Joshua Bell on Composition, Hyperviolins,
and the Future of Music
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."
Read about the inventor of the hyperbow.
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."