Communicating Music Heart to Heart: An Interview with Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-renowned, Grammy-winning cellist extraordinaire, and his talent matches his level of humility. He is extremely joyous and eager to share his music with the world in such a way that will engage them unlike ever before. He is on a continual quest, searching for new ways to communicate with audiences. When Ma plays a piece of music — you feel it, nowhere is this more audible than on his new album, Songs of Joy and Peace. Ma has collaborated with luminaries from various genres on this project, including James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Renée Fleming, Chris Botti, and Diana Krall, allowing him to move in creative new directions.

America and the rest of the world finds itself in precarious times, and as President Barack Obama takes office, it is no wonder that a candidate who embraced the mantra of change and standing together as one voice chose Ma as an artist to perform at the inaugural ball. Ma’s acute and ever-evolving understanding of his instrument and the role that music plays in a global setting that continues to motivate musicians of all cultural backgrounds to channel that same level of intensity for their craft. In 1998 Ma acted on his ambition by establishing the Silk Road Project to promote the study of the cultural, artistic, and intellectual traditions along the ancient Silk Road trade route that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The Silk Road Project has three major goals: to illuminate the historical contributions of the Silk Road; support innovative collaborations between composers and musicians from Asia, Europe, and North America; and explore classical music within a wider global context.

Ma says, “I believe nobody grows up today listening to just one type of music. I remember when I was growing up. My great wish was to understand who I was and how I fit in the world. Music is a language, as Beethoven said, ‘communicating from heart to heart’. Finding the equilibrium of describing the inner life of one reality while placing it in the context of the larger universe has always been one of the roles of music. Our ear is no different, but perhaps there’s a greater need now than ever.” There is a bonding attribute to music that has global implications. Music communicates what is often not possible to do with words, and Ma understands this, and more importantly, his music demonstrates it.

Ma has been successful in bringing his cross-cultural music to receptive audiences. He has traveled the world with the Silk Road Ensemble, thus fulfilling the stated intentions of his organization. As Ma explains, “I don’t have a particular country I want to visit, but one of my dreams is that sometime in the not too distant future, the roads will be open for any traveler to go between all countries from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. That area encompasses lands with a population of about 4 billion people, two-thirds of the world population.If the roads were open, it would mean that the political, economic, and cultural engines of the world had found a way to interact that truly benefits the citizens they serve. I also hope the Project can find a way to go explore in greater depth Persian culture. That civilization has contributed so much to world culture.”

Working with the musicians from the Silk Road Project has influenced Ma as much as they have been influenced by their mentor. It is a give-and-take relationship within an atmosphere of mutual inspiration and creativity. “I feel so privileged to have the chance to work with such talented, curious, and passionate musicians, many of whom are younger than I am.” Ma adds, “In addition to their varied cultures and geography, they bring to the Ensemble and are willing to share with me another generational view of the world. I am thrilled, inspired, and grateful. Truth be told, though, I feel that I learn as much from them as they learn from me, if not more.” Ma’s tremendous achievements with the organization have not gone unnoticed. On October 24, 2008, a celebration was launched in honor of the Project’s 10th anniversary with a performance at the UN General Assembly in honor of UN Day.

Although his commitment to the Silk Road project keeps him on the go, late last year Ma recorded a seasonal album with many prominent musicians from various genres; their imprimaturs on the project are audible. The album, Songs of Joy and Peace, is certainly one that appeals to audiences everywhere. With the overall condition of the world today, it is an appropriate time for Ma to have created something that would act as a source of enjoyment for many fans. Ma explains, “I wanted to create an album that addressed an emotion, rather than a place … And I think there are so many different kinds of joy that it seemed a very rich topic.Once we started making the album I began thinking about joy and peace, and how they interact. I think that peace is, in many ways, a precondition of joy. One of the traditions in my family is that every Christmas we attend a community celebration called Revels, and part of the program is that the whole audience sings together “Dona Nobis Pacem”, “Give us Peace”. It’s always an extraordinary moment, and I wanted to share that element of my personal experience through this album, because I think peace is something we’re all thinking a lot about these days.”

Each artist featured on Songs of Joy and Peace was thrilled to be a part of the project, not only for the opportunity to work with Ma, but to share in the happiness that he brings to all those around him. His positive outlook on life and his appreciation for what each artist contributes is just one of the many reasons that musicians from all over the globe profess their hope in the prospect of someday working with him.

The song “Dona Nobis Pacem” opens and closes the album, and extraordinary variations from Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, Sergio and Odair Assad, and Paquito D’Rivera are interwoven throughout the album. Ma was so pleased with the outcome, that he said, “I’m hoping listeners will be inspired to create their own variations, so we started a contest at, and I’ll record with the winner.”

Songs of Joy & Peace represents a musical party that celebrates the universal hopes, dreams, and joys of the various holiday celebrations; this was captured on the album and DVD. “Every day I left the studio thinking, ‘That was the best recording day of my life!'” says Ma. “And the next day, I had the same feeling anew. I am so grateful to all the artists on the album; it was a great joy to record with each and every one of them.”