String Section: Humor and Creativity in Classical Music

Mike Lawson • String Section • April 6, 2018

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I have noticed an increased acceptance (in and aside from the classical musician’s professional world) of artists with classical training successfully branching out in some way from traditional performance.

I see ingenuity, humor, and popularization of the genre as those in our field use the instrument in unique or alternative performance styles to influence and excite musicians across diverse age groups.

When using the Internet to search for string music presented in nontraditional ways, you will stumble into a whole lot of musicians doing their “own thing;” many are doing so in addition to their regular jobs (both as musicians and in other fields). I think people will be surprised at the caliber found in self-produced music done in small home studios. It is truly amazing what is out there in relative obscurity (not for want of quality or skill or creativity).

The musicians I ultimately reference or highlight are those who were revealed to me within the natural context and conversation as an instructor and performer of/on the violin and viola.

• Black Violin: violin/viola with DJ (or live symphony orchestra)

• TwoSet Violin: violin duo/ comedians

• 2Cellos: cello duo

• Piano Guys: piano-cello-videographer-music producer

• Laurie Anderson: violinist, multimedia concept productions

• Victor Borge: pianist/comedian

• Lindsey Sterling: violinist/interpretive dance

Several years ago, I saw a run of adolescent girls who came to the studio wishing to play like Lindsey Sterling (more than one arrived to their very first lesson with her sheet music in hand). Regardless of my opinion of the musician herself, I do not deny her positive  influence on a generation of students seeking out skills on the violin. Perhaps every generation has had their equivalent.

Will our currently successful cadre of strings celebrities remain recognized names for their current success or ongoing live success? I wonder which artists will pass the test of time.

Let us take a look at a few strings performing groups currently touring to large audiences as well as offering audio/video productions of their material (in the now familiar “music video” format used by most musicians, regardless of genre).

Black Violin

Here is an ensemble that uses classical training and classical instruments in a hip-hop context. The rhythmic component carries the instrumental lines well. The violist will occasionally sing whilst accompanying himself with “guitar-style” pizz. between the vocal lines. These selections are refreshing and serve to keep the driving beats from claiming the songs’ individual material.

The duo is about making the performance art fun and relatable to a wide cultural base and allowing the instrument to be perceived more readily as “cool” by school-aged children. The third article of this series will focus on their educational component and how it affects, integrates, or enhances their persona or identity as artists.

Piano Guys

I believe the strength of the group Piano Guys lies in the use of both video and recorded/engineered music to create a canvas onto which a viewer can easily put their own meaning. It can be with or without the awareness that they are supplying, via their cumulative experience, a context in which the music best connects. Their music may be the classical equivalent of “easy listening;” the melodic lines are pleasing, the arrangements are well constructed, and the quality of musicianship is well established.

In graduate school, one of my professors leant me his VHS tape containing a Laurie Anderson show for an academic project. At the time of that show’s recording, it was groundbreaking stuff to use the violin as she did, with various looping tech, pedals, and other effects, sometimes very different than the sound we usually identify with the violin. Not only did she experiment with the fundamental way she used the violin and manipulated its sound, but she was making performances huge. Large in scale, scope, and production, she employed a multimedia approach using a central theme to bring it all together (similar to “concept albums”).

In our current culture, it has become more common to see the violin used with FX pedals and building a one-man-band into a full accompaniment of sound by looping the sounds. A current artist doing this is Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy). Earlier this year on Prairie Home Companion he presented a live demonstration of how his songs are put together.

What strikes me all these years later about the Laurie Anderson project is I can’t recall what it actually was. I do, however, remember repeatedly questioning myself: “yes, but do I like this?”

It wasn’t clear. I settled for a respect of sorts which allowed me to bypass the question altogether. I suspect that similar behaviors are common to the academic environment and a particular area within one’s musical maturity.

The Flip Side

We should be careful that “new” or “nontraditional” music doesn’t end up projecting the pressures or expectations onto listeners as was previously used to preserve what was considered acceptable for “western art music” and its culture.

Tastes in music can begin assuming extra-musical roles based on stylistic cultural relevance and the environment in which it feels most at home. Music has a unique role and impact on one’s identity, personal growth and lifestyle. It is something we explore. In that vein, it follows that if the music is associated with a certain cultural personality, then the listeners can feel that in order to be part of that personality, they should also like the music that is seen to represent it. I believe this to be a danger for all types of music, affecting everyone: the listener/audience, the musicians who make it, and the degree of success the music achieves.

The second article in this series will explore cultural movements, social justice, and musical stereotypes.

Creativity: Luxury or Work?

It is worth mentioning that creative success is relative and self-defined. The majority of creative endeavors are encouraged and valued as a peripheral activity unless you are able to secure a type of recognition that is financially viable and visible. To some extent, all musicians must manage the perception that what they do is a bit like indulging in a hobby. Oh, it is exhausting to never relax or rest on achieved success; there is always the next thing and the need to prove you can do it. This phenomenon and its demands are amplified with professional creativity.

Most (but not all) career musicians are, by nature, somewhat creative. However, the job market for creating is much different than for a performer. Many do both. I mention this to say: you can choose to make recognition your goal, or you can create for your own reasons. Sometimes, but not often, do the two align.

Examining Elements of Success

Musicianship After reading the SBO interview of Nadia Salerno Sonnenberg (February 2018), I did an internet search to watch her noted performance style. I found a performance she did with Eileen Ivers and Regina Carter in 2002 with the Boston Pops (Interplay for Three Violins); it was amazing. The individual styles, the authenticity, the musical energy, and skills converged in a performance of interest and of musical consequence. I shared the link with colleagues, one of whom shared it with a student (who enjoyed and learned from it). Those musicians, as well as the other successful performers I have mentioned, are successful in part because they play with conviction, personality, and style. It is with those elements that communication can be achieved.

Technology vs. Skill It is not necessary to stretch beyond the standard “classical” parameters of style or presentation if one is able to perform effectively and personally within them. Similarly, I am wont to conclude that any time one relies too heavily upon technology to impress a creative vision, the life of its success is in danger of being determined by the pace of that technology’s advance. Which one can’t begin to guess or predict with accuracy.

Those ventures most reliant upon well communicated content will retain artistic integrity despite any limitations of media used to capture it.


Much of the successful musical humor is intended for musicians. Often those in a competitive environment with high-pressure performance jobs take themselves too seriously. A healthy laugh at self and career is sometimes sorely needed and always much appreciated. It can disperse stress before it gains momentum in one’s disposition and every-day life and health.

That is a huge deal, as are those who do it well. Similar to comedians of the culture at large, a career surviving from one decade through the next usually provides content and character that is not reliant upon cultural fads or social movements to provide adequate context. A good example is the Danish-American pianist/conductor/comedian Victor Borge who was primarily active between 1917 and 1999. That is a huge career span! This span of success (and ongoing recognition) shows us that the quality of performance/performer often remains in esteem regardless of the quality of the media used to capture it (cinematography equal to when it was recorded and produced).

Victor Borge is an undeniable success. There are asteroids, statues, buildings, and awards in his honor and name. According to Wikipedia, a television series and cinematic film about his life are set to be filmed this year, in addition to a special which PBS aired in 2009, 100 Years of Music and Laughter.

A currently popular group that is thematically comparable is an Australian violin duo calling themselves TwoSet Violin. They are widely known for their funny and sometimes painfully relatable videos depicting life as a classical musician. They recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for the very first crowdfunded classical music tour, with near continuous busking inviting with any string player who wishes to join in. Many young aspiring musicians and enthusiasts have gathered with the duo to join the campaign and fun. I recommend watching clips of these two examples back-to-back.

Live Performance

Elsewhere along the spectrum of musical content, we see acts such as 2cellos. Although some of their most produced videos are heavy on the special effects, they are nevertheless crafted around an astoundingly enigmatic, passionate, and energetic duo who put all of themselves into their music; they give 100 percent. The reach of their abilities on stage do not rely upon the technology as some of their most inspired sets are purely instrumental and organic. They have fun with the extra affects, and they are for the most part, done well. I am curious as to how well their produced videos fare over time. I suspect they will do well as the content is universal (about the human experience).

It should be noted, especially to be fair to all the musicians mentioned, that not everyone is necessarily focused or concerned with the staying power or lasting qualities of what they are doing. It is completely valid to make music because it is fun. If others are interested in what you are doing musically, there need not be a discussion; it is not necessary to dissect. Popularity does not require quantification to be acknowledged as meaningful. If music is, in any given moment, successful (significantly enjoyed), then there is no denying that there is something meaningful happening.

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