Ma, an internationally renowned American cellist and 15-time Grammy Award winner, has been playing cello since 1959, when he was 4 years old. Just two years after he'd begun playing, he was being introduced by famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein to a large Washington, D.C., audience that included President John F. Kennedy.
Music helps satisfy curiosity about world
Ma was born in Paris, France, to Chinese parents. The family moved to America when he was 4 years old. Ma struggled early on with the fact that each of these three cultures claimed superiority over the others.
"So I grew up pretty confused, thinking, 'Well, adults must obviously know a lot more than I do, but they can't all be right,'" he recalls. "So my strategy in dealing with all this was to say, 'Well, maybe they're all right some of the time - but not necessarily all the time.' So that kind of keeps me curious about the world. "
Ma says the world of music offers a wonderful way to satisfy that curiosity, because music, he says, is essentially about "voice."
"The way I was trained was to find the 'voice' of the composer [and to ask myself], 'Who is that person? And why does that person do what he or she does?' And, of course, a lot of the music I am involved in was created in a very different place, at a very different time."
Ma offers the Lutheran world in which the early 18th-century German composer J.S. Bach wrote as an example of a place where "balance" was a key value in the arts, as in religion.
"…yet Bach [was] also trying to elbow and find the edges of that world. Or you [can] go to [the world of the Soviet-era Russian composer Dmitri] Shostakovich who, I think, was such a witness for the era he lived through..." Ma says.
Years spent exploring culture through sound
Many of the 100 or so albums Ma has released explore non-classical genres. He takes obvious delight in the popular music of Cole Porter, for example. He has collaborated on several projects with his friend, the singer Bobby McFerrin and has concentrated on the film scores of the Italian composer Ennio Morricone.
Ma is also deeply interested in anthropology, which he studied at Harvard, and the ways humans use music to express their cultural identity and values.
"There is an authenticity in sound that is, perhaps, on the one hand, less precise than words," he says. "In another way, it includes a lot of unconscious background. In intonation, in tone, you hear the primal and the motivations behind it."
Ma has spent much of his career exploring some of the world's most far-flung musical cultures, highlighting their underlying commonalities and savoring their differences. His Silk Road Ensemble, which he helped found in 1998, showcases the cultural traditions of the ancient trade route that extends from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean.
For Ma, expression is ultimate goal of music
But Ma says finding and understanding his own musical voice was a goal it took him years to achieve. When he was young, Ma tried to mimic the sound of his cello teacher, the great Leonard Rose, and the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, to no avail. At 19, he spent an entire year practicing for what he hoped would be a "perfect" recital in New York. His technique was indeed superb, but he says he felt boredom because he was not personally "committed to the moment."
"So that was a moment of epiphany," he recalls. He realized then that, "Perfection is always a desired goal, but it cannot be a primary goal. Expression has to be the primary goal, because otherwise, there is no need for an actual person to be there."
"One thing I love about music is that in a performance you actually have to give the totality of what you know that moment. It's not what you hope to achieve… and you can't backtrack."
"Rather," he adds, "you have to put yourself on the line and declare yourself: 'This is who I am. I am strong. I am vulnerable. I am sentimental. I am objective. I am mortal. I am trying to not be mortal, but I fail.' It is all those human struggles that you actually have to deliver at a certain moment… Essentially, it demands that you try your very best."