Along the Silk Road
An Interview with Yo -Yo Ma

 July 2006 WLT

In 1998 world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project to explore artistic exchanges and international collaborations along Silk Road lands and around the world. “When we enlarge our view of the world,” says Ma, “we deepen our understanding of our own lives.” The Silk Road Project hopes to plant the seeds of new cultural growth and to celebrate traditions and musical voices everywhere. Recently, Yo-Yo Ma took a break from touring to respond to our questions about literature, culture, and his vision for the project.

Michelle Johnson: WLT has been walking readers down the Silk Road for many years, featuring writers from those regions of the world that comprised this historic path. Do you see a resonance between literature’s role in developing cultural understanding and the Silk Road Project’s goal of building community?

Yo-Yo Ma: I think the voices of authors, composers, and musicians are always influenced, if not created, by the context from which they come. Often the singularity of a voice is the combination of a deep understanding of that context and a unique ability to create narrative. The narrative gives the listener or reader an entry point into the composer, musician, or writer’s complex world. Or, put another way, yes, I see a resonance—literature, like music, is a wonderful way to travel without needing your passport.

MJ: What role has literature played in your life and work? 

YYM: It’s been a foundation for everything I do. I think that a great work of literature contains a lifetime of perspectives. Often, the rediscovery of a work I loved when I was younger sheds new light.

I loved the classes I took in Slavic, Russian, German, and contemporary Chinese literature in college. That literature gave me windows into specific time periods and geography. It’s wonderful to have that background to compare to present-day experiences when I travel.

Before I go somewhere for the first time, I always try to do a lot of reading.

MJ: When you began the Silk Road Project in 1998, what were your goals? Did you anticipate the various directions in which the project has developed?

YYM: Years ago in Japan, a wise man told me that if you look deeply enough at anything thought of as local—be it music, an idea, a tradition, a craft—you find that the local thing has global roots. We think of ancient people as being so isolated, yet here is this trade route along which religions and music and musical instruments and foods and goods all traveled. Of course, people traveled with them, and the people and the goods and the ideas and everything else all had enormous influence on one another.

I founded the Silk Road Project because I believe we’re not as isolated as we think we are. One of the ideas we talk about at the project is how important it is to know our neighbors, both our next-door neighbors and our halfway-aroundthe-world neighbors. 

MJ: The project includes museum residencies bringing together art, oral literature, and music. There has also been a photo exhibition and an exhibition of musical instruments. Could you comment on the multimedia nature of the project?

YYM: People have different learning styles. One person might come to a better understanding of a culture through music, but another person might be a visual learner for whom a visit to a museum is a more effective way to expand horizons. As a dear friend of mine says, we’re multisensate people, so multimedia makes sense. 

MJ: What are your future plans for the Silk Road Project? 

YYM: We’re partnering with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to create a Season of Silk Road, with activities taking place from summer 2006 to spring 2007 throughout the city of Chicago. This April the Silk Road Ensemble and I are hoping to visit our friend Alim Qasimov in Baku, Azerbaijan, and continue on to Turkey and Lebanon, giving concerts in all three countries. And we’re partnering with Carnegie Hall and the Tanglewood Music Center to commission eight new works for the Silk Road Ensemble, with a workshop and premiere of the new pieces with young musicians in September 2006.

WLT: What is the most interesting book you have read recently? What are you reading now?

YYM: Right now, I’m reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, which is really fascinating. Recently, I loved Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains—about Dr. Paul Farmer—and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

MJ: What, outside the realm of art, has captured your attention lately?

YYM: National Geographic’s Genographic Project. You can order a kit online at www5.nationalgeographic.com/genographic. With the kit, you send them a swab of your DNA. Eight weeks later, you go to the website and enter your kit ID, and they give you a DNA analysis that tells you where your ancient ancestors came from. It’s an amazing way to very specifically identify your own connection to the larger world, and this is the first time in history we’ve had the ability to do this.

MJ: What is the most exciting thing you’ve listened to lately?

YYM: I just listened to a beautiful recording the cellist Andrés Díaz made with Judith Gordon that included pieces by MartinΩ, Lutos_awski, and Rachmaninoff (Arabesque, 2004). And a perennial favorite album is the New Power Trio’s Echo Park (2002).

MJ: What future recordings or performances are you currently planning?

YYM: The Silk Road Ensemble and I spent a good part of July 2005 at the Nagoya World Expo in Japan. We rarely have that much time together in one place, so the creative juices were really flowing. We developed some new material in the vein of our most recent recording, Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon, and we’re looking forward to taking those ideas further when we tour in February.

This year, I’m playing a number of solo Bach concerts, too—in Asia and Europe, and just a few concerts in the United States in April. And I can’t wait to see Memoirs of a Geisha, Rob Marshall’s new film based on Arthur Golden’s book. I recorded the soundtrack for John Williams in August, and it’ll be wonderful to see how all the different elements have come together. 

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Michelle Johnson is WLT's managing editor.


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