Interview: Music? It's just child's play

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Indy Lifestyle Online
From Bach to bluegrass, Tan Dun to tango - Yo-Yo Ma and his cello can encompass it all. But then, as he tells Edward Seckerson, just because he started young, it doesn't mean he isn't still keen to learn.

Yo-Yo Ma began working on Bach's Six Suites for cello when he was four years old. Two measures at a time. That was before all the expensive training kicked in, before he knew better, before he knew why. If only he'd known then how exciting it was. But he didn't, none of us do. We learn, we grow, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture that terrible, unrepeatable thing called childhood - to re-live, moment by moment, measure by measure, that elusive sense of discovery, realisation, wonder. Yo-Yo Ma may not think as a child or speak as a child any more, but he hasn't put away childish things.

His friend Bobby McFerrin has a catchphrase for it - he calls it "bringing out the child in the adult". It's about innocence as opposed to sophistication, about seizing the moment, getting inside it, trusting it. "Bobby still knows what it means to be playful," says Ma, "he can still somehow suppress his 'better judgement' and just go for it. I believe that, as adults, it's the judgement part of us that often holds us back. Children tend not to judge. They'll come really close to you and say what they have to say, and sometimes you are surprised at the depth of the observations because they are not holding anything back. I've thought about this a great deal, and what it has led me to do as an adult musician is to ask the stupidest and most basic questions of myself. Why did someone write this? Why did they bother spending time doing it? What is it about? Why should I care? It doesn't matter that you don't know the answers - it's just that you have to keep asking."

Ma asks a lot of questions. Of himself, of others. His curiosity is insatiable. An interview with him is a symposium, a debate, an exchange of views. Not so much about music, as around it, beyond it. If he should digress (and he loves to), it's usually on account of something you've said. In fact, you don't interview Ma at all, you partake of him (and he of you), you hang out with him, keep up with him. This "interview" was conducted on the move between a hotel lounge, the back seat of a car, an inner-city school, and a cafe in downtown Baltimore. And by the time it was over, I felt as much his "constant companion" as those Bach Suites I'd been trying so hard to talk about. An audience with Yo-Yo Ma means just that. His sunny disposition (and unashamedly juvenile sense of fun) draws people in. With him, you are never alone for long.

Right now it's just us two in a hotel lounge - a quiet moment between the attentions of passing admirers. Ma is trying to express what the Bach Suites have meant, and go on meaning, to him. Words like "timeless" seem inadequate to fathom just what it is about this "dance music" (for that is what it is, albeit in the abstract sense) that has so powerfully communicated across the ages, across so many cultural divides, whose terms of reference are broader than any one musician could ever fully express. Ma speaks of "breaking their code", of understanding, or at least being aware of, the mysterious "hidden pedals" so prevalent throughout the suites; the chasm-like double-octave drops that can transform a stately Allemande into a force of nature; the distinctive moment's silence in every Prelude. "What does that mean? Why is it there? A moment for reflection, surely, a pause for thought. So that when the music does start again, you're already looking at it differently..."

We're talking about seconds, of course, but they might just as well be decades or even centuries. "The music changes as you change," says Ma. "As your life changes, so too does the way you tell your stories..." Take a moment now to consider how just one life-changing event can, in Ma's words, "thrust you into a whole different mode of being and totally transform the way you think about a piece of music". When his father (himself a violinist) suffered a massive stroke in his 81st year and lay unconscious and dying, Ma chose music - his father's favourite Bach Sarabande - with which to make that last communion. He remembered his father telling him how, during the war years in Paris, he had played Bach as "comfort music" during the long curfews. It was time to close the circle.

It is Ma's fervent belief that music lives and breathes only through its connection, its interaction with what he calls "the larger issues". One of the biggest "wake-up calls" of his life came in 1991 when he participated in an interdisciplinary symposium on the relevance, in today's world, of the humanitarian and Bach scholar, Albert Schweitzer. Just as Schweitzer gave his life meaning by making that vital connection between Arts, Science, Philosophy, Theology and Sociology, so representatives from each of these fields came together to voice common concerns and to reassert their belief in shared responsibility. For Ma, the experience was all about exploring, testing, the concept of collaboration, and in that moment he resolved to re-visit the Bach Suites, to re-record them, but to do so in collaboration with artists from other disciplines in a series of six films entitled Inspired by Bach. The BBC airs them in January.

Sharing the inspiration, joining him on this long day's (or rather, five years') journey into enlightenment, were garden designer Julie Moir Messervy, choreographer Mark Morris, Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan, Japanese Kabuki performer Tamasaburo Bando, the ice-dancers Torville and Dean, and the 18th-century Italian etcher and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, with whom Ma had had "imaginary conversations". "His designs, with their wild and fantastical perspectives, were totally impossible to realise, but they meant everything to him. Now Bach, too, was doing something essentially impossible, writing polyphonic music for a single-line instrument. But he suggested it by illusion. Which raises other questions. Is it architecture if it's not built? Is music a document? Or does it only come alive in performance? I had teachers who would go so far as to say that they preferred looking at a score to listening to it..."

But that, of course, would be to deny that music is so much more than the sum of its notes, that it only really comes alive in the playing, and that each time it does, it's different. Ma could not countenance merely reproducing a piece from some pre-conceived notion of it. If he's playing the Dvorak Concerto, he'll home in on the infinite variety of its rhythmic invention. That's a metaphor for renewal, for evolution, he believes. And because he and his collaborators - whoever they are - will interface differently every time, "you'll always have another sandcastle". Until the next tide. In that sense, he's the eternal child, the eternal prodigy, still playing with the impatience, the urgency, the complete abandon of one for whom it is all new and always will be. And yet that "complete abandon" is achieved without abandoning anything. It's "a disciplined kind of spontaneity" that Ma advocates. Freedom, he says, is an illusion.

Which hasn't ever stopped him from "stretching the envelope" of the cello repertoire. Let's just say that Ma "crossed over" long ago. He's never accepted that there are "irreconcilable differences" between style and genre in music. In this past year alone, he's undergone an electronic make-over courtesy of composer Tod Machover, he's smelt the bluegrass of Nashville in harness with composer-bassist Edgar Meyer and composer- violinist Mark O'Connor (Appalachia Waltz is the name of the album), he's revisited his Chinese roots in Tan Dun's Symphony 1997, and succumbed to international tango fever with an album of music by Astor Piazzolla. As this week's British recitals will confirm, if freedom is an illusion, then Ma is the master-illusionist.

He has no secrets from his audience. He as good as asks them: how shall we do this? I'm excited to be here, I hope you are. "It's up to me," he says, "to facilitate the flow of energy within the hall, to create a palpable sense of something happening. It can take the form of a stage whisper: 'Here's a secret - come share it.' Or a declaration: 'I'm making this announcement because I'm just so proud.' But the most important thing is to be 'in the pocket', so to speak, of whatever it is you are doing. You can't fake getting to that little 'pleasure centre' where things really begin humming. It's like a circle. If I'm emotionally there but my arms are tight, it's not going to work. If I'm intellectually there but my heart isn't engaged, it's not going to work. If you can make that circle within, it can grow, and grow..."

Right now the circle has grown to take in a bunch of talented, under- privileged kids from a local school. One of them asks how he plays the Bach Gigue so fast. "By starting slow," he replies. Yo-Yo Ma: child and philosopher.

Recitals: 7.30pm tomorrow, RFH, London SE1 (0171-960 4242); and 7.30pm Fri, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161-907 9000)