February 6, 2012

New Directions, Old Music: And Interview with Joseph Lin

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THE SUN: When did you start playing the violin?

Joseph Lin: I know I did a little bit of the Suzuki method when I was around 2 years old. You can probably understand why I don’t remember it that clearly. But that was just a few months. I would probably say that my formal training started when I was four.

SUN: When did you know that you wanted to play the violin as a career?

J.L.: It didn’t dawn on me at any particular point. And even now, my mind and my thoughts go in cycles and in different directions. It sort of happened without me deciding at one point that’s absolutely what I want to do. It went in phases; there were times when I was more serious about violin as a career and there were times when I was open to many other possibilities and explored life more broadly. It just so happened that fate didn’t allow me to stray too far from the violin.

SUN: Can you describe some of those fatal moments that led you towards the violin?

J.L.: One was my undergraduate I did at Harvard, and I wasn’t a music major. So I could easily have strayed, not in a bad sense, but there are so many other wonderful things I could have really immersed myself in at Harvard, and many students do. But I think that one thing that kept me from straying too far was when I finished high school about that time, I won a competition that’s run by an organization called Concert Artist Guild and in winning that competition, what you get is basically an organization that tries to develop your career, whether by giving you concerts or trying to give you some basic management services and then hopefully move you onto the next step after a few years. So even though I was interested in many, many other things, I did have concerts outside of campus that I had to prepare for whether I wanted to or not. That forced me to keep practicing and to keep growing as a musician. It turned out that Harvard was absolutely formative for me, those four years, in my growth as a musician. But I think it was the pairing of the outside necessity, that I had concerts that I had to keep practicing for and my time at Harvard really shaped me as a musician.

The other was when I decided to spend some time exploring China after Harvard. This was for personal reasons, and not so much for career reasons having to do with the violin. In fact, there were periods of several months where I didn’t do much playing at all. But I worked things out so that I continued my performing in more concentrated periods, so I would have two or three months where I was traveling and exploring in China and not doing much violin at all, and then following that, I would have two months where I was playing a lot of concerts. And that took some planning, but I was lucky that it worked out.

SUN: What did you actually major in at Harvard?

J.L.: My major was actually Comparative Study of Religion, which illustrates my point that I was interested in many things and it could have gone in any direction.

SUN: Did you find it difficult to maintain music or were those concerts central to keeping you active?

J.L.: It was a combination of my outside concerts that I had to simply prepare for and learn lots of repertoire, but also what I got musically at Harvard was just wonderful. It may not have been music lessons for credit as  at Cornell, and that’s a wonderful thing that Cornell offers. I did take violin lessons from a teacher based in Boston. His name is Lynn Chang and I took those lessons, but even at Harvard, there are plenty of music classes you can take. There are the usually regiment of theory and history if you want them. One particular theory class was very, very important for me, and it went far beyond theory because the teacher was so wonderful in that respect, applying what can be something abstract to the music that we’re playing and listening to every day, ranging from classical to what we’re listening to on the radio: rock and pop music, and everything in between. And then there are other classes such as a chamber music courses, which is in some ways is not quite lessons for your instrument, but it’s coachings, and that was given for credit at Harvard, coachings and discussions and writing about chamber music that you play. So I did take some of these courses, and they were very instrumental for me. And then outside of what the music department offers, there are just so many wonderful musicians among your classmates at Harvard. I knew a lot of them who had gone to Juilliard Pre-College with me.

SUN: You mentioned earlier your interest in Chinese music, do you find there is a relationship between Chinese music and the violin?

J.L.: I just explore things for what they are. Inevitably they will somehow affect me as a person and as a musician, but I don’t start out trying to fuse styles or mix styles. It expands my sensitivity or my awareness to the great range of artistic and musical expression that human being have produced or have been active in over the millennia. With western classical music, it’s mainly just a couple of hundred years, but with Chinese music, in particular this one instrument, gu-qin that I studied, we’re talking about a couple thousand years, so that also puts perspective on what I am more active in, the tradition of western classical music. It puts some historical perspective on that.

SUN: Did you find it difficult jumping into the Juilliard String Quartet as the newest member?

J.L.: I have been helped by incredibly supportive and encouraging colleagues in the quartet and so that has certainly made it less difficult than it might have been otherwise, but these are three people and to them, I’m somebody who they haven’t worked with much at all in the past and so there are new sounds and new personalities to get used to. It happened that I had played several years prior on a couple of occasions with the violist [Samuel Rhodes] at the Barbaro festival. But with the other two musicians in the quartet, the cellist, Joel Krosnick, and the second violinist, Ronald Copes, I had very little contact prior to joining the group. But in the audition process, it was playing together. Yes we were new to each other, but the assumption is that in choosing me, I was somebody that could with some concerted effort, come into the group, and be part of the blend, and also be a distinctive voice enough within the group sound. I’m not simply slipping into a sound and not noticed as a new voice, but a new voice that has something to contribute to the sound and identity of the quartet.

SUN: Although you could easily fill large halls for your concerts, recently in January the Quartet performed at Le Poisson Rougue, an intimate, trendy night club in New York City. Is this a new direction for the quartet? Any other new directions for the group?

J.L.: There is no question that we will eventually take new directions, maybe similar in nature to when I explore things that are not central to the western classical repertoire, I don’t start out by saying this is a new direction. But it’s more in retrospect; you see trends starting at certain points. And playing at Le Poisson Rouge, I don’t know if that’s starting us in any particular direction, but it’s certainly an acknowledgement that what we do needs to go beyond the conventional venues of the concert hall.

SUN: How do you see classical music and the string quartet remaining current and relevant?

J.L.: I think there’s no question that the string quartet will remain relevant. It’s such a versatile ensemble, there are so many fine young string quartets out there wanting to play the tradition of great repertoire, but also putting the string quartet out there in new ways to playing new music. I think that audiences appreciate it, composers know that writing for the string quartet is in some ways an ultimate test of their ability. I think the quartet as a medium of musical and artistic expression will continue to stay very relevant.

Joseph Lin is a former Cornell faculty member and currently the first violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet. Among his many projects, while at Cornell, he organized a Chinese Music Residency and a project studying Bach’s Violin Sonatas and Partitas along with new compositions by Cornell composers. Before coming to Cornell for the string quartet’s concert in Bailey Hall on Friday, Feb. 10 at 8 p.m.

Original Author: Liza Sobel