Culture Magazine

TwoSet Violin – In Synch and Holding It in

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I’ve been watching a lot of TwoSet Violin recently and wanted to bring two rather different videos to your attention. The title of the first is self-explanatory as, I suppose, the title of the second as well.
2 Boys 1 Violin
The premise is simple. One plays the violin with two hands, but do both hands have to belong to the same violinist? Not necessarily. In this video Brett and Eddy divide the execution chores between: one of them fingers the violin while the other wields the bow. They switch tasks back and forth between them from one composition to the next. The result is surprisingly good?

But what’s surprising about it? They’re both excellent musicians and, as such, have had a great deal of experience making music with other musicians. That requires close coordination. When playing in the violin section of an orchestra, all violinists in the section must necessarily play the same notes at the same time and with the same phrasing. That requires, among other things, that their left hands move along the fingerboards in the same way and that their right hands execute bowing motions in the same way. From that point of view it is an accident of physical circumstance that, for each violin, the fingering hand and the bowing hand happen to be attached to the same violinist. But that’s not a matter of logical necessity, only physical structure.
From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that. That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole. [Here’s an old post spun out of this observation.]
In the case of these TwoSet performances we have, 1) a single violin instead of an elaborate electromechanical special effects puppet, and 2) Brett and Eddy instead of a team of half a dozen puppet operators. But the underlying principle is much the same.
In this video TwoSet in effect takes us behind the scenes two show us how this puppet (that is, the violin) is operated. What we see is, in effect, a single mind operating this strange double-body. Well, not quite. Their coordination isn’t perfect. For one thing, they aren’t the same height, and that causes problems here and there. And it seems that in at least one passage, they didn’t use the same fingering so bowing and fingering went haywire for awhile. Still, if they worked at it 40 hours a day, like Ling Ling, who doubts that they could blend the motions seamlessly?
Here they did violin covers suggested fans. They begin with a medley of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with elaborations, and then onto BTS’ Mic Drop, which I’m not at all familiar with; Eddie dances, and both of them fiddle around, throwing in some classical references. And then they arrive at the MOST DIFFICULT JOHN CAGE at 07:00. You can imagine what that is.

Yes, 4’33”. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
4′33″ (pronounced "four minutes, thirty-three seconds" or just "four thirty-three")[1] is a three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence". The title of the piece refers to the total length in minutes and seconds of a given performance, 4′33″ being the total length of the first public performance.
Conceived around 1947–48, while the composer was working on Sonatas and Interludes, 4′33″ became for Cage the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music. It was also a reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism, which Cage had studied since the late 1940s. In a 1982 interview, and on numerous other occasions, Cage stated that 4′33″ was, in his opinion, his most important work.[9] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes 4′33″ as Cage's "most famous and controversial creation".
And that it is, but it is not difficult in the sense that the word ordinarily has in reference to music, where it indicates technical difficulty. On the contrary, this piece is very easy to execute. The performers just sit or stand there doing nothing. It has a fairly extensive performance history.
Brett and Eddy make an elaborate show of not making any music (in the ordinary sense of the word). While they’re not making music – though Eddie does take violin in hand and is clearly fighting the temptation to play it while Brett stares at the ceiling ¬– we see a digital clock counting out the minutes and seconds. Are they really going to stretch this nonsense out the whole four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Yes, it seems, they are. And they do. From about 04:15 to the end they are visibly suppressing the sounds of laughter, which breaks out at 04:33.
At this point I’m not sure what to say. I’ve known about this piece for decades. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a live performance of it nor, for that matter, do I recall watching any other version on YouTube, though I’ve certainly come across them. Cage’s first book of essays, Silence, was very important to me in my undergraduate years, so I’ve got some understanding of and appreciation of the milieu surrounding Cage. A family friend, Jon Barlow, taught at Wesleyan University, where Cage had an affiliation. In the late 1990s when I was researching my book on music I visited Jon at Wesleyan and we performed one of Cage’s compositions. While it was only scored for piano, it was fundamentally improvisational in character and I was quite happy to play it with Jon (I play trumpet).
But all that’s incidental. It’s just my personal history, which now includes watching this video. I suppose there’s something to be said about the trajectory that led from John Cage conceptualizing that piece in 1952 to TwoSet’s 2018 YouTube video. But that trajectory is a very diffuse one. It’s not as though there’s a single line of musical development that connects these two. In fact, one could reasonably say that there is no line of musical development between them at all. 4’33” is simply one piece of cultural material available to TwoSet, like Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Mic Drop.

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