'Yo-Yo's midlife crisis'
Shadowing the past: Yo-Yo Ma's new work
(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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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