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Q&A with Yo-Yo Ma: How music can be like touch during these socially distant times

Geoff Edgers and Yo-Yo Ma on July 31, 2020 in Edgers’ twice weekly Instagram Live show “Stuck with Geoff.” (The Washington Post) (TWP)

Since March, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers has been grounded by the novel coronavirus. So every Friday and many Tuesday afternoons, he hosts The Washington Post’s first Instagram Live show from his barn in Concord, Mass. So far, he has interviewed, among others, comedian Sarah Cooper, magician Penn Jillette, director Paul Feig, musician Annie Lennox and talk show host Chelsea Handler. Recently, he spoke to cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How have you dealt with the fact that you can't be performing normally this summer? I know you have been playing online, but you obviously must miss playing music to an audience.

A: During [the coronavirus], how much we respond to touch has been taken away from us. You can’t touch, you can’t hug, you can’t shake hands. But what music does, its sound moves air molecules. So when air floats across your skin and touches the hairs of your skin, that’s touch. That’s the closest thing to someone actually touching you. It’s as if you were miniaturized and you’re in the middle of a lake. But that lake is a bowl, and that vessel is holding you. That’s what music can do.

Q: It's been amazing to watch the musicians, comedians — people who normally play in halls — sitting in their living rooms or on their beds performing for us now. The sound quality isn't the same, and it's not a perfect medium in many ways. But it really does bring us comfort to have that connection.

A: Absolutely. It’s so funny because I’m an old guy. So early on, I used to travel with very young children and we didn’t have smartphones or video calling. You couldn’t call people directly, but would have to go to a hotel. If I was in Europe, I’d go to the operator and say, “Can you book a call?” And then they say, “Go to this phone booth,” and you call and you’re counting your shekels because, my goodness it adds up. And boy, if you can’t afford it, you know you’re stuck.

National arts reporter Geoff Edgers went live on Instagram with musician Yo-Yo Ma on July 31. (Video: The Washington Post)

Q: In July, you and pianist Emmanuel Ax recorded a virtual program at Tanglewood. What was that like?

A: We were sitting socially distanced. I’m usually like one foot away from him and I can hear him breathing. But you know what’s great? When you know somebody well, you can be six, eight feet away. You sense what they’re going to do before they actually even do it. And that’s the kind of communication that being live gives you, that kind of palpable, visceral sense of one another. And to be able to play in the Linde Center at Tanglewood, which is maybe one of the most beautiful rooms and designed where you have a natural backdrop. Don’t even listen to the music. Look at the tree behind us. It’s a glorious tree.

One piece on the program [Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69] that Manny and I chose is one of the most celebratory, glorious pieces of music. Manny found out just a couple of weeks ago that in the first edition, Beethoven wrote something in Latin — something like “out of the depths of despair.” So imagine Beethoven out of the depths of despair writing this most uplifting, outstanding piece of music. I think it is something we deserve, while we’re going through this trifecta of crises — pandemic, racial inequity, economic crisis — that somehow we can actually still come together in whatever way that we can and feel this music.

Q: One of the only things I've covered since the pandemic started was a drive-in concert in New Hampshire at the Tupelo Music Hall. And it was very well controlled, very limited in spacing. Would you perhaps do such a thing if we haven't figured out how to get back into concert halls?

A: Well, personally, I’m dreaming of that because Manny and I have been talking actively, and thinking, “How can we actually do music in such a way that is possible? How could we do it in a different way?” Doing it in a different way for Manny and me could be him playing an electric piano and me playing an electric cello on a flatbed truck. It could be at a drive-in.

But the point is making sure that we are still a community, because if we lose that, we’ve lost everything. And it’s not about how beautiful the sound is or whatever instrument you’re playing. And this is Manny, who loves to play on beautiful pianos. Gorgeous Steinways. If he were here, he’d say, “Absolutely, I will do this. I will play for 70 people. I will play for 40 people. I will play for one person.” Because if that person gets something, then it’s worth it. See? In the end, it’s about one-on-one communication. You know, I’m looking at you and I’m seeing little motions. Your face, its body language. Music is actually an extension of our body language, of our brain language. That’s what we can offer. And if people want it, then we’ll find a way to give it.

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