Dec

29

Interview: Joshua Bell

Written by

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.


josh bellBwog: Hi.


 

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. 

Uh huh.

 

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 uh� 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?  Gosh� 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.

 

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28 Comments

  1. yay steph!

    great interview! i hope you meet him in person too, yum.

  2. i second that

    and i'm not knocking this interview because it's awesome, and i am super-jealous you got to talk to him, but i would have given him a follow-up to your first question.

    namely, when he says, "I used to string these rubberbands across from one to the next and open up the drawers to different lengths to get different pitches," i couldn't help but wonder whether he simply knew intrinsically that he could make the rubberbands "twang" at different pitches by changing their lengths...sounds pretty crazy for a little kid who hadn't picked up a violin yet, but then again, i wouldn't put it past him.

  3. wow

    having never heard of mr. bell before this post... i found the article about his plaza performance to be absolutely amazing.

  4. hi!

    Steph, Joshua Bell was born in 1967. He is 7 years younger than me ma. Just thought you might want to know...i was shocked when I read that in his bio at lincoln center over the summer.

  5. hmm

    cool, but this relates to Columbia how?

  6. how many times

    will the interviewer and her friends comment on this post? let's take some bets.

  7. i'm

    going to see this guy at Carnegie Hall in February. He's friggin amazing. I kind of wish a classical music person interviewed him, but I think that this interview still turned out nicely.

  8. seen him, know him

    josh bell is extremely talented, no doubt, but he is the most pretentious soloist out there. he is nowhere near the level of the 'greats' but unfortunately he has been co-opted as a media darling because he is incredibly media-savvy. first time I saw him play, he stopped in the middle of the Chaconne because 'too many people are coughing in my performance.' it wasn't a bad performance, but simply not great.

    that said, it's a nice surprise seeing this on bwog and for non-musicians, josh bell is pretty outstanding.

  9. this article flies

    in the face of the columbia community's commitment to non-violins!

  10. true story

    Joshua Bell is actually kind of creepy in person and is into teenage girls. But hey, what celebrity musician isn't?

  11. love

    it doesn't matter that she wasn't a classical music person. i'm a violinist and still thought the interview was great.

    so, so jealous.

  12. cupidity

    i love learning new words.

  13. i don't get it

    Why are people usually so mean on bwog and now this one time are being so congratulatory about the writing of this post?? I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with this post...but it's an interview! The author didn't need to do very much besides listen!

  14. actually

    i thought this interview was not very good, but I thought his replies were interesting. asking about how to play rubber bands and the five dead people he'd like to meet, and comparing his collaborations with a garage band? idk, would have liked to have had someone with a classical music background do the interview.

  15. dear bwog

    i am lonely and i miss columbia. please help.

    sincerely,
    ennui mcboredface

  16. lovers  

    Well, that figures. He looks like a teenage boy.

  17. whatever

    If you're creepy but look that hot playing violin, I forgive you.

  18. hum hum

    what makes you think that he is into teenage girls???
    Please tell us the whole story!

  19. the whole truth

    I'd have to agree with all the comments above...JB is a creeper and has stalked girls after a party on facebook.

  20. the whole truth

    and also, you know...hooked up with these girls. (18 - 24 years old)..happens at the good summer music festivals. HES CREEPY.

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