Fresh Prince
Joshua Bell on composition, hyperviolins, and the future


by David Templeton

 

Joshua Bell 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 music—well, 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.

Legend has 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 Machover—who 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.

"I go 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 instruments—which are intentionally intuitive and easy to learn, says Bell—shortly before the performance.

"These instruments really are like toys," Bells explains, "really cool electronic toys that Toy Symphony was composed for."

The pedagogical 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 Caprice—along with the Toy Symphony and other pieces—can 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 intended—only we did it with a Strad and a computer."

Impressive Credentials

While Bell 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 projects—both on record and on stage—with 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.

When people 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 Bell—whose rich, emotive solos became the soul of the popular soundtrack—proclaiming, "Joshua plays like a god!"

Last year, 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 set—the Sesame Street set!—interacting with muppets."

A 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 experimentation—socially, 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 earlier—or later, for that matter—he might not be so adept at blending and mixing styles and philosophies, or be as prone to so many disparate enthusiasms.

An unabashed 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.

Bell tours 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.

"We live in such an amazing time, but a strange time," says Bell. "We have all kinds of music existing all at once—classical, traditional, world music, popular music—and not everyone has a real identification with a particular type of music. That includes me."

Stirring it Up

His latest recording effort, the Mendelssohn and Beethoven violin concertos—while breaking no technological boundaries at all—is 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.

"I'm glad to be getting another crack at it," he says of the Mendelssohn work, "I was never that happy with that recording."

His earlier Mendelssohn recording—an in-studio performance conducted by Sir Neville Mariner with the Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields—was 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 and Mendelssohn.

"There 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 year—I hadn't ever done the Beethoven—I 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."

What makes 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 Beethoven.

"Beethoven's is certainly the biggest of the concertos," he says. "So it demands the biggest cadenza."

Perhaps not so big—but arguably more daring and probably controversial—is 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 it."

One of the striking things about Mendelssohn's violin concerto is that the cadenza comes right in the middle, so it makes it awkward—some might call it inappropriate—to 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 ago—as an exercise—I 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 OK."

When Bell decided to revisit the Mendelssohn concerto, he struggled over whether to include his own cadenza or to stick with the original, better-known cadenza.

"I finally 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," he says.

Joshua Bell has never minded shocking people.

"It's 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."

Alive and fresh and ever-changing—words 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 music.

All in Fun

As for his own education on the high-tech hyperviolin, and his test-drive of the instrument in Dublin—an act he will repeat when the Toy Symphony is performed Stateside over the next year—Bell 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.

"It's 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 Strad—all the colors and subtleties you can bring out in a great old instrument—are still way beyond what we can do with the hyperviolin."

Replacing 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.

Perhaps the 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.

Indeed, Bell 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.

"Then 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 of me."

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."

In writing 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.

"I don't know when I'll find the time," he allows, "but it is my dream to compose more—and certainly being around people like Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall and Sam Bush was inspiring."

Two years 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.

"Now," says Bell, "I'd like more of that."

 


NO DEARTH OF COOL

With his 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."

Bell was busy blocking out the Grammys?

"Yes," he says, still laughing. "It's a skill I have."

Bell isn't 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."

According 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.

The chief 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.

"Ten 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."

Amazingly, 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."


WHAT BELL PLAYS

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."


 

Photo of Joshua Bell by Timothy White.

Excerpted from Strings magazine, October 2002, No. 105.


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