popular films and appeared in TV shows as diverse as Sesame Street, The West Wing and The Colbert Report. Particularly acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites, Ma, who was born in Paris in 1955 and grew up in New York City, began studying the cello at age 4, started performing at age 5 and earned a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard.

Not content to rest on his laurels, however, Ma has also embarked on explorations of other musical genres and traditions, from jazz to native Chinese to the Kalahari bush people. His Silk Road Ensemble brings together musicians from different countries linked to the ancient 4,000-mile-long trade route. Through his Silk Road Connect project, Ma is working to engage schoolchildren in the performing arts and thereby improve education: part of his mission in serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Ma has also worked with a diverse array of artists, from Bobby McFerrin to Mark Morris, just to name a few. One of his most recent collaborations is the Goat Rodeo Sessions: performances and recordings with bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile. The Goat Rodeo Sessions and guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan will be performing at Bethel Woods on Friday, August 16 at 8 p.m.

Despite his extraordinary accomplishments, Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife and two children, is a humble and accessible person. Here is his description of the Goat Rodeo Sessions and other thoughts on his work and life, which he generously shared with Almanac Weekly reporter Lynn Woods: 

How did you get involved in the Goat Rodeo Sessions, and what makes the project worthwhile for you?

These musicians are friends of friends of friends. They are all great virtuosos and total masters. Three of them have received MacArthur genius awards. It is uncanny and mind-boggling to watch them at work. They think of something, and it comes out immediately; that’s amazing.

They combine all the traditions they grew up with to create a music that is a reflection of our present moment. Some people say the music we play is genre-proof; that’s the way any present moment should be, because the music just makes sense. It should speak directly to us, so we can hear the content and meaning.

Also touring with us is Aoife O’Donovan, who is an unbelievable singer. When she sings with Chris, you think it’s a marriage made in Heaven – they are not actually married, but their voices are. The camaraderie among all of us is really palpable.

Some new music has a reputation for being difficult. Would you say Goat Rodeo Sessions is accessible to the general public?

Whether it’s bluegrass or contemporary classical or jazz, you have a number of entry points. It’s fun, friendly and funny. The whole idea of doing this is, “Let’s get together and have an unbelievable amount of fun in the deepest way possible.”

What prompted you to undertake your musical explorations into different genres and traditions outside the world of classical music?

It’s incredibly simple. As a child I wanted to understand the world and people; I still do. Anytime you perform, you need to keep two things in mind: the biggest picture possible and the littlest moment possible. That sounds like a contradiction, but if you are going to tell a story, you need to know the whole story, the context; and yet every moment should be interesting.

I was always fascinated by how people make decisions, why we do what we do, why are we passionate about something and what makes creativity happen. What makes people invent tall buildings before they come along? I’ve always had more questions than answers. I figured by exploring, I could find out how music comes out differently in different places – how these are the expressions of people’s innermost thoughts and yearnings – and then, how we connect that to ourselves. 

I suppose that attitude fits in with the notion of a global approach, which to some extent defines our time.

Today nobody grows up listening to one kind of music. We have all kinds of music. The more we’re aware of how music affects us, the more we can learn about the meaning. If you understand something about music, you have a better chance of understanding people.

Do some kinds of music sound totally alien to you? If so, how do you approach it?

When I was growing up, there was plenty of music I listened to. Some of it was incredibly exciting. There was music I didn’t understand at all. In that case, I usually asked myself who did it and why. What was the motivation behind it? Movies take us into the world’s living rooms. Music does the same thing. If you know why it was made in the first place, then you are sympathetic to it. And if I, as a performer, do something I don’t understand, then what chance is there someone else will understand it? I have to be a good friend or parent to the music. In many cases I was taken into different pieces of music when someone took me by the hand and said, “Listen to this.”

What accounts for your openness to new things and seemingly limitless curiosity?

I was very confused as a child. I’m still confused, which I actually recognize is not a bad thing: to be with such smart people and ask the stupid question. I don’t mean it’s being stupid, because I really don’t know. I don’t get certain things, and I don’t mind being thought of as inadequate. I don’t have pride that I have to be high-functioning all the time. In some areas I’m high-functioning, and I feel okay to say, “I know about this, and so let me tell you about it.” 

How have your collaborations with musicians in other genres affected your classical cello playing?

I feel more comfortable performing, and because of these collaborations I’m a much better musician. When you start exploring, you realize how much you don’t know. I don’t feel that when I’m playing a classical piece of music, but I do feel more comfortable just sharing the thing I know. Doing the other stuff is in many ways the best way of practicing, because part of practicing is not relying on your reputation for aligning with perfection, but opening your mind and being able to express in physical terms what your thoughts and feelings are. I feel so much freer as a human being and a musician.

How do you maintain your energy?

I love tackling really difficult problems. Maybe it’s a function of age or having children, but you have a different sense of time as you get older. At age 17, a year is a really long time, but in the second half of life, a year goes by really quickly. You know time is limited.

What issues concern you the most?

We are talking more and more about difficult planetary conditions, whether it’s global warming, food scarcity or energy scarcity, and a planet that now is seven billion people, 192 countries and 6,000 languages. How is it all going to work?

The thing I worry about the most is [America’s declining] high school graduation rates. If the statistics don’t improve over the next few years, given the fact that the world is much more competitive, we’re not going to be going too many places. I don’t mean everybody should get really good grades on tests; I mean people being really curious about the world and solving problems, doing what they’re interested in and learning. People talk about the big advantage of studying science and math, but it’s the arts, humanities and culture that give you perspective on why you need science, engineering and math.

With the Silk Route Project and the Ensemble, we’re working with Damian Woetzel, an arts educator and former ballet star at the New York City Ballet, on bringing programs to sixth-graders in different schools in New York City and across the country, from Boston to Wyoming to LA. We’re using all the different forms of performing arts, whether it’s music and dance or spoken words and calligraphy. This can be integrated into biology, English and other subjects. The most important thing we can do is to use every sense we possess. You pull together everything you have learned and have the kids create something at the end of the year that actually shows what they’ve learned.

The idea is to get into people’s passions to experience new things, and attach that to things they are learning, so learning is memorable; then to connect it to other things, so everything adds up, as opposed to just doing this to graduate. That’s not an education; it’s a piece of paper. The work we’re doing is really only good if you actually remember it and make use of it.

What is the particular value of the performing arts in promoting education?

The performing arts involve the whole individual. It’s not just using the right side of the brain and forgetting the left, but learning organically. We’re training 100 public school teachers at a summer program at Harvard, talking about their passion for education and what it means. We’re also focusing on cultural entrepreneurship and giving prizes to people with ideas so they can execute them. Making people connect to things is the basis of culture and education, of being a good citizen.

Besides reaching out to schools, you also inspire by your own example.

I’m hoping what we can do with the Goat Rodeo Sessions in music is show how much fun it is to collaborate, how much fun it is to be mentally flexible, to switch from one thing to another with a certain playfulness and ease, and how much fun it is to imagine something. Before we got together, there wasn’t a group with mandolin, bass, cello and violin, and imagining what these sounds would be like before it happens was a worthwhile thing to do.

The four qualities that educators and politicians say we need are connecting, collaborating, imagination and innovation. If we can show these things in sound, we can also do it with anything else, be it biology, language or carpentry. It’s part of our DNA, and I’m putting that forth on a platform: that these are desirable things. It’s another way of learning, which is passion-driven. There’s so much energy to put into it, but it’s free energy, because once you have the passion, you’re self-motivated.