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Yo-Yo Ma’s heartfelt call to action to artists during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic can make us feel small, or hopeless, but Yo-Yo Ma says artists, musicians especially, have a role in this crisis to help lift each other up.

Now is the best time to make a personal connection with an audience of one, the cellist said, “because as a musician, your job — our job — is to actually move one person at a time.”

Ma’s call to action for artists starts simple: Pick someone. Record yourself performing a song for them or making whatever art you’d like. Add a personal message. Hit send.

During this time of crisis, Ma has been providing solace through his #SongsOfComfort project, connecting people through music online. Despite a global pandemic putting a damper on live music, theater, or any type of performance, Ma believes it’s also a time when musicians, poets and painters can reflect on why and for whom they make art. Part of building our collective resilience in this crisis, Ma said, is “making sure that no matter what you do, you’re trying to do something in the service of somebody else.”


From his home, Yo-Yo Ma performed “Love Theme,” co-written by the late Italian composer Ennio Morricone for the 1988 film “Cinema Paradiso.” Video by PBS NewsHour

Ma is also releasing new music — recorded pre-pandemic — at a time when he and other musicians aren’t able to perform in front of a live audience. (A Taylor Swift concert still provides a different experience than listening to an album alone, Ma noted.) His new album, “Not Our First Goat Rodeo,” is a collaboration with Americana musicians Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, nine years after the group recorded their first album together.

Ma spoke with the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz about what it’s like to release an album right now, the future of live performance in the COVID era, and why he encourages anyone to write, make music or create art at this time.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about “Not Our First Goat Rodeo.” You brought the band back together after nine years. Why now?

When we first got together, we were so excited to be able to make music together in a way that is, in so many ways, ideal. Everybody has great respect for one another. Their egos are checked at the door because it’s total and creative fun. I think the musicians that I’m working with are some of the greatest people I’ve ever met, in terms of not only technical virtuosic ability, but head and heart. They’ve got both going so strong. Imagine working with people with very strong egos who actually all have their egos in the right place, not in front, and never picking on each other’s vulnerabilities, just willing to try everything with the highest standard and laughing all the way.


The official music video for the song “The Trappings” from the new album “Not Our First Goat Rodeo.”

So, nine years later, we’re saying it’s “not our first goat rodeo,” meaning a sense of people coming together in a chaotic situation, but then finding a way through. And that’s kind of how music is made: You put so many jumbled thoughts, feelings and ideas together. I think we thought about doing this right after the first time and it took nine years to get us back together again, because everybody is so incredibly busy. But they nevertheless made time to make this album.

What’s it been like to introduce new music to the world at this time?

I think people are always thinking and doing things, whether they’re physically together or not. Yes, our lives are on hold. I’m at home, I’m with my wife every day. She looks at me in the morning, noon, night, sort of “still the same guy there,” not going away. It’s kind of a blessing because life is never like this. But we then use what’s available to us — zooming, making music, and sending music around — because that’s one of the things people need, and I see that in the next not-such-a-long-period of time, the idea of drive-in concerts. People are experimenting with that idea. I know there was a comedian who actually did stand-up comedy in New Jersey for a thousand cars. Instead of applause, people just honked and flashed their lights because stand-up comedians need an audience, a live audience. The idea is we want to be together. We can find ways to do it. Drive-ins are actually part of our culture. A friend of mine, we’re thinking of going on flatbed trucks and going into communities and trying things out. But it’s possible. And I think the four of us [for “Not Our First Goat Rodeo”] will do live performances, or we might do things online. I think whatever we do, the attempt will be made to reach out to people because music is a service. I think we need it, we need each other. So if people want it, we will be there in one form or another.

Whether it’s a giant concert hall or a small, more intimate venue, do you as a performer miss being in front of people and presenting them with that music and watching how they receive it?

Tell you the truth, I think that I’m so used to performing in front of live audiences, but also so used to recording — and I think the two are slightly different — but I have to say that being live allows us to use all of our senses. So music is energy, it moves air molecules, and it touches our skin — we see it. We feel it. So much of music is physical, but also ephemeral — the sixth sense that we have about one another, the chemistry we feel for one another. My wife always says if she feels I’m nervous, she immediately gets nervous in the audience because she has that tactile reaction. And you go to a Taylor Swift concert, and you see people just going crazy because she’s close by, and that kind of chemistry is palpable. And that doesn’t happen virtually, even though you get physically, in terms of sound, the same things, and you can get a visual, but you can’t feel the atmosphere. And so, I think in that sense, it’s like sports events. We’re going to see live sports events. But is it the same as being in the stadium?

We should mention that over the summers you do perform at Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts and all of those concerts series have been moved online now.

Yes.

So for you to perform in this way, is there something different that you do to prepare or the way that you present the music? I mean, what is that experience like for you?

I think intention is everything. Again, we pick up not just words from people or sounds from people, we pick up tiny little cues, you know, body language. I’m sure you’re so aware of, as a person who is broadcasting, what the effect of what you say or act or move has on the person that’s listening to you. And I think I don’t do that very well, but I try to actually focus as intensely as I can because these things — the whole idea of learning technique for cellists like me — is to transcend it so that you don’t think about technique. You’re thinking about, what is this person saying? What is the meaning of what someone would say?

Long term, are you worried about a decline in support for the arts? At a time when a lot of people’s priorities are shifting to much more immediate needs, right? Especially at this time, we’ve seen efforts in other countries like the UK government, for example, offering billions of dollars to support the arts to make sure that they remain supported. Are you worried about that here in the United States?

I think at one level, absolutely. There is the crisis that is hitting everybody in terms of who does not have a job. And you can only have a certain amount of bailouts, and we have to pay for it. So what is it? What service do musicians, poets or actors or illustrators or designers have on people’s well-being? I’m not worried in the long term because if the economy is there to create value, culture and the arts are there to create values and to sustain values. And so, when we’re in crisis, what everybody is asking us to do is to be resilient. And what creates resilience? It’s when we go back to our basic values. And the values of making sure you tell the truth. Making sure that whatever you do, you are building trust. And then to making sure that no matter what you do, you’re trying to do something in the service of somebody else because that’s why you’re on Earth.

So, if we actually — all of us — follow those values, I don’t worry about a thing. This is a moment where actually we can take stock, and that’s why people are saying we need a reset. That’s why people are saying that this is actually a good moment to consider what kind of world we actually want to live in, and to serve certain needs, things need to be changed. Well, what does it take? How do I give from substance to actually create a better world in this great American experiment?

In this moment when there are so many people who are going through that crisis, I’d like you to talk to the musicians out there, the ones who were working gig to gig before the pandemic, who have seen all those gigs dry up, who don’t know if this is sustainable moving forward. What is it you would say to them in this moment?

What I would say is that for anybody who owns a smartphone — and I hope most musicians do — is to actually practice the “one-on-one principle,” because as a musician, your job — our job — is to actually move one person at a time. So pick a person that you know, or maybe you don’t know, but let’s say that you know, that may need what you do as a service. Maybe it’s someone who’s healthy, maybe someone who’s ill, maybe it’s a child who has been stuck at home. Pick what you think is the right thing to play for them. Make it personal, because it’s always personal, and record it with a little message and send it to them.

I would start there and build from there, because if all musicians did that, if all actors would just say to someone, “You know, I thought of a poem for you.” “I’m a painter. You know what, I just drew something for you. Because I know you love this color. I know you’ve always talked about this thing, and so I just thought I made this little drawing for you. Would you treasure that?” I hope so. I hope the answer is yes, because that’s the first principle of music. Your first principles in science, the first principles in everything. But now we’re getting down to the first principles of what you and I can share together. And it’s that important. That’s how we rebuild our humanity. Yes, we can go abstract and say, “Yes, we need policy, [or] whatever,” that’s systemic, that’s long term. That’s 30 years. But people want to do things now. So create the value of that one-on-one for each musician, for each actor, for each poet, for each artist to say, “Pick a person. Pick a person a day.”

That was such a beautiful answer. I am so sorry. And I know why that made me tear up when you were talking about it. That was so lovely.

Because it’s personal.

It absolutely is, it is.


“Beyond the CANVAS” showcases some of the nation’s leading cultural creators — musicians, playwrights, comedians, among many others — who show us how they turn their visions of the world into art. Watch the new series, every Sunday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on PBS or streaming on artscanvas.org.

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