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Yo-Yo Ma Looks at Music Like It’s DNA

The first music you ever performed was Bach, and now you’re playing his cello suites on a solo tour and recently released an album of his compositions. Why do you keep returning to him?

At each stage of your life, you go back and discover new things. The way I understand Bach now is with the analogy of a river. It’s like you’re touching a living stream of water that keeps flowing, and by touching it or listening to it or playing it, you are in touch with something much bigger than yourself. It changes from day to day, from season to season and from year to year.

A pillar of your tour is the concept of a “culture of us.” What does that mean?

Culture can no longer just be tribal. Because what we each do–which we think benefits us in the short term–actually impacts all of us in the long term. What can we do together that we can’t do alone? I’m committing to going to these 36 communities and getting to know them, connecting with their most vulnerable citizens and the citizens who are helping one another. In Denver, we celebrated an initiative to give musical instruments to every child in the state. Now that’s pretty cool.

Does being an immigrant influence your music?

We’re all immigrants, right? The First Nation people were immigrants. But what the immigrant perspective means is you know at least two places very well, which means you can actually put two places in your head at the same time. That’s what builds imagination. I need only point out that Google and Apple have co-founders that are either immigrants or first generation. That immigrant imagination allows them to see further into possibilities that don’t really exist

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