Who's Afraid of Beethoven? A Conversation With Joshua Bell

If you run into violinist Joshua Bell at a cocktail party, don’t tell him you find classical music ‘relaxing.’ “Beethoven’s symphonies are not relaxing,” says Bell, who at 45 is director, conductor, and lead violinist of Academy of St Martin in the Fields, where he first performed at the age of 18: “They are the most exciting things that have ever been created by a human being.”  

Video: Joshua Bell on why Beethoven's 4th and 7th symphonies just don't get old. 

I defy you, reader, to dig up or invent an adequate definition of “classical music.” According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, the term generally refers to any body of “serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.” And in the West, strictly speaking, it apparently means: “music written in the European tradition during a period lasting approximately from 1750 to 1830, when forms such as the symphony, concerto, and sonata were standardized.” 

“Long established principles”? That’s an 80 year period. And it excludes Vivaldi, Bach, and a couple centuries’ worth of madrigals, operas, and polyphonic church music. It also excludes, at the other end, classically-informed modern and postmodern developments such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll, and Radiohead’s Kid A. “Serious”? What does that even mean? Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is about as serious as the 70’s sitcom Three’s Company. 

Without impossibly broad terms like ‘classical music,’ or ‘Russian literature’ or ‘Republican’ it would be pretty much impossible to discuss anything or gain any kind of perspective on the vast scope of history and human culture. But because of the way our minds learn, such terms are internalized as cognitive schemata – mental clusters of bits of information around a broad concept that enable us to “get” something in a flash without really thinking about it. Schemas are a useful survival shorthand; you don’t really need to observe the unique characteristics of this particular leopard to know that you’d better run, now. But schemas also account for prejudices (positive and negative) such as “Classical music is relaxing,” “classical music is boring.” Or, “that noise you kids are listening to is not music.”  

Video: Joshua Bell on his new(ish) job as director of Academy of St Martin in the Fields. 

So what happens in your mind when you hear that Academy of St Martin in the Fields has just released Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies, starring and conducted by Joshua Bell? If your experience of Beethoven is more or less limited to that famous, wild-haired, wild-eyed portrait and the da-da-da-DUM opening of the fifth symphony, you’ll think of violins, tuxedos, and, possibly, the word intense.  For others, Beethoven’s 7th is “the apotheosis of the dance” (Richard Wagner), the Academy is the most-recorded and one of the best-loved chamber orchestras in history, and Bell’s playing “...does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live” (Interview magazine). 

Listen to an excerpt from Joshua Bell Conducts Beethoven Symphonies no. 4 & 7, Academy of St Martin in the Fields. 

Joshua Bell grew up in a household in which learning about and loving classical music was “like learning to speak. It was just what you did.” He’s heard and played music from the 4th and 7th symphonies hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Yet his enthusiasm in talking about them, and about music in general, is childlike and infectious. For Bell, music – and specifically Western classical music – is obviously a big part of what makes life worth living. It’s a joy he’s made it his life’s mission to share with others. 

Which brings us back to cognitive schemas. One of the biggest challenges classical orchestras face these days is in cultivating younger audiences. ASMF is no exception, and as its director, Bell brings a younger energy (one of his main passions growing up was playing videogames) and a willingness to question conventions like the Academy’s white-tie-and-tails uniform: 

Which really has nothing to do with the music...It only supports the cliché, you know, that classical music is somehow old and stuffy, which it doesn’t have to be. But playing in venues and experimenting with midnight concerts or jeans concerts or kids concerts, it’s all stuff we’re talking about and I think it’s extremely important.

But you won’t hear Bell conducting over a techno beat anytime soon. His own experience, and the experience he wants for his audiences is that the best of what we call classical music is timeless, revealing something new every time you listen to it. What’s unique about his new recording of Beethoven’s 4th and 7th isn’t that it’s being played on banjos or accompanied in concert by computer-generated projections. It’s that Bell and, under his direction, the musicians of ASMF are telling the “stories” of these symphonies the way they felt them this time around, encountering them in a London rehearsal studio in 2012.

I, for one, who can quote most of Hamlet's monologues from memory but couldn’t tell a concerto from an overture if you held a gun to my head, plan to clear my mind of bowties, tails, and that crazy-haired Beethoven image and try my very best to hear them. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter


Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

Bespoke suicide pods now available for death in style

Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.

The Sarco assisted suicide pod
Technology & Innovation

Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco! 

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.