On a certain level, it makes sense that the piece of music for which the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma is best known also happens to be the very first song he learned how to play, at just four years old. Taken on its own, Bach’s "Prélude (from Suite No. 1)” is a lonely, dramatic arpeggiation that can leave the listener feeling wistful for a time that may have never existed. That it snakes and builds toward something that verges on the sacred makes it not only an ideal accompaniment for both film scores and Apple commercials, but a perfect vessel for Ma’s talents.
And for over six decades now, Ma has found himself revisiting the same collection of Bach suites, again and again. They are both a source of comfort and something of a full-length mirror with which to re-inspect himself, as if Bach were baked into his marrow. In his telling, Ma’s father was a “born pedagogic” who came from a town just south of Shanghai. He was a violinist and polymath who believed in the self-enriching momentum of curiosity, and taught his children everything from French history to Greek mythology to calligraphy.
With the cello in particular, he instilled in young Yo-Yo a valuable lesson: that true greatness, in its most exalted form, can only be unlocked via tiny achievable increments. Dad believed in parsing the grandiose into the practical, so young Yo-Yo learned “Prélude” by practicing just two measures a day, and no more than that. “I found this method ideal,” Ma told the New Yorker in 1989, “because I didn’t like to work hard.”
Now 64, Ma is one the greats many times over, whose own curiosity informs his life’s project. This month he put out a bluegrass album, Not Our First Goat Rodeo (the use of the word “goat” is colloquial) with his friends Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan. And he has spent his quarantine on a series of online performances he calls “Songs of Comfort,” because, as he tells it, comfort is vital to the imagination, and imagination is the bedrock on which we build a better future.
GQ: Why do you keep returning to Bach?
Yo-Yo Ma: One of the things that I think about with the playing of the first suite is that it has coded within it something that is infinite. Say you're looking at a string. You look at it. You stare at it. And it's the same string, but actually the molecules are all different, all the time.
Or, for another example, say you look at the leaves of the tree. And you see the tree every year. The tree leaves from year to year are completely different. It more or less has the same shape, but if you look at it after 20 years, you'll see that the tree has grown.
So that's the kind of thing [with Bach] that always has an element of deepening for me. Of wonder. Of knowing and learning more and still being surprised.
Is there something specific and new in playing the suite that’s revealed itself to you? Or deepened your understanding?
We're in the midst of a pandemic. We're in the midst of actually a huge amount of world human suffering. And yet we are still living, and coping, and trying to hold on to life. To dignity. And in some ways, it’s about acknowledging that tension and being able to say: We're here, and we're celebrating the infinite ability of the human spirit to express itself. We can't see and talk to people, but you can go out outside and see that it's a beautiful day today. And we can say, My goodness, this is unbelievable. We're going through all this but the trees are still here.
I'm just appreciating and I'm drinking this in. I am somehow a participant on this planet. I just read something about... who’s the head of Microsoft? Satya Nadella?
Yeah, Satya Nadella.
Yeah. So apparently he has a five second ritual before his feet touch the ground when he gets out of bed. He's already thinking about two things: He is grateful for something and looking forward to something. So these are all little things that we can do. And that's the kind of state that sometimes music can help you get into.
What makes a song comforting?
I think it's more about what you think comfort is, you know? I don't know if you have any children, but little infants have blankies or stuffed animals or whatever. When I was growing up in Paris, comfort was when we’d pass by a bakery because people started baking at 5 o'clock in the morning. The smell of bread: That's something that, to me, is just overpoweringly fabulous.
Anything that touches any of your senses can trigger comfort in the moment, in the present tense or something from the past. And these days, I think that during Black Lives Matter, which should be all the time, I think about Toni Morrison, who used to have a thought. She used to say to me, “I dream of being able to walk out of my house in the middle of the night. There's no moon, it's completely dark, I open the door, and I walk onto a path.”
And what does that imply? It implies that one, she has a house to walk out of, and two, that it's safe. That’s what comfort is. People talk about innovation and creativity, but I don't think we can actually create and innovate if you feel you're in danger. If you are mentally stressed, you don't have the mental space to comfortably write your article, or practice a scale, or sing a tune, because you are in fight or flee mode. So right now, if you can't physically be close to your friends, then maybe a piece of music can give you that. Music is energy that's moving air molecules that your eardrums pick up and interpret into something. Music gives you intraneural pathways that can give you that sense of comfort.
At this point in your career, what is practicing like for you now? What sensations do you seek out when you’re sitting down to play something?
The one thing that never changes is that, if you're a performer, you're always trying to always fight back the idea of making a fool of yourself. Of being judged and just completely messing up. So I think with every year, you can push that fear further away so that the stage can feel like a friendly place. That's practicing for performance.
But part of practicing to me is actually an active enjoyment. When people ask, "How much do you practice and do you like practice?" Well, I think it's always getting your mind to go from "I should" to "I want." It's like the magic button that only you can locate. When you're doing the "should" thing, time happens very slowly. Ugh, I've been practicing forever! Fifteen minutes. But when you want to do something, an hour has passed. Your control of time depends on whether you should do something or whether you want to do something. And these days practicing, for me, it's easier to want to find that magic button.
Is there a song for you for any reason throughout your career that you found more challenging than others?
So here's another crazy thought.
Love a crazy thought.
I think that everything is uncomfortable until it becomes comfortable. Everything is not yours until it becomes yours. And so every song is hard until it's not hard. I just spent two hours trying to play a Persian piece because I have a friend, Kyham, who plays the kamancheh, and he sent me a piece I was going to play as a Song of Comfort. And I just was not getting it. It just sounded false. It just didn't work. It sounded inauthentic.
So he plays it, I see him on video, and I kept playing. And then finally, a friend who was helping to record us, a sound engineer named Jody, says: "You know, rather than trying to just match him musically, why don't you pretend that you're talking together? And not worry about being exactly with him?"
I thought, This is weird, because if I'm trying to be exactly with him, it sounds bad. On the other hand, when I'm not with him, it also sounds bad. So what Jody was suggesting is to have the approach where you’re co-creating it and aren’t focused on the micro part. You’re focusing on the larger gesture.
And so we finally got close enough, and I could feel that I'm no longer being inauthentic, at least I'm in the ballpark of acceptability. And it's not because it’s together; it's more because the attitude is right. At the end of that I said, "Oh, this is just like Mozart!” If you play Mozart metronomically perfect, it just sounds horrible. It sounds boring. But if you actually have the right sense of call and response, question and answer, or a four bar phase, you get a different kind of energy.
On the topic of friendship, I wanted to ask you about your friend Mister Rogers. Do you have a story or anecdote about the unique kindness he inhabited that you wouldn't mind sharing?
So I met Fred 33 years ago. And the first meeting was because my then 3-year-old son loved Mister Rogers. On the show, he put his face like six inches away from mine—which even in a non-social distancing world is kind of socially uncomfortable. I was wearing a sweater and a jacket. And the television lights were on and I'm sweating and I'm thinking, "This is really uncomfortable." And he's just being very nice.
It wasn't until after that I realized, "Oh yeah, this is what my son does." Because before you learn to be acceptably distant, kids will pull on your nose, or on your glasses, or grab at your teeth. Because they don't feel they need to be socially distant. And this was what Mister Rogers was doing. Being the child advocate that he was, he put himself in that same space to say, “I am taking away all the social protections that we put on over time in order to function in society. And I'm peeling away all of that. So I come that close to you.” He thought of the space between the television screen and the child's eyeballs as a sacred space. You never mess with it.
After 9/11, he came out of retirement because people wanted to ask him, “What do you say to a child when there's a disaster?” And Mister Rogers said, “Well, in a disaster my mother used to always say, ‘You can always look for the helpers.’” So my question, right now, is: Who are the helpers? We try and thank the people who are actually on the frontlines. We try to thank all the people who are braving risk to do sanitation work, people who are delivering things. People who are actually exposing themselves. So for every occasion there are different kinds of helpers. You look for that. Because they’re responding, but they’re trying to be resilient.
I heard you're a voracious reader. Have you read anything in quarantine that’s stuck with you, for one reason or another?
Before quarantine, it was hard to have time to read a lot, but now I'm reading a lot more, which is great. [laughs] A friend recommended a piece in the New Yorker from a wonderful writer and scholar who wrote about what Shakespeare's life was like, that he lived through a number of plagues. So that piece. And then another friend said, "You should read 1599 [by James Shapiro], which is about a year in the life of William Shakespeare.” Reading that was fascinating because we're going through what people say is "once in a lifetime," "once in a hundred years." Something that's so huge. And yet in 1599, there were a number of plagues surrounding that year in Shakespeare's life. And so just reading that and learning about his life, and what the circumstances were in London around that time, gives me a little perspective.
[Another book I’m reading] is A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green. It's about West Africa, from the rise of slave trade to the age of revolution. That's absolutely fascinating reading. And then I'm reading a book called Rivers of Power by Laurence Smith, which is all about rivers. Rivers that formed civilizations, destroyed civilizations. And so again, it's about a larger context to put our present world in. I live in Cambridge, so the Charles River is right there. In New York, we have the Hudson. In Paris, where I grew up, we had the Seine. So I was surrounded by rivers, and in fact they formed this present, and archetypal landscape of my life.
So all these things, books, ideas, historical and geographic perspectives, help point the way towards possible answers to what are seemingly intractable problems. It’s like, okay, now we have these things facing us. How do we deal with it? You can turn to the experts of now but also [to] the people who've actually thought about things through not only centuries but millennia. And having perspective is huge in beginning to deal with large issues.
Because if you don't have perspective then you're stuck. Perspective actually always helps fuel the imagination. And without imagination, you don't get solutions.
That idea about imagination has come up in a lot of the other conversations I've been having, specifically about what policing in the future could look like. Or what community-based models of enforcement could look like. And it all sort of ties back to this idea that we have to imagine what doesn't exist yet.
There are so few times in our lives when we're really open. I think when we're adolescents we're pretty confused, because everything around us is changing, including ourselves. You're meeting the world for the first time and you're suddenly conscious of so much. It's confusing, but you're listening. Then if we move away and go to college, for example, in the beginning you're really open because you're meeting people your own age and you're semi-independent. And that's a huge moment. But then often when we get into jobs or whatever, you start to get more and more focused. You kind of get to regularity. And during regularity, it's hard to stay open and listen.
But this moment, I think, is actually forcing people to be open because you can't get back to regularity. It forces us to think and really consider once again: What are my assumptions about life? What are my assumptions about work? About being in the office? About a career? About having a family? What kind of world am I assuming that we live in, or that we want to work toward? Suddenly, that's another moment where we can question and obviously feel very confused, but hopefully come back to some basic first principles of: What are your values? What do you treasure?
For me, I treasure trust. You know, who do you trust? Do you trust your friends? Do you trust your institutions? Do you trust your city? Do you trust your mayor? Do you trust your public transit systems? Whatever. You can just kind of go down the list. And if so, why? And if not, why?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ