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Yo-Yo Ma On Recorded Music At Inauguration


At Tuesday's inaugural, as President Obama waited to be sworn in, we heard an all-star quartet play a piece written for the occasion by John Williams, "Air and Simple Gifts." It used the theme from an old Shaker song that Aaron Copland used in "Appalachian Spring."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed in the frigid midday air - or so it seemed. Now, it turns out that what people on the Mall and at home actually heard was a recording. Yo-Yo Ma is on the line from New York. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. YO-YO MA (Cellist): Yes. Hi, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: And I just can't resist. I'm sorry. Say it ain't so, Yo-Yo.

Mr. MA: OK. I'll say it ain't so, but it is so, and I'll tell you this is standard operating procedure for the Marine Band that performs at every inaugural. And what they do is because it's on January 20th, you never know what the weather is going to be like. So we recorded on Sunday and on Monday, we had the - a sound check. So I think somewhere between that rehearsal and realizing that all of our instruments were not really functioning - in fact, during the sound check on the 19th, Gabriela would be playing the keys, and then the keys would just stay down.

SIEGEL: But was there - if I had been standing in the middle of the quarter during the programs, would I have heard an actual performance from the four of you or...

Mr. MA: You would have heard sounds from the monitors that were on the stage with us, and you would have thought that those sounds came straight from us.

SIEGEL: So you were not putting bow to string as you were doing this.

Mr. MA: We were.

SIEGEL: You were.

Mr. MA: If you put soap on the bow...

SIEGEL: Ah, I see.

Mr. MA: There is no friction.

SIEGEL: You had greased the bow.

Mr. MA: Because actually, usually rosin, which is, you know, the resin that you put on the horsehair of the bow, that friction, those little grains of resin is what makes the strings vibrate.

SIEGEL: I thought that I saw Gabriela Montero playing the keyboard. I mean...

Mr. MA: You did.


Mr. MA: And the piano technician was wonderful. Actually, he was able to decouple the keys from, actually, the hammers hitting, you know, the inside of the - the hammers hitting the strings. Hence, you have a silent piano.

SIEGEL: So what we saw, as we heard this very lovely recording of the John Williams piece, we saw an impeccable pantomime of the piece that the four of you were doing.

Mr. MA: Yeah. I think what you saw is what actually, routinely happens in film, and it's obviously standard for very large events where the unpredictability of whether - where you can't afford a mishap.

SIEGEL: Now, was there any discussion of whether there should be any tipping of the hand about what was going on here or any...

Mr. MA: I think - let me put it to you this way. If we had not done that, we would have had four and a half minutes of absolute disaster. Everything would have been out of tune. We would have had broken strings. Basically, you would have had a very poor, "American Idol "rendition of what, you know, what John Williams had created, which is a beautiful piece of music. And we really knew that our purpose there was to serve the moment just before the swearing-in of the president.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MA: Robert, it's always a pleasure to talk with you.

SIEGEL: Yo-Yo Ma, thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.