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©Sony Masterworks / Yo-Yo Ma
© Sony Masterworks / Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma’s ‘Goat Rodeo’: Ready for Their Close-Up

The classical superstar takes his Americana project to the big screen

By Andrew Luthringer
Special to MSN Music

Though Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most renowned cellists in the world, justly revered for his prized renditions of Bach and Mendelssohn, it would be a mistake to think of him as simply a "classical" musician. He is also a relentless and open- minded investigator of varied musical forms from around the globe. He has explored the music of South America, collaborated with Bobby McFerrin, and established The Silk Road Project with master musicians from Asia and the Middle East, while releasing over 75 albums (with 15 Grammy Award wins among them).

Ma has also had an enduring relationship with music from the American heartland, collaborating with multifaceted bluegrass masters such as Mark O'Connor, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer. His latest project, "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" (with bassist Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile and violinist Stuart Duncan), springs from this realm. "The Goat Rodeo Sessions," released in October, was Ma's highest chart debut in history, hitting No. 1 on both the Classical and Bluegrass charts, a testament to the music the group describes as "genre-proof."

A "goat rodeo" is defined by Urban Dictionary as "the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it" -- an apt description for the band's intricately layered musical twists and turns. A "goat rodeo" could also be used to describe the task of attempting to coordinate the touring schedules of the four musicians. But a solution is at hand: On Jan. 31, the "Goat Rodeo Sessions" ensemble performs a special one-time concert from Boston that will be "cinecast" live to more than 430 movie theaters around the country, a uniquely intimate, immersive and communal experience that will be the next best thing to being there.

(Editor's note: The performance has already occured, but the concert will be rebroadcast on PBS on Friday May 25. Additionally, an EP of music from the show will be available on iTunes Feb. 7. Possible plans for a DVD are in the works as well.)

MSN Music recently spoke with Yo-Yo Ma about the album and cinecast performance, as well as what might be next for the global superstar.

MSN Music: Let's start by talking about the upcoming 'cinecast,' something that's been recently utilized by the Metropolitan Opera, among others. What led you to want to try a performance in this format?

Yo-Yo Ma: One of the things I love about music is live performance. So it may sound like, "Then wait a minute, why are you doing a cinecast?" I think part of the reason is that cinecast offers more than just the aural reception, and the fact that you can do it in intimate venues is particularly attractive. And watching it on the big screen, you get the tactile sense, too -- short of actually being live, you get the next best thing to live, and much more than a recording. "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" was conceived as a recording, and you have four pretty busy people, but after we made the recording, we thought, "Gee, it would be so great to tour." But actually the first available time to tour is a year from this summer [laughs]. So we thought, "How about if we just do one show?"

Then when the possibility [for the cinecast] came up, we jumped on it, because we thought it would be wonderful to be able to take care of another thing we like to do: So often we perform in urban centers, but what the cinecast can do is make it so you can really go to rural areas also. And I know from the Met broadcasts, what an unbelievable thing that has been for people in the middle of the heartland. You could be in Montana, you could be in North Dakota, and you actually have access to something you otherwise could not see.

More: Info on the "Goat Rodeo Sessions" cinecast

That leads me to the topic of the album, which has seen a very successful launch, and has obviously really resonated with audiences. I was wondering how you would compare and contrast this album with some of your previous related works, such as "Appalachia Waltz"?

Certainly, there's a connection to "Appalachia Waltz" because of Edgar [Meyer]. There's a through-line because they both try to ask two questions: What is it about, and who did it? In "Appalachia Waltz," it's about Mark, Edgar and me, and what is it about? It's about three people bringing their "stone soup" condiments to the table, we each bring what we know, and then you make the soup or the stew out of it [laughs]. In "The Goat Rodeo Sessions," it's Chris and Edgar and Stuart, and what's different about it in this case is Edgar and I are 15 years older. We have 15 more years apiece of experience under our belts.

What also makes this project a lot of fun is that so much of what rehearsals were like is about oral history. Stuart is the master of knowing oral history, because for years, he's really been playing all this music with all the greats. He sat at a session with Bill Monroe! And so he's got that whole history of stories, and touring, and all the crazy things people did and said, and that of course helps inform the music.

Watch video: "Attaboy" in-studio recording from the album

To the music's credit, it's often hard to tell where the composition blends into the improvisation. Can you talk a bit about the process, and how you put all the pieces together?

Chris and Edgar met a lot with Stuart in Nashville, and then the four of us met also fairly often, and the "process" would be [laughs], Stuart going to Edgar and Edgar saying, "What do you have?" [laughs] and Stuart saying, "Well, I have this thing I've been thinking about for the last 40 years, and here's a snippet of it" [laughs], and you know, something would develop. Edgar, who is in many ways the architect of this project, would bring his part of the soup into it, and he and Chris would take on different sous chef roles, then the four of us would try it out [laughs] ... It's really like architecture and engineering: You have concept, and you write things down, and you test it out in reality. Then the reality of the meeting would inform the writing process, so there was actually a developmental thing that happened over the course of a year.

Moving on to a broader question: The number and variety of projects that you've been involved with over the course of your career is actually really dizzying, so I'm curious about what you're interested in trying to do in the future that you haven't gotten to yet. Is there any type of new collaboration that you want to try?

My good friend Emanuel Ax always says one thing: He says, "The reason I really love being in music is that you never stop learning." I think for anybody who's passionate about something, and they devote themselves to it, they never stop learning. That's part and parcel of being deeply involved in something. So in terms of what I haven't done, I think it's really more like going on continuing to ask the same questions: "Who [in music] is doing what and why?"

So in that sense I think you're asking: Is there a particular person that you want to work in a genre of music with? And no, I actually don't have that, because I think that so much of what works in collaborations is the chemistry. It's very heavily value-dependent. You know, you can have someone who's the very best at something, but if there's not that kind of chemistry, collaborating is not going to amount to anything.

And it takes imagination -- if you've imagined something, and you actually happen to bump into the right person, and immediately you know "Oh yes!" The homework that I did, that was not necessarily related to that person -- it suddenly becomes evident, palpable and worth trying to extend energy and time devoted to making something happen.

Andrew Luthringer has worked in the digital division of Warner Music Group, and during the ringtone craze as a music editor at T-Mobile . He has been an editorial presence at MSN Music off and on since 2001. He has written and produced numerous reviews and interviews with such artists as Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Michael Brecker, Stevie Nicks, Hilary Hahn and many others.

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