Gwen tended not to make New Year’s resolutions. “Why should the start of a calendar year be the one time we make self-improvements?” she always wondered, aloud, towards Dania and Eleanor.
Still, self-improvement has to happen sometime, and Gwen typically made her resolutions, if any, around her birthday. This year, along with specific goals for health and wellness, she also resolved to generally diversify the music she listened to while working. Jazz had been a staple since high school, but now –– she declared –– was the time to begin branching out. More classical music! She knew the composers but rarely sampled their work.
This was why, when Dania glanced over her shoulder one day, she saw not the typical music library pulled up the “JAZZ FOR STUDYING” playlist, but instead a YouTube video of an older, Chinese man playing the cello.
“Yo-Yo Ma?” Dania asked aloud, breaking the reverie of Bach suites in Gwen’s ears.
“Hm?” Gwen took her headphones off, before clocking what Dania had said.
“That is Yo-Yo Ma, right?” Dania pointed again to the screen, where Ma’s body contorted around his instrument, in perfect synchronicity with the piece.
“Yes, yes,” Gwen said. “Have you listened to his Bach suites?”
“I have. A lot, actually.”
Gwen was taken aback. “Really?” she asked, pausing the video to give Dania space to explain.
“Sure, my father loves him,” Dania said. “We had the original ‘Unaccompanied Cello Suites’ he made in the 80s. My father would play them when people came over to the house, as a background noise.”
“It was usually people older than me, so I ended up just listening to them a lot.” Dania smiled, a slight blush filling her cheeks. “I got my father the new recordings Yo-Yo Ma made of the suites last year, for his birthday.”
Gwen couldn’t help but smile. “I didn’t realize you were so acquainted with Yo-Yo Ma.”
“Just the music,” Dania clarified. “I know nothing about the guy himself.”
“Have you ever watched him perform?” Gwen clicked back to the video of Ma, in his virtuosic run through the full set of suites, live, at the BBC Proms in 2015.
“I’ve seen a few videos,” Dania said. “He did an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, I saw that.”
“Of course he did,” Gwen smirked. “I really adore how casual he is about his art, and his incredible proficiency at it.”
The pair sat idly as four-year-ago Ma swung, swayed, and scuttled his way through Bach’s 2nd –– the camera flowing up from the bow caressing the strings, up to Ma’s conforting facial expressions as he seemed to mold each phrase with a new expression.
“He’s definitely one of the only classical musicians I know by name,” Dania agreed. “Even without the personal connection.”
“He holds a unique sort of cultural ubiquity, doesn’t he?” Gwen asked. “Considering how the people in classical music who gain fame are so often the visually expressive ones: your Dudamels, your Pavorattis. Most people’s first exposure to Yo-Yo Ma might be through recordings or radio, and yet he persists.”
“Well, when you’re this talented…” Dania gestured back to the video, where Ma’s cello –– a 1733 Montagnana named Petunia, valued at close to $2.5 million –– seemed to be nothing more than an extension of his unfrail body, turning and twisting melodies out into the Royal Albert Hall.
“When you’ve collaborated with as many artists as he has,” Gwen pointed out. “The Wikipedia entry for his discography goes on and on and on.”
“Maybe that’s it, he’s just everywhere,” said Dania. “If you hear an excellent cello solo, I think people just assume it must be him at this point.”
“It wouldn’t be an unsafe bet,” Gwen remarked.
She had opened the page in question, and scrolled through decade after decade of recordings, with collaborators from every genre and era imaginable within the industry. Bobby McFerrin, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, James Taylor, Itzhak Perlman…
“Who are the Silk Road Ensemble?” Dania asked.
“Oh, I enjoy them a lot,” Gwen said, following the link. “It’s basically this massive musicians’ collective that Ma organizes. They collaborate every few years on a new album, usually of traditional songs from all over the world. I found them while searching for Ma.”
Gwen tabbed over to the familiar music library on her computer, showing the album Sing Me Home, a 2016 release by Yo-Yo Ma and the Ensemble. “This is my favorite one, it’s got this enormous range of talented artists. Not to mention Roomful of Teeth collaborates on the opening track, and I love anything they…”
“Will you airdrop this album to me?” Dania asked, already walking towards her room to grab her laptop.
Gwen smiled again, still shocked to be making this connection with Dania. “Certainly.”
– – – – –
“Wait, how did you find out about it?”
“Dania told me!” Eleanor responded. She turned to look at Dania, now doubled over laughing on the couch. “Nay, she demanded that I listen to it, basically because she knew that we would have to discuss it.”
“Oh, so you set us up for conversation, did you?” Gwen clarified, with mocking pride.
“Okay, tell me I’m wrong!” Dania laughed. “Tell me that neither of you have any sort of critical opinion on the album.”
“Well, of course we do!” Eleanor said. Her arms folded as she sat down. “Who do you think we are?”
“Then what’s the problem?” asked Dania. “Oh, oh, these things have to come up naturally, do they?”
Everyone was laughing at this point –– at the serendipity of their collective consumption of the album, or at their unspoken traditions after two years of living together.
“So what do you think?!” Dania finally shouted, above the din.
“I think it’s a wonderful album!” Eleanor cheered. “I love the variety in the song choices: some from Europe, others from East Asia, and South Asia. And the one American song at the end.”
“But all performed like they were folk music, right?” Dania added. “Like, the way the music is orchestrated, with instruments from everywhere. That was the least European performance of an Irish march I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s certainly a new experience to hear a cavalry march with a kamancheh and shakuhachi in the background,” Gwen commented. “It really takes the phrase ‘world music’ and finally gives it an actual meaning, besides ‘non-western.’”
“What about the one that starts out sounding Japanese, and then turns into a country song?” Dania asked. “With the singer. ‘Little Birdie?’”
“Yes, yes yes yes,” Eleanor said, sitting up brighter. “I love that one, so much. Super catchy.”
“It’s a good example of one of the things the album does so well: rhythmic irregularity,” Gwen said.
Eleanor thought through the song; a standard cut-time yarn about love lost. “Is it that irregular?” she wondered.
“Well, maybe not the best example, but one that serves,” Gwen clarified. “There’s a recurring theme in the album where the music will suddenly and immediately take strange rhythmic twists, cutting off the last beats of phrases or shortening some verses to half-length, just to keep the audience on their toes.”
“Well, don’t get Eurocentric,” Eleanor warned. “Not every culture standardizes their music to a 4/4 time signature, so some ‘irregularity’ is very much built in.”
“Exactly,” said Gwen. “Throw everything together, and vary the orchestrations to masque the origin of each track, and you end up with a song that constantly flits around, daring the listener to guess its origin.”
“I like ‘Little Birdie’ a lot, for sure,” Dania said. “Definitely a favorite. But if you’re gonna talk varying the style and speed, you should be talking about ‘Shingashi Song.’ That track slaps.”
“That one is a journey,” Eleanor said. “It almost starts out sounding like the Irish march, right? But then by the end, it’s a battle on a roaring sea.”
“’Wedding’ has a similar build towards the end,” Gwen observed. “The intro sounds like it’s about to be a fusion jazz track, but then they bring out the klezmer key changes and patterns, and it’s so obvious that it’s much more than that.”
“Fusion is a good word, honestly,” Eleanor said. “For what the album does, for what Silk Road Ensemble does –– for what Yo-Yo Ma does, to a point, bringing greater crossover to classical music.”
“And klezmer was one of the original inspirations that became jazz in the first place!” continued Gwen. “The album is this tree of musical history that’s been cut down, and it lets you see all the rings that lead up to the present day.”
“Did you just listen to the album, or did you watch the videos, too?” Dania asked.
“There are videos?” Eleanor asked. Her hands shot to her phone.
“Definitely, Gwen said.
“Do you have a favorite?” Dania lead.
“Tough call,” mused Gwen, tapping her chin. “The one for ‘Going Home’ is visually stunning, since you get to watch the interactions between a handful of gifted musicians.”
Dania smiled. “Any other video?”
Gwen considered, confused. “Is there a right answer? There are only three, or so.”
“Oh, they have a cover of ‘Heart And Soul?’” Eleanor asked, finding the video.
Dania’s shoulders shot up. “The video for ‘Heart And Soul’ is so cute!’”
“We’re watching,” Eleanor said, pressing play.
The video, as promised, was filmed in a studio session with the artists, and prominently featured the close connection between vocalists Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter –– an adorable pair, to be certain. While Eleanor and Dania cooed over the singers, Gwen kept an eye on the diverse collection of musicians congregated in the studio, all of whom got caught for a moment by the camera. Sitting in the center of them, filmed with as much prominence as anyone else, was Yo-Yo Ma.
“Look at him in the middle there,” Gwen pointed out. “That man is arguably the best cello player on Earth, and his ego? Nonexistent.”
“Maybe that’s sort of why he has that ubiquity you were talking about before, Gwen,” Dania said. “As talented as his is, he always still feels like a human. Not some perfectly trained robot.”
“That’s it,” Gwen said. “The humanity. The sense that yes, anyone can be this good at an instrument if you practice hard and long enough. It’s not an unreachable gift. It’s acquired knowledge.”
“I mean, you could technically get that from anyone in the video,” Eleanor pointed out. “Yo-Yo Ma is just the most famous out of them.”
“Well,” Dania said, agreeing with Eleanor’s point. “How kind of him, then, to share the spotlight.”
Image Source: Foundation for Economic Education