By Lenny Cavallaro
Methuen, MA, USA

When Stay Thirsty Magazine first asked me to interview Joshua Bell again, I assumed he had either another forthcoming CD or television special, or something of the sort. However, I was completely surprised to learn about the virtual violin sounds he has helped develop. Our conversation immediately focused on this exciting new software.

LENNY CAVALLARO: How and why did you get interested in creating the Joshua Bell Virtual Violin with the virtual instrument sampling company Embertone?

JOSHUA BELL: I heard about Embertone through someone in my management team who had become aware of them. Apparently the people at Embertone also knew that I have always had an interest in technology, and they asked whether I might like to participate in this latest development, producing virtual sounds on my Stradivarius that represent a major advance over anything that has yet been generated. Naturally, I was very interested, and for good reason.

Joshua Bell recording in Embertone's Avatar studio
Composers, particularly those who write violin sonatas or concerti, are usually unable to produce a recording, so they must rely on computer-generated sounds for their “demo” files. These, unfortunately, have almost always been rather disappointing in quality. For example, my friend Edgar Meyer has sent me a number of scores with audio samples, but the files often sounded almost robotic, for want of a better term. I have always felt that it would be useful to have a better sampling technology, so I was delighted when Embertone approached me.

The process involved going into the studio over the course of several days and sampling every sound we could think of: every articulation, every dynamic, different timbres, etc. They recently sent me a sample of the third movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with some remarkable details – slurs, spiccato, and the like – and I have to admit I was quite impressed with what they have accomplished.

Embertone's Joshua Bell Virtual Violin (Overview)

LENNY CAVALLARO: I’ve certainly heard my share of various “playback” sounds (and worse), so I can appreciate the need for something of this sort. But do you feel the software did justice to your violin – and I’m talking about that Strad, the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius? Perhaps I should rephrase that, since clearly nothing can do justice to such a precious instrument, but let’s just ask how you felt the violin actually sounded.

JOHUA BELL: Well, even with a high-quality recording, I never feel anything does full justice to the sounds produced. However, I’m usually quite satisfied with what I hear, and I must tell you that the Embertone product clearly does sound like me. So, yes, I’m very impressed by what they have accomplished, and I think it will be interesting to see what they do with this a couple of years down the road. Perhaps we can take it up yet another level at that time – a “Joshua Bell 2.0” – but for now, it’s clearly leaps and bounds above anything that has been done before. I’m not talking about me, but about this technology, which definitely sounds a lot like my violin. Of course, these were just “raw” demos. The musicality of the users will also prove very important as we wait to see how they will utilize the many functions we once dreamed about and have now actually created.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Let’s expand a little on something you mentioned earlier. In order to create a large enough library of samples, how did you go about mapping out what was needed from you and what would be necessary for users of your virtual violin? After all, you have legato, spiccato, staccato, all those different attacks …

JOSHUA BELL: They had already developed an overview of everything they could think of, and while we were in the studio, I had a number of additional suggestions – various bow strokes, playing over the fingerboard, and all sorts of effects that are used by violinists to produce so many different kinds of sounds. And, of course, we get different timbres by adjusting bow speed, bow pressure, bow angle, distance from the bridge, and other such factors.

Joshua Bell with Embertone's Alex Davis and Jonathan Churchill

LENNY CAVALLARO: … and all of these bring us closer to a Joshua Bell performance.

JOSHUA BELL: Well, yes and no. You must remember that with the last movement of the Mendelssohn, for example, the software could indeed mimic my sound, but it certainly did not present my interpretation of the work. The sound file does not in any way reflect my choice of tempi, where I might add some slurs, or the many nuances that I would put into that interpretation. What we have now uses my “library of sounds,” but doesn’t really sound the way I might perform the work. Still, as composers get their hands on this, I think it will be fascinating to hear what they do with it.

LENNY CAVALLARO: That actually segues to an interesting question. Will you be receiving credit for providing the sounds utilized in the creation of new music by composers who work with the Embertone program? How do you envision musicians will use the 20,000 individual samples that you provided for this virtual violin? As I’m sure you realize, many composers upload computer-generated files onto YouTube and/or SoundCloud.

JOSHUA BELL: Well, I certainly hope they don’t try to claim they’re uploading a Joshua Bell performance. I assume they’ll acknowledge the program itself – the Joshua Bell sound samples from Embertone – but as I’ve explained, they obviously cannot know how I might interpret any given work.

Joshua Bell (credit: Lisa Marie Mazzucco)

LENNY CAVALLARO: You said you haven’t had the opportunity to compose music with the Embertone program or play some of your favorite compositions on it?

JOSHUA BELL: Not yet. However, I have already composed cadenzas to violin concertos and written some arrangements, and I’m even somewhat half-heartedly working on a piece for violin when I have a little time. I definitely plan to write a violin sonata at some point, so as you can imagine, when I start really concentrating on composition, this will be an ideal tool.

LENNY CAVALLARO: It seems you’re quite pleased with the quality of the sound reproduction and the flexibility of the software to replicate your sounds accurately.

JOSHUA BELL: Generally, yes. Of course, I have my Strad, so if I compose something myself, I can also play it. However, composers often send me the scores of works that have never been performed before, and if they have this software, they’ll be able to give me a much better idea of how the piece will eventually sound.

As you can probably imagine, I have received stacks of music from composers who would like me to perform their pieces. With a career like mine, I’m always short of the time required to go through a score. However, if someone can send me a really good demo – as opposed to some of the inferior files that almost make the music sound less appealing – that piece will definitely get pushed toward the front of the line.

LENNY CAVALLARO:  I’ll keep that in mind! Now, here is a different technological question. You recently did a virtual reality project with Sony, in which you were recorded in full 360-degree VR. What role do you see VR playing in delivery of classical music performances in the future?

JOSHUA BELL: I’ve been very excited about VR for quite a while. The technology is definitely improving, and I think in the future it will almost be able to put people in the position in which they are experiencing something “live.” It would be like front-row seats at a concert, or with the one I did, it’s as though someone is right in front of the performer. I don’t know what “killer apps” have yet to be developed, but for me it would be like getting to a concert I’m unable to attend, or perhaps a football game – I’m a huge football fan! – with seats right on the 50-yard line. Of course, that day hasn’t come yet, but I truly believe it will.

LENNY CAVALLARO: Speaking of Sony, they recently released a 14-CD set of your performances. As you reflect back on your career so far, which recordings have been the most artistically gratifying or perhaps stand out as the most representative? Also, what recordings do you have on your list for the near future?

JOSHUA BELL: Of course, I’ve recorded a lot of the familiar repertoire – the major concertos – and in the spring we’ll release the Scottish Fantasy of Bruch, along with his famous Concerto in G minor. You could certainly say I’m still doing the “standard fare.” However, I must state that I’m actually very proud of some of the less recognizable pieces, the ones outside of familiar “great classic works.” Even though they might be considered “lighter,” I had a lot of fun with projects like the Bernstein West Side Story Suite, which I did many years ago, or the selections on Voice of the Violin and Romance of the Violin. I did new arrangements of some of the pieces and enjoyed them immensely.

Joshua Bell's 14-CD Collection

As for the more standard fare, I’ll soon be back with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and we’ll perform and later record Beethoven’s second symphony. That will be the last of the Beethoven symphonies – aside from the ninth, which I have yet to do – and it has certainly been very meaningful to conduct and direct these masterpieces.

LENNY CAVALLARO: We shall look forward to hearing them, and to further developments with the Joshua Bell Virtual Violin!

Addendum: Bell’s recording (with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields) of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Concerto in G minor is scheduled for release in June 2018.

Joshua Bell    
Lenny Cavallaro    
Lenny Cavallaro – Composer


Lenny Cavallaro edited and revised Paganini’s Fire by Ann Abelson.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.