Only if you’ve been asleep for the past 20 years would it seem strange that a master cellist is accompanying a street dancer. In conversation, Ma doesn’t even use the word classical music, preferring to talk about “acoustic music.” Perhaps, when he recorded a Cole Porter album with Stephane Grappelli in 1989 or collaborated with Bobby McFerrin in 1992, people would call this kind of thing “crossover” work. But, in large part because of Ma’s insistence on continually crossing boundaries, those labels now seem to obscure more than they reveal. Ma has helped reinvent the way people think about classical music, expanding its audiences and its boundaries to the point that the only term that seems encompassing enough to describe what he does is the one he invented: citizen musician.
Ma was born in 1955. His parents, musicians of Chinese descent, were living in Paris, and their son got started on the cello early. A few years after the family relocated to New York City, Ma began studying with Leonard Rose, a legendary teacher at the Juilliard School. Ma was a prodigy and could have been gone on the road as a performer at an age when other kids go to college. But he made what turned out to be a critical choice. He postponed the musician’s itinerant life and went to Harvard, where he studied anthropology.
“I think I knew that I needed to grow up,” he says. “I felt very immature. I think I needed to get away from home, leave the parental umbrella behind.” From then on, Ma, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., has been in some way a part of Harvard, and the best of Harvard — the spirit of excellence and inquiry — has always been a part of him.
“I often will say to somebody that what you put in your mind before you are 21 is sort of like your intellectual, emotional bank account,” he says. “You will be drawing on that for the rest of your life.”
In Ma’s case, he says, it was his study of anthropology that capitalized the brain account. It made him question where he came from, the assumptions of the people around him, and the way in which human beings form communities and webs of reliance. Anthropology became an ethos, an emotional attitude to the world that remains embedded in everything that Ma does.
Kathryn Stott, a pianist who has accompanied Ma in recitals for years, says she saw the anthropological mind in action when Ma first discovered the music of the late, great tango master Astor Piazzolla.
“I’ll never forget him calling me at home to tell me about it,” she says. It was a transcontinental phone call, and a rarity for Ma to call her at home. “He said, ‘I am so excited I have discovered this music. It made me feel totally alive again. We have to play it.’ This was at a time when not many people knew about tango music and the revival of Piazzolla.”