Whether playing Argentine tango, Appalachian folk songs, Brazilian bossa nova, or Bach concertos, Yo-Yo Ma, the soft-spoken classical cellist, has proved himself a true world musician, or better said a true citizen of the world. Born of Chinese parents in Paris and raised in New York, Ma embarked on a project four years ago exploring the not-always-easy-on-Western-ears music of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean and facilitated exchange both commercial and cultural. An ever-changing collective of musicians, the Silk Road Ensemble has performed extensively, released a CD in 2001, and is still going strong, playing works on original instruments like the pipa (Chinese lute), santur (Persian hammer dulcimer), tabla (Indian drums), and Ma's new specialty, the morin khuur (Mongolian horsehead fiddle). Courtesy of the Concert Association of Florida, they'll play in Miami Beach this Wednesday, a show that will be especially resonant in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran, one of the stops on the Silk Road. Ma recently spoke to New Times from his home in New York.
New Times: Was there one specific incident that triggered this idea for you?
Yo-Yo Ma: I went with a group to Israel and Jordan the day of the Israeli/Jordanian peace treaty. Queen Noor [the wife of King Hussein of Jordan] asked me to give a master class in Amman. I gave a class and the people who played were so poetic the way they described music -- Bach, Beethoven. I said, "Why do you play this?" The way they described it was so moving that it was at that moment that I decided, I've got to do something and promote the idea of creating a Middle Eastern orchestra [which conductor Daniel Barenboim did] and I launched the Silk Road Project, to look at all the connections between the people from the Mediterranean to the Pacific over several thousand years.
How has working on this project changed your music?
I actually play Haydn better after playing Persian music because my intonation is better. When I study Persian music, there are five different modes and I have to learn these microtones and when I go back to Haydn, I actually hear better. I suddenly hear much greater spaces between notes. I realize how many different ways there are to articulate a note.
How has working on this project changed you personally?
It humanizes me. I feel like I belong in this world because I'm a better musician -- even though I'm getting older and my hands are getting slower. I hear better. I demand more of myself, and I appreciate the world more. I feel luckier to be alive.