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'Yo-Yo's midlife crisis'

Shadowing the past: Yo-Yo Ma's new work

iconIn his live CNN chat with us on Thursday, Grammy-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma called the Silk Road the "Internet of antiquity." Click here for more from a fine cello-chat.  

March 14, 2001
Web posted at: 2:59 p.m. EST (1959 GMT)

In this story:

'So scared'

'Learning curve high'

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(CNN) -- "I sort of follow the liberal-arts dictum that your education doesn't end after college. The whole idea is that we all want to stick to the knitting, the things we do best in our careers. But I think what I want to do in music is find out how you make something come alive, a contextual thing -- how do you make something come alive when it was written yesterday, today, whenever.

graphic Yo-Yo Ma talks of the learning never stopping in his work -- how important is that in your career?

It's central to my work.
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"I want to make sure there's an intact world the audience can enter into, go on a trip, come back and have perspective. And, of course, what's happening now in Afghanistan is precisely one of the reasons to do this kind of work."

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has stopped laughing. And that's rare.

In the middle of a chortling conversation about tonight's inaugural effort in his Silk Road Project, the artist goes quiet, his voice filled with exasperation about the Taleban destruction of ancient statues in Afghanistan.

"Of course we mourn for all the Afghans who have been killed" in the ruling Taleban militia's rise to power since the early 1990s, Ma says, "but we also mourn for this kind of action. It's very wanton."

Taleban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal says demolition of the two huge pre-Islamic Buddhas was almost complete Monday, at the cliffs of Bamiyan -- once a stop on the ancient Silk Road that linked Europe and Asia. The statues, says Taleban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, were deemed by the Taleban to "directly contradict our beliefs." The stone figures were some 2,000 years old and have become sudden icons for the music project that Ma calls his latest ... "harebrained Yo-Yo idea."


'So scared'

He's laughing again. And looking forward to walking his own new Silk Road when tonight he and kamancheh ("kim-ahn-CHAY") master Kayhan Kalhor take to New York City's Avery Fisher Hall stage for the world premiere of Kalhor's "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur." The kamancheh is the traditional classical Persian bowed lute. And Neyshabur is the Iranian town that was important in the fifth century as the residence of the Sasanian King Yazdegerd II.

Yo-Yo Ma

Career: Cellist
Discography: Includes close to 50 albums
Records for: Sony Classical
Grammys: 13
Born: 1955 to Chinese parents in Paris
Began studying cello: Age 4, with father
Education: The Juilliard School (studied with Leonard Rose), graduated Harvard University 1976
New initiative: The Silk Road Project, developing and promoting work that echoes the traditions of the ancient Silk Road region and cultures
Performances this week:
•   "Through the Ancient Valley," world premiere of Richard Danielpour's composition
•   "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur," world premiere of Kayhan Kahlor's composition, with Kahlor playing the kamancheh
•   Scheherazade, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
•   Performances are with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, through Saturday, Music Director Kurt Masur conducting

Ma will also premiere composer Richard Danielpour's "Through the Ancient Valley," in which the kamancheh is to be played from a balcony along with other offstage instruments.

"I was so scared, setting up the Silk Road Project," Ma says with another laugh at himself. "But this is how you keep pushing. I had no idea about the kamancheh, believe me. And yet in doing this, I'm learning. Who knows what sounds I'll remember from working with Kayhan?"

So it is that the cellist's Silk Road Project is less a program of preservation than of discovery. Ma, whose work currently is heard in cinemas in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is basing his Silk Road exploration on the Old World trading route along which silk moved westward and gold traveled east.

In his project, Ma wants to explore the cultural genius -- aesthetic echoes, intellectual traditions -- of the Silk Road. And in doing so, he's simply walking a new stretch of long road in his acclaimed career.

"That's my training," he says. "It's the mystery of looking at work. Who wrote it? What were they trying to tell us? Then we say, 'This is what we've discovered about this thing. Now how do we help the audience know this in the hall? How do we make it work? Will they get it?' We want people to remember something of it the next day.

Hey, did you miss your chance above? Don't worry -- here's another chance to get to the transcript of the fine live CNN chat with Yo-Yo Ma and our users from Thursday about his career in music, the Silk Road Project -- and when is his next album due out? "I don't know! I never know ... I'm the last to know." Click on the downbeat, please.

"I was so lucky to have one of the great teachers," Luise Voskerchian, who died last year. "She gave me the tools to take any piece of music and figure out, more or less, where the composer was going with it. Through the simplest elements.

"In music, there's enough vocabulary that you can always figure it out. It ends at some point. It starts at some point. Between them, someplace, is where you go deep inside the piece, then go backward to find out how you got there."


'Learning curve high'

These new commissions, music resulting from this sort of study of Middle and Near Eastern aesthetics in the Silk Road Project, hold more firsts than just the premiere performances of new work.

Not Yo-Yo's cello: This is a kamancheh, the bowed lute of Persian origin being played by Kayhan Kahlor in the Silk Road Project concerts this week  

"Kayhan has never played with an orchestra," Ma says. "Richard (Danielpour) has written one cello concerto -- he's writing differently because he's on his second one.

"When you keep your learning curve high, you go outside your realm, consider values that are scary -- and learn something very specific. I don't know what it's like to do a concert this way. In timing, structure."

But if Ma really finds the values and experience of the Silk Road Project scary, you'd never know it from his laughter.

"What you can really call this," he says, "is my second college. It's Yo-Yo's mid-life crisis. I was trying to get the red convertible, you know, but my wife said, 'You're such a bad driver, you're not getting the convertible.'

The man is now so cracked up at the thought that he can barely keep talking. "The funny part is that after a couple of years of this project, my wife may be saying, 'You know, Yo-Yo, you should have gotten that convertible.'

"Maybe I'll end up driving the red convertible down the Silk Road."

Thursday evening's concert is scheduled to be broadcast nationally as part of the monthly radio series "AOL Time Warner Presents: The New York Philharmonic Live!" Consult your local listings for times and radio stations. AOL Time Warner is the parent company of CNN.


Taleban ousts BBC over interview
March 14, 2001
Photos document destruction of Afghan Buddhas
March 12, 2001
Giant Afghan Buddhas destroyed, Taleban says
March 11, 2001
"The Players," a series of profiles at CNN Career -- this week: Judy LeClair, New York Philharmonic bassoonist
March 1, 2001

The New York Philharmonic
Sony's Yo-Yo Ma site

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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