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Citizen Musician

Yo-Yo Ma—considered one of the world’s greatest and most innovative musicians—is artist-in-residence at The Aspen Institute this summer.

World-renowned classical musician Yo-Yo Ma brings his many talents to Aspen this summer.

Y o-Yo Ma is arguably the best-known, most innovative and most versatile classical musician in the world. His unique and irrepressible positive energy makes everyone the world over call him by his first name. Having mastered the entire core repertoire for cello—concertos, sonatas, solo works, chamber music—at an astoundingly early age, he embarked on a historic program of commissioning new works (his June 2006 appearance in Aspen was for a new work that the Aspen Music Festival and School commissioned for him from Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts). His sense of curiosity has led him to experiment with everything from the Argentine tango to Chinese folk music.

Ma created, for instance, The Silk Road Project, a nonprofit organization that pays tribute to the music and cultures of civilizations along the ancient trade route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In this project, he searches for “edge effects” (an eco-biological term he has borrowed that describes what happens at the boundary between forest and savanna when differently adapted life-forms interact), as the idea relates to different forms of music-making. For example, he has used the idea to investigate what happens when classical Chinese court music interacts with traditional music and Western classical music as a result of travel and commerce.

He has also formed partnerships with bluegrass musicians and other folk and world music-makers. For instance, the Grammy Award-winning Appalachia Waltz project included the Aspen Music Festival and School’s own double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, plus other luminaries like fiddler Mark O’Connor, American banjo master Bela Fleck, the sensational mandolinist Chris Thile (a favorite at Belly Up Aspen with his band Punch Brothers) and Zakir Hussain (one of the world’s greatest percussionists). Each of these collaborations has resulted in tours and recordings that, alone, would have made the whole career of any other artist.

Ma tours on a blistering schedule, frequently anchoring gala benefits that he sells out effortlessly on behalf of every major orchestra in the world. Recently, he has begun devoting his precious attention to the role of the arts in society through lectures, demonstrations, testimony and advocacy that focuses on the Citizen Musician—an initiative through which Ma strives to “create memorable moments of community.” (Watch his 2013 Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at The Kennedy Center, titled Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician, at yo-yoma.com.)

It is this new social role that brings him back to Aspen this summer as The Aspen Institute’s Harman-Eisner artist-in-residence. This residency program—established by visionary Renaissance thinker and longtime Aspen figure, the late Sidney Harman; and the legendary Aspen Institute trustee, former Walt Disney Company chairman and philanthropist Michael Eisner—brings some of the world’s leading artists to Aspen to generate, exchange and develop ideas and policies. They are part of the Great Conversation that is unique to Aspen’s mix of philanthropy, social engagement, intellectual curiosity and passion for exploring meaning in life. Others who have previously held this prestigious post include filmmaker and director Julie Taymor, playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, opera diva Jessye Norman, the AMFS’ Music Director Robert Spano, artists Eric Fischl and Chuck Close, architect Elizabeth Diller and dancer Damien Woetzel. Ma will appear at the Aspen Ideas Festival and, throughout the summer, will convene high-level private meetings with national arts leaders—a conversation that will continue throughout the year all around the U.S. in activities curated by Damian Woetzel, director of The Aspen Institute’s Arts Program.

Ma quotes one of his mentors, the incomparable Pablo Casals: “I am a human being first, a musician second.” He proposes that the great engines of society are politics, economics and culture, and he investigates “who we are, how we feel and the things that give our life meaning.” Whether he is playing Johann Sebastian Bach, Camille Saint-Saëns, Levon Helm or Appalachian waltzes, everything he does transcends technique to create indelible meaning. His message strikes home particularly well in Aspen, a community historically devoted to politics, economics and culture (maybe this triad is another version of the Aspen Idea—Aspen being a place to explore mind, body and spirit).

Few communities have such resonance with his admonition that we must keep “in touch with the sublime,” but even Aspen can learn from Ma’s analysis that education in the arts for children will foster critical skills in collaboration, flexibility, imagination and innovation. Ma is an inspiration to everyone who cares about the arts, education, culture and society’s well-being, and it’s exciting to have him in residence at The Aspen Institute this summer.