‘Aren’t We Living the American Experiment?’ Yo-Yo Ma Discusses Music, Growth and Comfort

4 minute read

Where do we turn when we need comfort? For Yo-Yo Ma, it’s music. The world-famous cellist often brings his talents to the public in times of both crisis and celebration. When the coronavirus pandemic began to confine people to their homes this spring, he broke out his instrument to kick off a series of “Songs of Comfort,” shared over social media for all to enjoy.

He was driven to help in this way because of the the “trifecta of crises” that we’re living through, he said during a TIME100 Talks appearance. “It makes one do some very very deep thinking, and this is the time to do it.”

He broke it down as a weather metaphor: “I feel like we’ve just been through a blizzard,” he said. “Now the first blush, or the first trimester of this pandemic is past us, and now we’re facing a very long winter.” Ma continued: “Because we have time to think, we can actually think about the very long term. The very long term is the Ice Age. What kind of Ice Age is it going to be? Do we have a choice in how we want to live, how we want society to be as we go through this Ice Age?”

Ma has been asking big questions like this for years, on a mission to increase cross-border awareness and break down ethnocentricity: his global artistic collective Silkroad and his Bach Project have seen him travel the world and bring new talents and musical conversations to light. He also recognizes the importance of constant learning, especially now, when many industries—including his own—are reckoning with their histories of inequality.

“The most important thing is to listen and to start. Inaction is not a possibility,” he said. “Aren’t we living the American experiment? The United States is not a lockbox, to use an old Al Gore term… It’s part of an experiment. We’re constantly evolving that experiment in order to get to a more perfect union.”

Despite the pandemic’s limitations on travel, Ma has been busy. In June, he released his second collaborative album with fellow musicians Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, Not Our First Goat Rodeo. It is an apt project for this moment, he noted, because of its eclectic roots.

“There’s more and more acknowledgement that all of music is connected. That genres are not separate from one another. Music does break down ethnic identity,” he said, explaining that the album’s bluegrass sound nods to Scottish, Irish and African influence. “And here’s this great American music that is in fact a fusion, a successful fusion. Jazz is the same thing,” he said.

Ma has also doubled down on his attempts to connect with audiences through music directly, Zooming in to play for frontline hospital workers, as he told TIME, and evolving his “Songs of Comfort” series to bring in other artists in a new quest to share “Songs of Change.” “Part of what gives comfort is actually people working together and collaborating,” he added.

“If you like something, it’s in your ear, it’s in your head: you own it. It’s the ultimate bridge-builder,” he said of music’s unifying power, describing it as “energy” that drives a reaction.

Reactions can take many forms. “The pandemic forces us to react immediately. I think the Black Lives Matter issues force us to react immediately. But also react and think deeply about the long term, and what is the systemic part of the change that needs to be,” he said.

Ma also performed the song “Appalachia Waltz” for TIME100 Talks, and premiered the music video for his song “Waltz Whitman” from Not Our First Goat Rodeo.

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com