Monday, September 19, 2011

Talking to Yo-Yo Ma

I recently interviewed Yo-Yo Ma for the Financial Times. The article is now published, but here is the original version. It goes without saying that this was an honour to do, but it turned out also to be a huge pleasure, as Yo-Yo is so engaging, unaffected and thoughtful – it’s easy to see why the UN selected him as a Peace Ambassador. From what I’ve heard so far, his new CD is pretty fabulous too. Forgive me if I’m sounding too much the fanboy here – he’s just a very nice bloke.

When Yo-Yo Ma was asked to identify a private passion for this article, Sony sent back the message ‘Yo-Yo Ma is interested in everything.’ I’d have happily discussed Everything with Ma, and initially he seems determined to make that happen. His first question to me (were we doing this thing the right way round?) is about the latest technology for splitting water to make hydrogen as a fuel, a trick borrowed from photosynthesis in plants. This turns out to be an offshoot of his interest in water and rivers, a topic that could evidently have engaged us throughout the short time I was allotted in Ma’s frantic schedule during his visit to London for a performance at the Proms.

In view of all this, it comes as no surprise to discover that Ma’s fascination with neuroscience – this is what I’m allegedly there to discuss – is not a hobby like jam-making or long-distance running, but is merely one of the many facets of what begins to emerge as his grand vision: to foster a creative society. One might even be forgiven for suspecting that the music-making for which Ma enjoys world renown happens almost by chance to be the avenue through which he pursues this goal. It could equally, perhaps, have been anthropology, which Ma studied at university.

As Ma began playing the cello at age 4, however, it seems unlikely that his musical career left much to chance. A child prodigy, he performed before Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He then studied at the renowned Juilliard School in New York City before completing a liberal arts degree at Harvard. What followed is the kind of glittering career that all too readily becomes a numbing litany of awards and accolades that have left Ma described as ‘one of the most recognizable classical musicians on the planet’. He was the natural choice to take Pablo Casals’ part when the concert for Kennedy’s inauguration, at which Casals performed, was restaged for its 50th anniversary last January.

So far, so conventionally awe-inspiring. But the stereotype of the stratospheric virtuoso doesn’t last a moment once Ma appears, fresh from premiering Graham Fitkin’s intense Cello Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall – written for Ma – the night before. Isn’t he too young, for starters? (56 in October, since you ask.) And instead of gravitas or world-weariness, he has a boyish enthusiasm for, well, everything.

But I shouldn’t be surprised that Ma is no remote creature of the highbrow concert circuit. He has appeared on Sesame Street and (in cartoon form) on The Simpsons, he can be heard on the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he is a UN Peace Ambassador. He has performed with Sting and Bobby McFerrin, and his latest CD is a bluegrass collaboration, The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

I’m not meant to be talking about any of that, though – the topic on the table is neuroscience. We’ll get there, but there’s a broader agenda: to unite the notorious Two Cultures of C. P. Snow. Ma has been reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, which describes how Keats, Coleridge and Shelley shared with Humphry Davy and William Herschel a passion for the marvels and mysteries of the natural world. “This is what happened in the 1800s”, Ma says. “Maybe we’re in another point in time where we actually need both specialists and generalists. The word amateur used to be a positive term. Nowadays if you’re an amateur, you’re a dilettante, you’re not serious.”

I profess my own exhilaration at Holmes’ demand that we should be impatient with “the old, rigid debates and boundaries” – that we need “a wider, more generous, more imaginative” way of writing about science that can locate it within the rest of culture. “That’s exactly what I’d hope for,” Ma agrees. “I love quoting [Nobel laureate physicist Richard] Feynman, who said that nature has a much greater imagination than humans, but she guards her secrets jealously. So his job as a scientist is to unlock some of those secrets, and interpret them for you. That’s what music tries to do. If I’m trying to describe something that someone else wrote, I have to get into that world and then I have to find a way to ensure that what I think is there lives in you also.”

Perhaps neuroscience can create bridges because the brain is the crucible within which art, science and all of culture are forged, presumably with the same tools. This is the seat of the creativity that we channel into discovery and expression: looking out and looking in. For Ma, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on homeostasis expresses something of where these creative impulses come from. Homeostasis is the tendency of all living things to maintain the internal conditions necessary for their continuation, and Damasio considers all non-conscious aspects of this self-preservation to be forms of emotion, whether they are basic reflexes, immune responses or ‘emotions-proper’ such as joy. “Life forms are always looking for homeostasis, equilibrium”, says Ma. So behaviours that promote it are responding to a need. “That made a lot of sense to me.”

His experiences among the Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa, who he visited for a documentary 15 years after he had studied them in his anthropology courses, convinced him that music can perform that function in many ways. “They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.” It’s there because it fulfils fundamental needs. “Sound is one of our basic senses, so everyone uses sound to its maximum advantage: to promotes things that lead to homeostasis.”

But how does that magic work? I suggest that music is exploiting our instincts to make sense of our environment, to look for patterns, to develop hypotheses about our environment. It’s setting us puzzles. Ma is fascinated by how the brain’s plasticity ensures we have the capacity to solve them, to convert sensory data into a viable model of the world. “A newborn sees everything essentially upside down. But its brain is constantly interpreting what is being received, and at some stage it will just decide to turn all the information around.”

I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), on the somatic component of the brain – that we are not Descartes’ disembodied mental homunculus directing a physical body, but that instead the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental well-being is under-appreciated. “That’s our largest organ.”

Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based so much of our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.”

And this is about much more than intellectual transmission. It has to be packaged with emotion. “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.” According to Damasio, there’s a deeper function of passion too. He challenged decades if not centuries of preconception about rationality by showing that emotion plays a vital part in it. Far from being a distraction, emotion is often the lubricant of good decision-making: when it is lacking, as in some people with mental impairments or deficits, the ability to make sound choices – or any choices at all – can evaporate.

He doesn’t want to stop. With his manager giving a gentle yet determined signal that our time is up, he exhorts me to ask one more question. So – how can music be made central to education, rather than an option at the periphery? His response makes the big vision a little more concrete: it is about finding ways to communicate ideas in a manner that yields the greatest harvest of creativity. “There is nothing more important today than to find a way to be knowledge-based creative societies. My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it’s memorable. It’s great if a person buys the CD or a ticket to the concert, but its only when the ideas are passed on that your job is done. If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there’s really not much point in you having been there – or me, for that matter. Now, isn’t that the purpose of education too? That’s when I realised that education and culture are the same. Once something is memorable, it’s living and you’re using it. That to me is the foundation of a creative society.”

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