At this point in his unprecedented career, Yo-Yo Ma could be forgiven for playing it safe — but that’s not his way. The cellist, who many consider to be the world’s greatest living musician, will be appearing at the Granada on Thursday, April 5, in a program produced by UCSB’s Arts & Lectures billed as Reflecting on a Life in Music. And, even though Ma proclaims that his “real passion is people” and that he is committed to “deep communication,” he admits that, when it comes to public speaking, his skill level is not nearly as high as it is on the cello. “I wouldn’t compare myself to any real verbal virtuoso,” Ma told me last week by phone, “because I actually do have such admiration for great oratory that I recognize the difference.” But that doesn’t mean Ma has nothing to say. “One of the things that I probably will talk about,” he said “is that whatever people are — musicians, great orators, you name it — they are inevitably the product of everything they’ve experienced.” His own life experience, according to Ma, has been the basis for something he calls “musical citizenship” — a willingness to participate in the democratic process by performing and building connections across the boundaries of musical genres and status.
Speaking of his commitment to musical citizenship, Ma grows lyrical, and, as the title of his talk suggests, reflective. “I’ve been alive for more than 50 years now,” he said, “and the most powerful thing I’ve witnessed over that time is the fact that people change a lot. I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve seen it. College can be a life-changing experience — it was for me. Having a family will change you. My entire concept of time was shifted when I became responsible for little ones.” For Ma, the purpose of this lecture tour is to communicate his perception of the changes in his life as a way of encouraging people in the audience to reflect on their lives.
“When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I continued to play music, but I also began to study anthropology,” Ma said. “It was one of the first school subjects that I found outside of music that could give value and order to certain parts of my life.” It was anthropology that taught Ma, who spent his earliest years in Paris, that “people in France think differently.” In fact, the concept of the social sciences allowed Ma to develop “a formal way of thinking about certain things that were confusing to me as a 7-year-old.”
And, lest this make Ma sound like some dry professorial type, let me assure you that the musician is one of the most energetic and entertaining speakers out there today. After supplying the above sincere and deeply philosophical answer to my question, Ma became self-conscious about his seriousness and began to riff on other possible motivations for his speaking tour. “It doesn’t have a single purpose,” he told me. “I’m not selling anything, and it’s not an infomercial. Can you imagine? ‘Hi, I’m Yo-Yo Ma, and if you use my magic exercise bow, you will become a great string player.’ It would be terrible! No one would believe me.” At this point in the conversation, Ma laughed heartily. But a moment later, he was back pursuing his main point: human connection.
“Talking about this life I’ve had in music with an audience allows me to make sense of my experience, and that in turn helps me to explain to them why I do what I do as a musical citizen. It’s why I go into public schools, it’s why I put arts and science together in my work, and it’s why I feel there is a philosophy under which all my various activities make sense as a whole.”
Ultimately, it would seem that Ma believes music to be in the service of something greater than itself. As he put it, “Whether I’m speaking or playing, I am always looking for ways to identify that thing through which all of us can feel more human.” In regard to his most recent project, the extraordinary “genre-proof” band Goat Rodeo, Ma said, “If it sounds like a rock band to you, and a bluegrass band to somebody else, then hooray for both definitions. Any genre that we are identified with is the result of invention, and invention is what we stand for. Musical invention is the thing of which we are proud to be a part.”
Yo-Yo Ma gives a lecture and presentation titled Reflecting on a Life in Music on Thursday, April 5, at 8 p.m. at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for info.