An absolutely lovely discussion between Yo-Yo Ma and Krista Tippet, on On Being, "Music Happens Between the Notes," which I've excerpted below. I listened to the podcast last month when it came out, and am so glad to revisit just as I begin to look into music and civic engagement. I'm excited by the ways that the arts can foster not just social connectedness or socio-emotional well-being, but the sense of civic participation. The state of civic participation and democracy worries me, for reasons obvious to us, not because I don't have faith in the goodness of the people, but because so much seems to rest on the people in face of forces of negative influence. Lincoln said in his first inaugural speech, "while the people maintain their virtue and vigilance, no administration,by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." I think musicians and artists and humanists share a similar kind of philosophy, to let the ideas and connections spread which bind us to do us good. I do hope it works.
Here's the except:
MR. MA: So it's not about how many people are in the hall. It's not about proving anything. It's about sharing something.
MS. TIPPETT: It's about being whole together, too, isn't it? Which includes all these things that could go wrong.
MR. MA: Absolutely. Rewind to September 11. On the morning of September 11, I was in Denver. At 9:00 my wife calls me and says turn on the television. Something bad is happening. I turn on the television. I'm supposed to go to Colorado Springs on the 11th and to Denver to play another concert on the 12th and the 13th in Phoenix, Arizona — three different orchestras. And in the wake of this horrific thing, every orchestra had to decide, do we cancel or do we play?
And what every orchestra decided was, we're going to play. We may change the program a little. We're going to actually be together and have a moment, literally, of being together. Music will be the way that we will come together, because we're asserting ourselves as a community, as a people, as a city, as whatever. And we need to be together. To this day — now, this is now, how many, 12 years later — when, if I go back to any of those places, not a single person does not remember vividly what that evening meant.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that's a wonderful image for some language you use of being a citizen artist; that this insistence that this must be at the table, arts, in music, as we define ourselves culturally and weight it as defining alongside politics and economics and the things we discuss that we sometimes seem to take more seriously.
MR. MA: Well, I think it depends how much room we have for what. And the thing is, again, what is it and why? What are we doing here? Who are we? And I often ask musicians, “Do you think of yourselves as the instrument that you play, as your identity? Or do you think of yourself as a musician? Or do you think of yourself as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three?” I think that the citizen part is somewhere towards the human part, because we're looking at how we fit in within society. And if we look at our Constitution, we have an ideal of what our nation could and should be like. So, how do we participate? I know I, for one, often feel frustrated and say, “There's so many things that are happening, and I have nothing to do with it. I'm not connected to it. Therefore, I can't care about it, because it's just a waste of time and energy, because it's all beyond me.” Now, that's kind of like giving up. It may be true.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think that's an experience so many people have, so many people who do different things in different corners.
MR. MA: But ultimately, if we are the democracy that we claim to be, it does require full participation. And that's the anomaly that I'm sort of trying to wrestle with in myself, too. As a musician, I'm thinking, OK, well what in the world can I do? Essentially it's like what my wife always says to me, “Don't just make lists. Just ask, what can I do to help?” And I think if we ask, if we even start to look, you will find lots and lots of needs.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I love this language Rilke about living the questions. And I think there is something powerful about posing the question. You can't live into it unless you ask it.
MR. MA: Right. But once you ask it, you already put yourself in a position of slight vulnerability because you don't know the answer. And I think that by doing that, you can actually begin to see where the solutions may lie. At least you start to open yourself to someone else who might propose a solution that starts to lead us in a certain position. I think that's where the basis of a cultural citizen or a citizen musician comes in, because I think that as musicians, music actually very easily crosses spaces?
You go from people's earbuds, into concert halls, into living rooms, into cars; it can exist across a lot of different physical spaces and geographical spaces.