Interview: Joshua Bell
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog freelancer Stephanie Quan isn’t a classical music buff, but she got interested in virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell when she heard about this experiment in a D.C. metro station. Eight months later, she snagged a phone interview with the Strad-playing celebrity, and quizzed him on childhood habits and favorite dead people.
Joshua Bell: Hi! This is Joshua Bell here.
Hi, this is Stephanie. Shall we start? I’ve got a lot of questions written down here.
I got answers.
So you first began violin after your parents found you playing with rubberbands on your dresser. What inspired you to do that?
Well I grew up with a lot of music around me. So I’m sure that I was stimulated by hearing my mother play the piano and my father, [he] loved music. [he] had a violin himself. Although he was sorta self-taught. But there was just a lot of music going around. All my cousins, my siblings played music. So I suppose hearing all that made me want to make music and my first sort of homemade instruments were those rubberbands on my dresser drawer. Then my parents got me a violin and it was just a very natural thing. It was like learning to speak, you know, playing music. I can’t even really remember not playing the violin.
So I’ve actually had to try this myself… and it’s not easy! How does it exactly work? Where do the rubberbands go?
Well I haven’t repeated the experiment myself in the last thirty years. I had a set of nine little dresser drawers and I used to string these rubberbands across from one to the next and open up the drawers to different lengths to get different pitches.
So I know a lot of people, myself included, began instruments as well when we were young but sort of threw our hands up at a certain point and gave up. What kept you going? Were there teachers that inspired you along the way?
Yes, probably. I happen to have very good teachers. I think that’s true of anything in life, you know? Whether it’s physics class or people who say they hate math, they probably didn’t have very good teachers. Of course being very good at it when I was little, [I] took to it very quickly, was able to learn it very quickly and just, it felt right. That certainly helps to stick with something. Playing the violin may not be for everybody. I know I never really took to the piano and didn’t think I was particularly good at it. But the violin, somehow it just clicked with me. So that kept me interested, and I didn’t always want to practice. I’m not the most disciplined person in the world, I’ve got a lot of other interests and sports and other things. But somehow it was never really an option for me, I never thought of it as an option to quit, to quit playing. I think I do attribute that to my teachers.
Do you ever get tired of playing by yourself and wish to just play music in an informal group, sort of like a jam session with some friends?
Well, you know, pretty much every time I play, I’m playing with other people. Whether it’s [as a] soloist with an orchestra behind me or if it’s a solo recital tour, I have a pianist with me like Jeremy Denk. I’m doing a tour with him, just starting in January. And I love chamber music. I love playing chamber music for work or for pleasure. I do invite friends over to play and [it’s] actually one of my goals with my new apartment which I’ve been building in New York for the last two years (It’s almost finished) to have house concerts or sort of informal concerts where I invite people over to listen and friends over to play and people over to read chamber music together, which is a wonderful way to play music–for fun in the living room.
Sounds like you’re building a sort of New Yorker garage for a classical band.
Yeah. Well, you know a lot of this music was written precisely for that. In the 19th century, that’s what people did. Of course they had concerts. But people also… it was a little more pervasive I think. Music in general. What we call classical music now was what people played in their homes. It was very common to have people over and play music, similar to the way guys or whatever get together in their garage bands. I think a lot of the music, like Schubert’s, was written to be played in the home as a sort of salon environment and it’s really a fun way to listen to music–to be in an intimate atmosphere of someone’s home. It’s really visceral to be that close and also to play that way instead of playing in big halls or Hollywood Bowl miked out to 18,000 people or whatever. That’s fun [also].
You recently released an album in September ’06 called Voice of the Violin, which consisted of pieces written for voice reworked into violin pieces. What was it like to begin choosing pieces for such an album? How do you decide what is workable and what’s not?
Voice of the Violin was a follow up to Romance of the Violin, which was a series of new transcriptions for the violin of famous melodies that weren’t originally written for the violin. Voice of the Violin followed up with that but did arrangements of all vocal music and famous arias and opera tunes and that sort of thing. I enjoy that sort of new arrangement and then most recently with the Red Violin Concerto, [this] is the last sort of most recent incarnation of music written for the film The Red Violin.
Which was about 10 years ago…
Yep, almost ten years ago. It won the Oscar for musical score. I was very deeply involved in that project back then. Since then he’s created this violin concerto which is very serious, wonderful work for violin and orchestra that I perform on stage–you don’t need the film to enjoy it and it’s an amazing forty minute violin concerto which I think will make it a standard in the violinists’ repertoire in this coming century.
Speaking of music for the coming century. Where do you see violin or classical music going as a whole? Would you like to collaborate with more experimental composers?
It’s hard to define what classical music is exactly. I try not to think of boundaries exactly because I’m not exactly sure where they are myself. I’ve collaborated with James Taylor on a Gershwin song together (with some arrangements for violin). Is that classical music? I don’t know. It’s just music. I’ve played with bluegrass musicians music written by Edgar Meyer who is an amazing double bass player that sort of straddles the bluegrass/classical worlds and creates music that is hard to define. So I’m always open to collaborating with interesting musicians. Being a classical musician, from one moment to the next you’re playing Bach to the next minute you’re playing Corigliano and next Gershwin or Bernstein or avant garde classical and yet it’s all considered classical music. I like not to think of the traditional boundaries.
I think we’ve got not very much time. They’re giving me signals. Maybe one last question?
Okay…hm…we’ll make it a quick one. Name five dead people you’d like to meet.
Five dead people. Wow. Let’s see, but they would be alive when I met them right?
Right, and no language barriers.
And they wouldn’t smell? Okay. Um. Boy that’s a hard one. I would say maybe Einstein? And uhï¿½ Mozart. Paganini the great violinist… maybe the greatest of all time, but we don’t have any CDs because he was sadly born too soon. Who else? Goshï¿½ maybe Heifetz, though I might be disappointed because I hear he wasn’t such a nice guy, although he was my hero growing up. Maybe my grandfather, whom I never met. [He] apparently loved the violin.
Great. That sounds like a good list. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me to today.
No, thank you. Nice talking to you. Hopefully meet you in person someday.