Music and the Arc of Life: Exclusive Interview with Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott

Crossover Media is proud to launch its Medium existence presenting an exclusive interview with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott, discussing their new Sony Classical recording — Songs from the Arc of Life.

Celebrating thirty years of friendship and collaboration in concerts and recordings, Ma and Stott share pieces they have frequently performed but have never recorded. In the interview, they reflect on the journey of this project, and on the journey called life.

Backstory

The first time Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott met, it was completely by accident. In the summer of 1978, Yo-Yo and his wife Jill sublet a London flat, but to their surprise someone else was living there. That someone was Kathryn Stott. Returning home after a holiday, the pianist, also unaware of her new roommates, walked in to her living room to discover Yo-Yo practicing his cello. Happily everything sorted itself out and six years later what started as an accidental meeting turned into a wonderful 30-year collaboration as recital partners. Aging gracefully together through the years with a collective musical curiosity, the duo has a managed to create a remarkable unforced intimacy of playing that unites both of their instruments into a singular voice.

Touring regularly throughout Europe, the USA, South America and the Far East, Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott have recorded three albums for Sony Classical — the 1999 — Grammy Award winning Soul of the Tango which explored the music of Astor Piazzolla, the 2004 recording — Obrigado Brazil, which fuses diverse styles into a cohesive European-South American voice, and Paris: La Belle Époque, a stylish disc of more seriously minded French music from the turn of the 20th century.

Life is One Big Arc

Kathryn Stott: Songs from the Arc of Life is an album that Yo-Yo and I have been talking about making for a very long time. It’s a beautiful story, from the beginning of life, and what we see as the journey. And it’s taken us a long time and much discussion, as to what we think that journey might be, because everybody’s journey is slightly different.

So we had some starting points. What might happen when you’re a child; what might happen, when you’re going through your twenties. The kind of adventures you might have. Where to start? You know, the beginning of life — how do we represent that in music? To me, this is a very cohesive story line. And people can add things to it. They can take something away. They can say, “Well, that didn’t happen to me but that’s an interesting part of your own story.” I love this title: the arc of life. Because it is one big arc.

Yo-Yo Ma: I first started thinking about this, when I was playing at friends’ weddings and, unfortunately, also at their memorial services. Because suddenly the music I’m playing is incredibly purposeful. It’s to bring joy. It’s to express some form of being in a state of being for two people who want to get married or in the case of a memorial service, it’s to have a depth of thinking about someone’s life. And it doesn’t have to be said, it could celebratory, it could be all kinds of things. But, ah, but … so that took me out of, you know, the usual, “OK, I’m playing a concert. For what reason? Why are people coming? Are they coming for the communal sense, feeling, of coming together?”

Music and Memories

Yo-Yo Ma: I think the role of music, the role of sound is crucial for anybody that wants to remember anything. There can be just even certain chords or a voice or, of course, a whole piece, and I’m immediately transported to something. I say, “Oh, yeah, that reminds me — I haven’t heard that for so long. I remember — I remember when.” You hear a piece of music, and you remember when, where I was, who I was with. It can transport you. It can also kind of transport you to the future, if you can allow your imagination to go with it. But I think everybody is able to be moved by music to a place they have once been.

Locating memory is a fundamental human cultural act. How many experiences have you gone through that you remember, and how many experiences have you gone through that you don’t remember? I try to live life so that I will remember as much as possible of what I go through, especially if I have a choice in how to go through life and every day.

Cultures remember things. Gypsies, the Roma people, they don’t have a written language or history, but they code five generations of their experiences through music and songs. So everything that they are, you get to hear in the music. Their like seventeen layers of sound, of realities that get incorporated into like one phrase, one sound? If you can manage to do that, you then capture something that might be essential.

Transcendence

Kathryn Stott: Music is one of the strongest powers to evoke memories from the past. There can be just even certain chords or a voice or, of course, a whole piece, and I’m immediately transported to something. You hear a piece of music, and you remember when, where I was, who I was with. It can transport you. I think it can also kind of transport you to the future, if you can allow your imagination to go with it. But I think everybody is able to be moved by music to a place they have once been.

Yo-Yo Ma: Music is able to transcend. It’s a way to escape. It’s a way to go to another emotion. Whether we want it or not, it will take us there. I’ve sat in a concert and something has been incredibly moving, I can feel the way that the person next to me is also feeling that. And sometimes by the end of the performance there’s a collective feeling of joy or of deep sadness. I can remember once completely bursting into tears at the end of a concert — listening — and sharing that emotion with an audience was really incredibly powerful. More so than I would have felt, I think, if I was on my own. And perhaps the emotion became stronger because there were more of us.

What do we do with a life?

Yo-Yo Ma: What do we do with a life? We all share that. You go from the beginning to the end. And what happens in between? What do people go through? What do they experience? What do they cherish? What do they want to remember? What do they want to forget? How do they want to say, “Well, I want to put an X on this part of my life”, and how do you express that in music? How do you express longing? How do you express regret? How do you express young love? Mature love? Trying to remember something, but you can’t quite remember it. And then it comes back in full force.

Interested in the full audio interview that also includes comments by Ma and Stott on the individual tracks of Songs from the Arc of Life? You can find it on our Soundcloud page

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