admits it: He's always loved technology. "Computers, video
games, special effects," he says, "for me, it's all
fun. I like playing around with new possibilities, so when it comes
to technology and musicwell, let's just say I have
a pretty open mind."
An open mind.
Anyone attempting to unite the magic of modern technology with the
glories of classical music would have to have an open mind, as the
classical music world is notoriously suspicious of newfangled inventions
and other "improvements."
But if anyone
can change the world, it's Bell.
it that Bell, 34, received his first violin before the age of five,
after his parents noticed his habit of stretching rubber bands over
the handles of dresser drawers, plucking and strumming the self-designed
"instruments" to make his own, brand-new kind of string
music. That knack for tinkering is probably at the root of Bell's
interest in modern technology, which has found a place in his current
work with composer Tod Machover at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. At MIT, Bell is helping Machoverwho the Los Angeles
Times has called "America's most wired composer"to
develop a series of high-tech instruments and musical toys designed
to stimulate children's interest in music performance and composition.
The MIT team hopes that the three-year project will radically change
the way children are introduced to music.
up there regularly and work with the grad students at the Media Lab,"
Bell eagerly explains. "I do love technology, and I love computers,
so it's fun to be involved with that."
Bell is especially
fond of a new MIT instrument called the hyperviolin. Developed at
the fabled Media Lab, the hyperviolin is an electric violin played
with a supersensitive electronic bow and connected to a computer capable
of creating what Bell calls, "really neat effects" and even
sounding like a human voice. "The bow is able to pick up all
kinds of information about how I'm playing," he explains.
"Eventually, what we want to do is to have that information be
used so that it sounds very organic and seamless. I will be able to
do different things to the bow that will change subtle colors in the
electronics, in the same way that doing subtle things with a standard
bow will change the colors on a regular instrument."
In May, Bell
traveled to Dublin, Ireland, where he played the instrument at the
world premiere performance of Machover's Toy Symphony with the
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Gerhard Markson. Also
performing was an orchestra of children from the Ark Children's
Centre, who played on strange, pod-like Media Lab inventions called
Beatbugs and Shapers. The students had received the score two months
before the concert, and then received the electronic instrumentswhich
are intentionally intuitive and easy to learn, says Bellshortly
before the performance.
instruments really are like toys," Bells explains, "really
cool electronic toys that Toy Symphony was composed for."
philosophy of the Toy Symphony builds on the work of cognitive psychologist
Jean Piaget and music educator Keith Swanwick, who emphasized the
need for direct interaction between the child and the musical material,
as well as incorporation of the child's innate musical perceptions,
as part of the learning process.
MIT has developed
a special transcription of Paganini's Caprice No. 24, which Bell
performed in the United Kingdom, playing his own Stradivari through
a computer programmed to add expressive effects and dynamic overdubbing.
The Capricealong with the Toy Symphony and other piecescan
be downloaded from the Media Lab's website (www.toysymphony.net).
As for why
he and Machover chose the Paganini to demonstrate these new technologies,
Bell says, "We wanted a piece that would have some variations,
and we thought the Paganini would be useful in demonstrating the different
things we can do with the violin. It's really ideal, because
it's a popular kind of melody, and messing around with the variations
is really in the spirit of the piece. Paganini's Caprice No.
24 is all about showing off the violin. That's what Paganini
was doing when he wrote it, showing off what he could do, showing
off various techniques on the violin. So we thought this would be
an updated, modern version of what Paganini intendedonly we
did it with a Strad and a computer."
cringes at the thought that anyone might think he's "gone
electric," there's no question that it's significant
when a violinist of his stature embraces electronic music. After all,
the Grammy-winning virtuoso is fast becoming a major musical icon.
He made his professional debut at the age of 14, and over the past
20 years, has performed at more than 1,000 concerts, playing with
some of the greatest orchestras in the world. A driven perfectionist,
he's worked with celebrated conductors ranging from Vladimir
Ashkenazy to David Zinman. And he's collaborated on a series
of high-profile classical crossover projectsboth on record and
on stagewith bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler/violinist Mark O'Connor,
and cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and
banjo player Bela Fleck. To date, Bell has recorded nearly 30 CDs,
contributing a cut here and there to dozens of others. Along the way,
he's earned box loads of awards and nominations. He has been
featured in numerous videos, movies, magazine ads, TV shows (he used
to be a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson)
and TV specials (most recently as cohost of The Leonard Bernstein
Young People's Concerts). And he was named by People
as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People of the Year 2000 and Glamour
as one of the six "It" Men of the Millennium.
In the last
four years alone, Bell has recorded more than ten CDs, winning four
Grammy Awards and three more Grammy nominations. Those include a recent
pairing of the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E
minor and Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major; the Bottesini
Gran Duo Concertante (on Edgar Meyer's latest CD); the 2001 James
Horner soundtrack to the Oscar-winning film Iris; the aforementioned
Bernstein album; Bela Fleck's Perpetual Motion; a children's
album titled Listen to the Storyteller; violin concertos by
Maw, Sibelius, and Goldmark; a collaboration of trad-inspired music
called A Short Trip Home, with Meyer, mandolinist Sam Bush,
and multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall; and a magnificent collection
of Gershwin tunes performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted
by John Williams.
praise Bell, their words often border on the ecstatic, as when composer
John Corigliano accepted the 2000 Academy Award for his score of The
Red Violin and effusively thanked Bellwhose rich, emotive
solos became the soul of the popular soundtrackproclaiming,
"Joshua plays like a god!"
Bell shared the stage with a famous furry monster named Telly on a
high-energy episode of PBS-TV's Sesame Street. "Now
that was thrilling," Bell says, laughing. "Definitely
a really big moment. It was so great to be on that setthe Sesame
Street set!interacting with muppets."
Product of His Times
Born in Bloomington,
Indiana, in the late 1960s, Bell grew up during the '70s and
'80s, a time marked by explosive changes and evolutionary experimentationsocially,
politically, musically, and technologically. In fact, his father,
Alan, who died earlier this year, was a psychologist at Indiana University
and one of the researchers responsible for the Kinsey Report, the
landmark 1948 and 1953 surveys on human sexual behavior that helped
ignite many of those social changes. One could argue that, had Bell
been born earlieror later, for that matterhe might not
be so adept at blending and mixing styles and philosophies, or be
as prone to so many disparate enthusiasms.
devotee of the aforementioned video games, Bell also is an avid golfer,
a champion tennis player, and a fan of competitive sports in general.
He's also something of a math wiz, which might explain his fondness
for computers and all things high tech. One of the few musicians of
his stature who actively maintains his own website (www.joshuabell.com),
replete with an active discussion forum, Bell also serves as an adjunct
professor at MIT.
A true product
of his time, Bell is both technologically savvy and overworked.
an average of 200 days a year, performing almost constantly, with
concert dates in major halls and smaller venues all around the globe.
In the midst of all that, he somehow finds time to record, often dabbling
in new styles of music and taking on personally challenging projects.
To that end, Bell drops hints that in the near future, he may just
take his musical passions a bit further than merely interpreting someone
else's compositions. But for now, there are so many compositions
to interpret, so much beautiful music, new and old, to suit a variety
of tastes; as has become evident, Joshua Bell's own musical tastes
are as hard to pin down as is Bell's daily schedule.
live in such an amazing time, but a strange time," says Bell.
"We have all kinds of music existing all at onceclassical,
traditional, world music, popular musicand not everyone has
a real identification with a particular type of music. That includes
recording effort, the Mendelssohn and Beethoven violin concertoswhile
breaking no technological boundaries at allis a significant
step forward for Bell, as it marks his return to the Mendelssohn concerto,
a piece he first recorded in 1987 when he was just 19.
glad to be getting another crack at it," he says of the Mendelssohn
work, "I was never that happy with that recording."
Mendelssohn recordingan in-studio performance conducted by Sir
Neville Mariner with the
Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fieldswas finished
just days after Bell had completed his first solo album, Presenting
Joshua Bell, an energy-taxing
project that had required Bell's concentrated effort for several
days in a row. With the one project completed, Bell rushed into the
demanding sessions for the next, a recording of concertos by Bruch
were no rehearsals or concerts beforehand," he recalls. "We
just went in and recorded it, which isn't the best way to work.
So I was never really that happy with my Mendelssohn. And when I decided
to record the Beethoven for release this yearI hadn't ever
done the BeethovenI thought it would be a nice coupling to put
the Mendelssohn with it, the only other classical concerto I feel
stands along with the Beethoven. They make a good pair."
the new recording even more significant, Bell allows, is that each
concerto contains a cadenza written by Bell. That, in itself, is not
so very unusual: Bell has already recorded his own cadenzas for Brahms
and Mozart concertos, and has written several others. The cadenza
he is proudest of, Bell says, is the one he has now recorded for the
is certainly the biggest of the concertos," he says. "So
it demands the biggest cadenza."
so bigbut arguably more daring and probably controversialis
the cadenza he wrote for the Mendelssohn. "I may get a lot of
flack for this," he says with a laugh. "I realize that I'm
breaking with a very strong tradition by inserting my own cadenza
into the Mendelssohn. I've certainly never heard of anyone doing
One of the
striking things about Mendelssohn's violin concerto is that the
cadenza comes right in the middle, so it makes it awkwardsome
might call it inappropriateto place one's own cadenza right
in the middle of the master's piece. "Mendelssohn's
original cadenza is so seamlessly integrated," Bell says, "that
it was obviously a challenge to do anything else there. But years
agoas an exerciseI decided it would be fun to try to work
my own cadenza into the piece. I thought it worked out all right,
and then one day I decided to try it out in a concert, and that went
decided to revisit the Mendelssohn concerto, he struggled over whether
to include his own cadenza or to stick with the original, better-known
said, "This piece has been recorded hundreds of times before,
so why not do my own cadenza, just to make this one stand out from
the others.' So it will be a little bit shocking for people,"
has never minded shocking people.
fun to stir things up now and then," he says. "Whether you
are successful or not, it's important that music never end up
feeling like a museum piece, a representation of some ancient art.
Music should be alive and current. There's no doubt in my mind
that if a violinist came along in Mendelssohn's time, and said,
'I love your concerto, but I want to put my own cadenza in there,'
Mendelssohn would have been fine with that. In that time, music was
alive and fresh and ever-changing, and people did that kind of thing."
fresh and ever-changingwords that also could be used to describe
Bell, whose energy and enthusiasm for music frequently bubbles over
into the field of musical education, as the former prodigy seeks out
new and livelier ways to open young minds to the pleasures of classical
As for his
own education on the high-tech hyperviolin, and his test-drive of
the instrument in Dublinan act he will repeat when the Toy Symphony
is performed Stateside over the next yearBell falls back on
one of his favorite phrases, describing the whole experience as, "A
lot of fun." Bell does, indeed, seem to be having a lot of fun
with his new toys. But don't expect to see the hyperviolin supplanting
Bell's Strad anytime soon; these technologies, he cautions, are
still very much in the experimental stage.
a work in progress," he says. "At this point, I don't
see it as being the future of violin playing or anything. It's
something different. It's experimental, it's definitely
fun. But it's not an improvement over the Stradivari by any means.
At this point, the things you can do with a bow and a Stradall
the colors and subtleties you can bring out in a great old instrumentare
still way beyond what we can do with the hyperviolin."
the Strad is not the goal of the technologies he's exploring
and developing at MIT. "These experiments are worth doing because
there is value in developing new ideas," he says.
most important element of the Toy Symphony project is not the technology
per se, but its potential for imbuing children with an appreciation
and affection for music, even if those are "old kinds of music,"
as in classical music. "It's another way of getting through
to kids," he says.
admits to being something of "a missionary" in regards to
bringing classical music to children. "This music needs to be
brought to young people," Bell states firmly. "The word
must be spread that music is fun and enjoyable.
again," he adds with a laugh, "I want those kids to grow
up and be my future audience. So it's also a little bit selfish
With so many
accomplishments already under his belt, and with so much of his time
devoted to ancillary projects like the Toy Symphony and other hobbies,
one might expect that Bell may be running out of dreams and ideas.
Not so. Having dabbled in the writing of cadenzas, he is ready to
tackle even bigger projects. "My big dream," he confesses,
"is to compose."
his own cadenzas, Bell has embraced the opportunity to test and expand
his writing talents, and he feels the education is paying off. "I'm
much happier with my new Beethoven cadenza then I was with the Mozart
cadenza I wrote ten years ago," he says. "I've learned
a lot since then. Probably, if I ever record the Mozart and the Brahms
again, I'll scrap those cadenzas and write new ones, using what
I've learned since then.
know when I'll find the time," he allows, "but it is
my dream to compose moreand certainly being around people like
Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall and Sam Bush was inspiring."
ago, Bell spent a season traveling around the country with Meyer,
Marshall, and Bush on the Short Trip Home tour. "They
were constantly writing and improvising on the bus," he says.
"Being around people who are always creating stuff is intoxicating.
You really get the feeling that that's what music is all about.
As wonderful as it is to play music and breathe life into pieces written
by someone else, there is nothing like playing music that you've
written, or had a part in writing yourself. Writing my own cadenzas
has been incredibly gratifying, the feeling that you really own the
piece on a deep level.
says Bell, "I'd like more of that."
DEARTH OF COOL
blue leather pants and fondness for sleek Porsches, Joshua Bell has
cultivated a stylish image of coolness. It's an image that isn't
just skin deep. Consider the events of February 27, 2002, the night
of the 44th Annual Grammy Awards, when two billion viewers in 180
countries watched Bell stand before a full orchestra and play Leonard
Bernstein's West Side Story Suite, soundly eclipsing such
pop stars as Bob Dylan, Alicia Keyes, and U2's Bono. In a cleverly
condensed version of the 19-minute suite that was arranged by William
David Brohn and performed by Bell on the West Side Story Suite
CD, and nominated for best classical crossover recording, Bell gave
what critics hailed as the most energetic and uplifting performance
of the evening. "Actually," laughs a relaxed and contemplative
Bell, "I don't remember much about the other performers
that night. I was too busy blocking out everything about even being
at the Grammys."
busy blocking out the Grammys?
he says, still laughing. "It's a skill I have."
kidding. Musicians, he goes on to explain, must often strive to block
out distractions. "Musicians have to go inside themselves when
they play," he says. "We climb right inside the music and
inhabit the world that we create and to do that we usually end up
blocking out everything else."
to Bell, on this particular Grammy night, held at Staples Center in
Los Angeles, there were plenty of distractions on hand, and one or
two looming disasters.
distraction was the award contest itself, in which Bell was a multiple
nominee. He'd taken home a Grammy the previous year, winning
Best Classical Recording for his performance of Nicholas Maw's
Violin Concerto (Sony Classical), commissioned especially for Bell.
This year, however, Bell was competing against himself (more or less)
in the Best Classical Crossover Album category. Leonard Bernstein:
West Side Story Suite, it so happens, eventually lost out to Perpetual
Motion, Bela Fleck's offbeat classical banjo project on which
Bell played on four major pieces. By the time Bell took the stage
late in the show, tension was high, added to by a series of bizarre
technical mishaps occurring shortly before Bell's big Grammy
performance was to begin.
seconds before I went on the air, my mic still wasn't working,"
Bell says, managing to sound more amused than abused. "People
were screaming and running around, trying to figure out why my mic
wasn't on. It was horrible pressure, incredible tension. It was
crazy. Then, about two seconds before they cut to me, the mic came
on, I got the cue to start, and I started playing."
no one watching would ever have known that anything was wrong, so
commanding and focused was Bell's playing, from the first note
to the last. "Sometimes," he allows, "when circumstances
are not ideal, you can sort of make up for it by putting a whole lot
of energy into your playing. That's my trick when things go bad."
The man who
played the music of the fictional red violin is the owner of the well-known
real red violin: the 1793 Antonio Stradivari known as the Gibson
ex-Huberman. The instrument is named for the 19th-century violinist
Alfred Gibson, and the late Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, from
whom it was stolen in 1936, snatched from his dressing room at Carnegie
Hall. Fifty-one years later, the violin resurfaced after a dramatic
jailhouse confession, and in 2001, Joshua Bell purchased the instrument
for an estimated $4 million. It is, according to Bell, the only violin
he owns. Says he, "I can't afford anything else."
of Joshua Bell by Timothy White.