Yo-Yo Ma and musicians speak to IU students on link between culture, economics and the arts

Yo-Yo Ma performs

Yo-Yo Ma performs with members of the Silk Road Ensemble at IU’s School of Global and International Studies auditorium.

Guest post courtesy of Chuck Carney, director of communication and marketing at IU’s School of Global and International Studies: 

Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a group of musicians gave a special presentation to students at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies this morning about art and its connection to economics and culture. Ma gave the free talk and performance along with six other performers in a program titled “Musical Perspectives on Culture.”

Ma and his ensemble mixed live performance with a discussion of the music’s meaning for students and others who filled the auditorium of the new Global and International Studies Building. The musicians performed six musical selections from a variety of cultural influences, composers and time periods. Ma asked his audience to open themselves to hearing what is in the music, saying that the arts and humanities require a “childlike wonder.”

“Childlike wonder is essential for musicians,” Ma said. “They require the courage to be vulnerable and the capacity to wonder. That leads us to innovation and invention.”

Yo-Yo Ma speaks to IU SGIS students

Ma talks about world music at the SGIS auditorium. Photo by Eric Rudd, IU Communications.

Such wonder with the arts, he said, can bring solutions to bear on the world’s most difficult problems.

“We are tempted to consider solutions in very narrow political or economic terms,” Ma said. “It is openness that brings opportunity.”

The IU Auditorium is hosting the world-premiere performance of Ma’s newest collaborative concert series, “Musical Perspectives on the Cultures of BRIC: a Silkroad Collaboration,” at 8 p.m. today. The concert itself focuses on music of the “Big Four” countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China. They are called the “BRIC” countries by economists and are considered to be in similar stages of new economic development. The BRIC concert series expands on how changing economic times can create unusual conflicts when aligning rich cultural history and tradition with modern aesthetics.

Ma and the members of his ensemble performed part of the program for IU School of Global and International Studies students and spoke about the roots of the music. Ma, Kathryn Stott, Sérgio and Odair Assad, Johnny Gandelsman, Wu Tong and Sandeep Das have been in Bloomington rehearsing for their debut show and the upcoming tour.

“Ma and the Silk Ensemble travel the world to celebrate both our differences and our commonalities as global citizens,” IU SGIS Dean Lee Feinstein told Ma in an introduction to the group. “We at SGIS and Indiana University are immensely honored to form a section of the glorious world orchestra you’ve devoted your life to assembling.”

Yo-Yo Ma and IUSGIS Dean Lee Feinstein

Ma chats with IU SGIS Dean Lee Feinstein. Photo by Eric Rudd, IU Communications.

Throughout the discussion, Ma dissected the music for his audience, discussing how slight accents on certain beats and notes comprise the sound of a particular cultural influence. He noted in the opening piece an accent common in Brazilian music. In a piece by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, he pointed out that moving a note by an eighth of a beat gave it a wistful, Russian sound. Other pieces, Ma explained, combined American tradition with North Indian music and African rhythms with jazz.

Such combinations illustrate the openness Ma said we should bring to listening, allowing the cultural influences to come through. He said he first discovered this when he was a child, something that calmed his fears as his family moved from France to the U.S. On a larger scale, he said such openness can have a positive effect as the world goes through change.

“Openness goes hand-in-hand with empathy,” Ma said, noting that a piece the ensemble performed was 1,800 years old but still felt contemporary. “That’s how culture helps us transcend distance both in space and time. Taken together, wonder, openness and empathy have an incredibly powerful effect on culture. They’re an antidote to fear and darkness.”

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