Yo-Yo Ma brings Goat Rodeo Sessions to Bethel Woods

What prompted you to undertake your musical explorations into different genres and traditions outside the world of classical music?

It’s incredibly simple. As a child I wanted to understand the world and people; I still do. Anytime you perform, you need to keep two things in mind: the biggest picture possible and the littlest moment possible. That sounds like a contradiction, but if you are going to tell a story, you need to know the whole story, the context; and yet every moment should be interesting.

I was always fascinated by how people make decisions, why we do what we do, why are we passionate about something and what makes creativity happen. What makes people invent tall buildings before they come along? I’ve always had more questions than answers. I figured by exploring, I could find out how music comes out differently in different places – how these are the expressions of people’s innermost thoughts and yearnings – and then, how we connect that to ourselves.


I suppose that attitude fits in with the notion of a global approach, which to some extent defines our time.

Today nobody grows up listening to one kind of music. We have all kinds of music. The more we’re aware of how music affects us, the more we can learn about the meaning. If you understand something about music, you have a better chance of understanding people.


Do some kinds of music sound totally alien to you? If so, how do you approach it?

When I was growing up, there was plenty of music I listened to. Some of it was incredibly exciting. There was music I didn’t understand at all. In that case, I usually asked myself who did it and why. What was the motivation behind it? Movies take us into the world’s living rooms. Music does the same thing. If you know why it was made in the first place, then you are sympathetic to it. And if I, as a performer, do something I don’t understand, then what chance is there someone else will understand it? I have to be a good friend or parent to the music. In many cases I was taken into different pieces of music when someone took me by the hand and said, “Listen to this.”


What accounts for your openness to new things and seemingly limitless curiosity?

I was very confused as a child. I’m still confused, which I actually recognize is not a bad thing: to be with such smart people and ask the stupid question. I don’t mean it’s being stupid, because I really don’t know. I don’t get certain things, and I don’t mind being thought of as inadequate. I don’t have pride that I have to be high-functioning all the time. In some areas I’m high-functioning, and I feel okay to say, “I know about this, and so let me tell you about it.”


How have your collaborations with musicians in other genres affected your classical cello playing?

I feel more comfortable performing, and because of these collaborations I’m a much better musician. When you start exploring, you realize how much you don’t know. I don’t feel that when I’m playing a classical piece of music, but I do feel more comfortable just sharing the thing I know. Doing the other stuff is in many ways the best way of practicing, because part of practicing is not relying on your reputation for aligning with perfection, but opening your mind and being able to express in physical terms what your thoughts and feelings are. I feel so much freer as a human being and a musician.


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