Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach
This week: a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma about Bach’s Cello Suites. Listen today at 2 pm, or hear it anytime on our website.
Today at 3 pm EDT, you can hear Yo-Yo Ma play Bach’s Cello Suites live, but before you do, listen to Chris Lydon’s conversation with Yo-Yo Ma about those suites. It’s a conversation ranging from the danceability of Bach to Larry Bird to the way music can bring us into infinity, and it’s the perfect introduction to the performance of Bach’s music at 3.
Yo-Yo Ma’s travelled the globe performing the Cello Suites for “The Bach Project,” and the result: something closer to a conversation between Bach, Yo-Yo Ma, and dozens of different places/different people. “The world opened up to me as a result of doing this Bach Project,” he says on this week’s show.
I’m actually trying to do a cultural act which involves my being a visitor in some place. So I never go someplace saying that, you know, this is what I know and take it or leave it. It’s more like: What are people thinking about? What does the host care about? What do people feel are the things that they can’t do without? And then when I’m performing, actually I become the host . . . I’m the host, because I’ve taken in what the host has shown me and I can in a way report back and say, “Well, this is my report on what I’ve learned.”
Bach can travel so well because Bach’s music was already so well travelled. “Bach took music from everywhere around him,” Yo-Yo Ma tells us on this week’s show.
We think of Bach as a German composer. Germany didn’t exist. And he took all this music from everywhere. And we think . . . you know, that this is classical German music. Well, is it?
It’s amazing, too, how universal Bach while also being so particular, so specifically himself, at the same time. Yo-Yo Ma again, from this week:
People who are, you know, great and masters at their craft leave unique trails. And I think that’s what makes, for me, the music of Bach constantly interesting and innovative . . . I think of Bach as being your favorite uncle or aunt who loves you intensely, is totally empathetic to anything that you might go through.
On this show, we get a sense from Yo-Yo Ma of empathetically expansive music that has an avuncular personal voice, but it also sounds like infinity:
I’ve always thought (and now this is intuitively) the prelude of the first suite, I think it codes infinity. And how do you do that? Well, everything that we have, that we know, has to do with some form of pattern recognition. “It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s different. It’s different. It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s different. It’s different. It’s different.” And from that, we get the digital age: 0 1.
The first piece of music I started learning at age 4 was the prelude of the first suite. And I went through many iterations thinking about it. And I think 30 years ago I said, “You know, I want to do better.” And how do you do better? Do you practice more? Something was missing in my approach, because how do you go deeper? How do you get to better truth? And I thought: you know, this suite reminds me of things that are really hard to code and to measure.
And one of the things that I thought of is: you look out on a beautiful spring or summer day and you see these gorgeous greens on trees and maybe around dusk, the sunlight hits the leaves and the leaves sparkle. It changes. But you can’t quite measure each leaf and how the leaf reflects the light. It’s kind of an infinite variety of things that you think of and take in as one.
Read: Roland Barthes’s S/Z
Roland Barthes, the French semiotician literary theorist, saw a thrilling kind of infinity in language, too. In S/Z, he takes apart almost everything about a Balzac novella, and reveals plurality and infinity in language. Read this book for an idea of “the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.” How do we read without losing our minds to infinity? By affirming some of that loss, by focusing attention while allowing that this focus inevitably leaves things out, omits some of the glittering leaves in the picture of infinite verdancy described by Yo-Yo Ma. It’s a kind of active attention-and-forgetting that brings to mind our recent show with Lewis Hyde. From Barthes:
Meanings can indeed be forgotten, but only if we have chosen to bring to bear upon the text a singular scrutiny. Yet reading does not consist in stopping the chain of systems, in establishing a truth, a legality of the text, and consequently in leading its reader into “errors”; it consists in coupling these systems, not according to their finite quantity, but according to their plurality (which is a being, not a discounting): I pass, I intersect, I articulate, I release, I do not count. Forgetting meanings is not a matter for excuses, an unfortunate defect in performance; it is an affirmative value, a way of asserting the irresponsibility of the text, the pluralism of systems (if I closed their list, I would inevitably reconstitute a singular, theological meaning): it is precisely because I forget that I read.
Listen: The Last Archive
Super sleuth and historian Jill Lepore teams up with the ace production crew at Pushkin Industries (Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Michael Lewis’ Against the Rules) in a who dunnit for our time. Who killed the truth? With re-enactments and old-timey radio flourishes, it’s smart and fun;the first episode is a true crime caper with a killer twist.
Support us on Patreon and Hear Niela Orr on Filmic Wonder
In 2017, David Lynch and Mark Frost made an 18-hour television series that explores infinite wonder in a grim, surreal way. This was Twin Peaks: The Return, which is the third season of the surreal murder mystery/soap opera Twin Peaks TV series. Twin Peaks was never your usual TV series; but The Return is even more of a departure. You will meet people who will call it one of the most profound experiences of art they have ever had. Cahiers du Cinema has called it the best film of the 2010s (even though it aired first on TV).
Our Patreon subscribers can now hear Niela Orr, writer and editor at The Believer magazine, talk about rewatching and rethinking Twin Peaks: The Return during the pandemic. The weirdness of the show, it seems, has found its moment; Orr has recently written an essay on how rewatching The Return now might bring clarity to what the show was about all along.
Please do support us on Patreon, and hear more conversations with writers on reimagining things during this time of crisis.
Watch: Daughters of the Dust
In her Patreon conversation, Niela Orr also recommended other films on exploratory missions. Among them: Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Here’s an interview with Dash, in which she describes her hopes that the movie can encourage more filmmaking that rethinks time and point of view:
I hope it speaks to a younger generation of people who have never seen it before, and for the most part, who have never heard of it. I’m just eager to see how they feel about it, what they have to say.
And hopefully [it will] motivate them in some kind of great way: They can say, “Oh, this film is not linear.” It’s like, “Whoa, maybe I can do that too? Let me try something like it.” In film school, they tell you, you cannot write a film narrated by two people. And I did. Even knowing the film teachers would go crazy on me. But hey, maybe there’s a way of making a film [narrated by] three people. You never know until you try and see how it works out.
This week’s ephemeral library
Yo-Yo Ma in the New York Times Book Review’s By the Book. COVID exposes Wall Street’s gamble on bad debt. Atul Gawande turns in his CEO cap and gets back to doctoring and reporting: Amid the Coronavirus Crisis, a Regimen for Reëntry. The custom of the capitol. On the Asian American experience. TV shows for our jolted, short attention spans. Marilynne Robinson on What Kind of Country Do We Want? How well does Sally Rooney’s blockbuster novel Normal People translate to TV and what are its radical politics?