If the anthropological spirit was first evident in an enormous appetite for all kinds of music, it has grown into the organizing principle of Ma’s career, which is filled with uncannily prescient projects. In the 1990s, Ma began a new look at the Bach cello suites, a monumental opus he had recorded brilliantly in 1983. That led to a series of 1997 films called “Inspired by Bach,” documenting his collaboration with artists outside of music, including filmmaker Atom Egoyan, choreographer Mark Morris and the ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. In 1998, Ma started the Silk Road project to explore the diverse music and cultures of countries crossed by the ancient trade route. When he brought a group of 13 international musicians, the Silk Road Ensemble, to the Kennedy Center in October 2001, the United States had just begun its long-running war in Afghanistan, territory through which the ancient Silk Road passed.
The Silk Road Ensemble has become an ongoing endeavor, and it has led to an increased engagement with public education. Ma has created Silk Road projects for schools around the country. Ask him about indigo, the ancient dye that makes things blue, and you get a long disquisition on its history and how it can be used to help students relate to both the Silk Road, the blues and the jeans they’re wearing.
And he is now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s creative consultant, heavily focused on working in the local school system. The goal, he says, is to make connections with kids, and to get more musicians thinking like “citizen musicians,” defining their mission more broadly than concerts and teaching.
“Music doesn’t have to happen in concert halls,” he says. “It can happen anyplace, and it does serve a purpose.” He is participating in large performances created by and for children, in flash-mob concerts that materialize music in unexpected places, and in projects that bring local musicians into jails, colleges and elementary schools.
“Yo-Yo is a connector,” says Deborah Rutter, the orchestra’s president. “He is a natural convener of people.”
Passing the music on
Ma insists that his educational work isn’t extracurricular, a distraction or addendum to the real work he does. It’s fundamental to the entire project of being Yo-Yo Ma.
“The most important thing I can do in a performance is make it memorable,” he says. “That is also the goal of learning.” Learning, he argues, isn’t about disposable knowledge, the stuff you cram in your head, but epiphanies of emotion and engagement that stay with you a lifetime. Which is exactly what he hopes happens on stage.