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Why culture matters

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach in Kresge—and explains how culture spurs innovation.
April 25, 2018
Jake Belcher

Yo-Yo Ma is worried. the ties that bind us to each other are fraying, the future of the planet is in question, and intellectual certainty too often replaces curiosity as people converse only with those who agree with them. But he’s convinced that culture—shared stories, music, and art that help us understand our environment and each other—can help. As he told the audience that packed into Kresge to hear his Compton Lecture in March, culture helps the “edges” of society communicate with its “center,” giving rise to innovation both in music and in the lab. The renowned cellist advocated what he called intentional oscillation between the two sources of ideas, urging those in the mainstream to remain open to unconventional thought from the margins of their fields. He also stressed how important it is to access both analytic and empathic thinking. After proclaiming Bach a master of both—and of exploring the edges and reporting back to the center—he demonstrated the claim on his cello. Ma said he plans to perform Bach on all six continents, in places including those torn by conflict, to shine a light on people working to use culture to solve the world’s problems. “And it will be fun!” he said.

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