He has explored Argentine tangos and Appalachian fiddle ditties, along with Mozart and Bach. On his newest--and 88th!--album, Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon, the world-renowned cellist collaborates with musicians along the ancient trade route that linked China and the West. Yo-Yo Ma spoke with TIME's Josh Tyrangiel from his home in Cambridge, Mass.
WHEN YOU MIX CULTURES, THERE'S A RISK OF CREATING SOCIALLY WORTHY ELEVATOR MUSIC. HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE IT SYNTHESIZES INTO SOMETHING INTERESTING?
You have to give yourself over to your collaborators and be willing to forget what you know. On this album, we were doing a piece of Mugam music from Azerbaijan with Alim Qasimov, an unbelievably great singer, and he says, "This is the way it goes. Now play!" Well, it wasn't written down, and every time we played it, it was different. So finally we just learned it the Azerbaijani way, by oral tradition. And we got something great.
HAS ALL THIS CULTURAL MIXING INFLUENCED YOUR CLASSICAL PLAYING?
Absolutely. Playing with Persians and Turks, I realized that for the past 40 years I've been rushing. Forget notes and how you articulate them--think about space. Now I play Haydn differently, and I play Bach quite differently.
YOU CALL ONE OF YOUR TWO CELLOS PETUNIA. WHY?
I was doing a class in Salt Lake City, and a high school student asked if I had a nickname for my cello. I said, "No, but if I play for you, will you name it?" She chose Petunia, and it stuck.
IS PLAYING THE CELLO AS PHYSICALLY DEMANDING AS IT LOOKS?
Playing any acoustic instrument in a large hall is strenuous. Violinists suffer from the unequal development of the right and left side, and a lot of cellists end up with back problems or tendinitis. I do aerobics, weights, all that stuff to insulate against the short nights and cramped airplanes. But sometimes nothing helps.
THERE'S BEEN A MINI-BOOM OF NEW AMERICAN CONCERT HALLS. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE?
Los Angeles has the Disney Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, and of course it's become a huge thing. But in smaller towns and a lot of them in the South--Little Rock, Huntsville, Baton Rouge--there are wonderful halls and great orchestras. It requires a huge investment for a community to say, We want a world-class orchestra, and we're willing to pay for it. And I particularly enjoy playing those places.
WHICH SECTION OF AN ORCHESTRA IS LIKELY TO HAVE THE MOST EGOMANIACS?
To be diplomatic, I'll tell you the most fun sections are percussion, lower brass and bass players. They all seem to have good senses of humor and love life. They're sitting in the back of the orchestra, they check out the conductor, the audience. They usually have lots of time to make jokes too.
IN 2001 YOU WERE NAMED PEOPLE'S SEXIEST CLASSICAL MUSICIAN. HAS MURRAY PERAHIA GOT OVER IT YET?
My wife and I heard about it on the radio in a taxi in New York, and we had a good laugh. But come on! They must really have been dragging the dregs.
WHERE DO YOU BUY YOUR MUSIC?
I like to go to Starbucks to pick up my Ray Charles, and sometimes I'll go into stores and browse. My kids do a lot of downloading, and I'll listen to that too.
YOUR MOTHER WROTE A BOOK, MY SON, YO-YO, ABOUT YOU. DID SHE REVEAL ANY DARK SECRETS?