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Back in Bach

Yo-Yo Ma gives lecture on the role of culture in our society

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Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs as a part of his Karl Taylor Compton lecture Mar. 19 in Kresge Auditorium.
Jake Belcher

Every year, the Compton Lecture committee invites a great mind to talk about the current issues of our time. The March 19 lecture featured cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, who spoke about the upcoming role of culture in our society. Ma defined culture as an agreed-upon shared knowledge, including everything from music to mathematics to painting; Ma claimed that without culture, we hurtle towards an edge where we cannot trust each other.

He advised that we should incorporate culture into our communication. “We were in an era of the specialist,” Ma said in an interview with The Tech. “However, I think more people going into [the center of society] need to be both generalists and specialists, so that if you’re a specialist, you can translate to a general audience.”

Ma used Bach’s famous first cello suite prelude to demonstrate how this edge-center oscillation might look: reinterpreting the work from the view of disruption and reconstruction, forming a metaphor for how we must learn to work together to rebuild from cycles of turmoil. Unfortunately, he points out, this way of thinking grows from the fear of ridicule and discomfort.

Ma then related analytic-empathetic decision-making to how he used to think that performing music was about perfection, about analysing a piece and reproducing it perfectly; but, he later realized that technical perfection is nothing without emotional power. This balance, he claims, generalizes to most situations and decisions — and indeed, culture requires it. He said that we need to learn to access both rationality and intuition simultaneously. Of course, there is a relevant Bach piece for this paradigm too: cello suite No. 5 Movement IV — its contrasting melodic lows and highs a metaphor for burden and struggle leading to hope.

Culture is made of building blocks, Ma said: music is built on Bach’s blocks, science on fundamental research, and so forth. The secret to making these blocks, at least in music, is to be three people at once: the creator, the performer, and the listener, all working together to build a memorable performance, which can become a new block for others to build on.

On his own part, Ma is going to play Bach’s Preludes around the world, especially in places of conflict. He hopes to use this aspect of culture as a way to unify people and teach them how to think of culture as a solution.

When asked what college students can do in to forward this effort, Ma said, “Do the equivalent of a social/cultural Linkedin or Facebook that actually connects people who want to find truths, who are teachers, who are academics, and match them with people who need it, students who desperately need some help.”

“It’s complex,” he admitted. “Solve the difficult problems, and find the ways that people actually need that can get [solutions] to them, and get the student body involved in doing that. Then get other schools involved: start something, make it work, take it everywhere. ... Once you get people involved, you get an enlightened citizenry, which can actually get into action when they need to — to vote in their local elections, to put people on school boards.”

But in the meantime, he says, “Party hard.”