Q&A with Yo-Yo Ma: On listening to records with a beer and the unity of hope

BEER AND HOPE: Geoff Edgers and Yo-Yo Ma on Edgers's weekly Instagram Live show, "Stuck With Geoff." The Washington Post

Like so many, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers has been grounded by the coronavirus shutdown. So he decided to launch an Instagram Live show from his barn in Massachusetts.

Every Friday afternoon, Edgers hosts an hour-long interview show he calls "Stuck With Geoff." So far, guests have included singer Annie Lennox, infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and comedian Tiffany Haddish. Recently, Edgers chatted with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Question: So, you must have a record player, right?

Answer: I do. I haven't played it in a long time, but I would like to because being a tactile, multi-sensate person, and a person of a certain age, taking a record out of a sleeve and looking at the grooves and putting it on and having the stylus touch - there's a whole thing about it that's very, very attractive. And I haven't had that feeling in years, in decades.

Q: Well, if you set it up and you just tell me what you want me to bring over, I'll bring you whatever you need.

A: Sure. And you pick the beer or, you know, your coffee bean or whatever you want.

Q: I think I would drink beer with you and listen to records.

A: A good IPA or something.

Q: I like that listening to a record is very deliberate. You put on the record and listen to it, and it's not background music anymore. And when it ends, you have to probably pick it up and move the needle off it. This is what old men talk about. And you're a young man. I am an old man.

A: Well, I'm an old man, too, but I aspire toward the condition of an even older man.

Q: The last time we spoke, it almost felt like I would never get out of this barn. I'm interested in hearing how you're feeling now. You seemed hopelessly optimistic back then.

A: I tell you, Geoff, I think I believe in being philosophically optimistic. Maybe I have an optimistic bent, but I think it's so easy to get down. All I need to do is read the paper or turn on the news and I feel like, "Oh, my goodness, the world is falling apart," and maybe the world is falling apart. I'm not sure. The point is, I want to live in a world where there is hope. So I choose to do that because the alternative is untenable.

Q: You know, Woody Guthrie had his guitar and it said, on the body, "This machine kills fascists." You've been walking around with your cello, and maybe you can put your own message on the neck, "This instrument brings peace." Because you seem to pop up everywhere. Playing after getting your second vaccine shot. At a restaurant that's struggling. Is this normal for you? How have you learned "Boy, I can really be of help during a terrible moment like this"?

A: For the first time in my life, I have a sense of what a regular life is. I've never had a regular life. I've been gone most weekends. I was gone eight months out of the year for 42 years of marriage. So this is the first time in my life with my wife that I've been able to live a life where I am not stressed. Because I'm not recovering from a trip and getting nervous and stressed out about to leave. There's the other stress of the pandemic, which is a much more serious, tragic and global stress, but the personal stresses are fewer.

I've spent my life trying to be efficient about practicing, about learning things, about getting as many things done as quickly as possible when I'm on the road. But it's funny that the things that bring the greatest meaning actually are the things that are not efficient. When you're cooking a great meal or you're enjoying the meal, you're not eating as fast as possible. You're savoring, you're having a conversation. And the years that I was stressed at home, it was sort of like, "OK, do you know what you can do with the kids? Let's produce life. We've got five minutes, we've got to make 17 decisions because I'm sorry, I'm late, I have to go now." That does not lead to enjoyment or meaning. So during the pandemic, I have been able to sort of say, "Wait a minute, I can actually afford to take time to think about something through," and not say, "OK, I've got 20 minutes, I have to make a decision." That's great.

Q: You've just produced this Audible Original, "Beginner's Mind." But you've never written a memoir. Why not? I'm sure that people have been begging you to do that for years.

A: You know, my life is not so interesting to me, and in some ways, I may have been trying to escape, to just kind of move and have experiences and whatever. I don't think this Audible Original is a memoir, so to speak. But it does cover what I call "beginner's mind." Encounters. For me, as an immigrant from France to my first encounter with the United States as a 7-year-old. What is that like? Is it scary? Is it wonderful? First encounters with certain people, with Emanuel (Ax), who might be calling at any moment. And what I mean by a beginner's mind is a kind of openness without judgment. That's something that I actually, as a performer, try to get to every time before I perform. It's a very sacred, communal moment,

But also in my practice, I have to go through all the process that moves fear out of my mind, because if I'm fearful, my body language and my sound that comes out of the cello will show it, people will feel it. My wife says that if she feels I'm nervous onstage, from the first note, she immediately knows, she gets it and she gets nervous. And so if she feels I'm confident, she will actually relax and enjoy something.

Q: As we move into another part of this pandemic, this thing that has kept us inside for so long, what are you thinking of doing? I don't want any more fire pits. I don't want to stand around in 10-degree weather with my parents anymore.

A: I want to leave you with one idea. Maybe it's obvious to people, but it was not obvious to me until more recently. If we're thinking about a reset for people post-pandemic - what can give everybody legitimate hope that we could hold on to and work like crazy to go toward something in common - for me, it is about working our tails off toward an equilibrium between nature and human nature. And I mean, not that nature is an inert thing and we just appreciate it, it's beautiful. But rather working with nature so that we in all things, whether it's in journalism or in music or in science or in government or economics, actually join forces in finding a way to be in equilibrium so that we not only survive, but thrive. And I don't care what kind of government you're under. If we all work toward that from whatever system you're in, just do it. And so that's my thought.

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