by Bill Benzon
I’ve been binging on TwoSet Violin for the last month or so. Of course the duo is not, as my title suggests, in the business of music education. But you will learn, or be reminded of, a great deal about (mostly) classical music by listening to them. They are, rather, musical comedians – or is it comedic musicians? Whatever it is, it’s not musical comedy, which is a theatrical genre. Brett Yang and Eddie Chen met and became friends while they were still in high school in Australia. They started posting videos to YouTube in 2013, gave up their orchestral jobs in 2016, and first toured the world with a stage act in 2017. Most of what they do in their YouTube videos would not, however, transfer to stage.
On stage with Hilary Hahn
The following video, however, shows a segment from their stage act.
They undertake to play a Paganini caprice with the help of Hilary Hahn. All three are spinning hula hoops while playing.
Hilary Hahn, of course, is a top-tier classical soloist and, as such, makes her living in a cultural sphere that is far removed from the vaudeville stage, which is ultimately where this kind of act comes from. She is not a regular part of their stage act, though she has been on stage with them a number of times and has been on several of their YouTube videos. On one of those occasions she played a piece while spinning a hula hoop, which is one of the various Ling Ling challenges that show up in their videos.
What, you ask, is that? Ling Ling is a mythical musician who can do no wrong and who practices 40 hours a day. The Ling Ling challenges involve playing a piece under a handicap condition, such as using only the lower third of the bow, double speed, reversing right and left hands, dancing around like Lindsey Stirling, or, in this case, spinning a hula hoop. It’s a stunt, a musical stunt.
One thing that quickly emerges in this performance is that she is a better violinist than the other two, Brett Yang and Eddie Chen. Brett plays first, then Eddie, then Hilary. The difference between her and the other two is apparent within seconds after she starts playing; it’s obvious in her tone quality and the authority of her line. There is nothing surprising about this, not to us, and certainly not to them. And in a way that’s the point – she’s best, but we’re all in this together, playing violin and spinning hula hoops.
Prodigies – We’re not worthy
That’s one of the premises on which TwoSet’s act is based. We’re good, but not THAT good, and come to think of it, we’re not worthy – a phrase which, by they way, they do use occasionally in their videos (from the movie, Wayne’s World 1992). They have a number of videos in which they react to performances by very young musicians. In this video they first react to a pair of seven year old twins and then a seven year old soloist.
The format of the video is one they use often; they watch a clip of other musicians interspersed with comments about the playing. Their preliminary chitchat centers on standard self-deprecating remarks about being musically overshadowed by young prodigies, a them that runs throughout their videos. The existence of prodigies is, of course, a matter of no small interest in the world of classical music. You practice hard, become very good, and feel that you have accomplished a lot when you start exploring the standard concertos in your early and mid teens. But these prodigies, they rip through those concertos flawlessly before the age of ten. What’s going on?
Several things struck me in their comments on the twin girls: their ability to play together (“epic ensemble playing”), their articulation, phrasing, rhythm, and their ability to play in tune. But they don’t just comment, they demonstrate what the points they’re making. Then they comment on a young girl playing the Bruch Violin Concerto, noting how difficult it is to play as soloist with an orchestra.
What makes this work, above all, is their manner. On the one hand they are self deprecating, albeit in a somewhat exaggerated way. They are performing and thus mirroring the attitudes of many of their viewers. But they are also genuinely appreciative and admiring of the skills of these young prodigies. It’s the conjunction and interweaving of these two attitudes with insightful commentary, and some skillful editing, that makes them so effective.
2 Boys 1 Violin
The premise is simple. You play 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 blog 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?
Culture high and low
They also devote time and energy to critiquing talent contests and depictions of musical performance in movies. They’ve critiqued a number musicians who claim the fastest performances of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, pointing out that these ‘record setting’ performances are sloppy and out of tune. In other videos they examine performances in movies to determine whether or not the actors can actually play the violin. Most cannot, but some have been well coached while others give performances which can charitably be characterized as lamentable.
But I want to look at a video where they comment on the depiction of music in cartoons:
I’m particularly interest in their last example, which is a classic Warner Brother’s cartoon from 1949, Bugs Bunny in “Long-Haired Hare”. Bugs is impersonating Leopold Stokowski, who was an important and well-known conductor in the early and middle of the twentieth century and most known as the conductor in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. He was known for conducting without a baton.
This cartoon depicts a battle between Bugs Bunny and Giovanni Jones. When it opens Bugs is playing the banjo and singing a pop tune while his neighbor Jones is practicing opera. They get into a battle which eventually leads to the scene we see in this TwoSet video, where Bugs gets his revenge by conducting Jones in a performance that leads to the implosion of the performance venue.
The cartoon theme thus depicts a theme which was common in the early and middle of the twentieth century, the conflict be high culture, as represented by classical music, and low culture, as represented by Bugs Bunny – and the cartoon medium. As far as I can tell, that theme is no longer as important as it once was, primarily because classical music doesn’t have the presence that it once had. TwoSet Violin are, in effect, advocating for classical music in a medium, the YouTube Video, that is in some ways closer to classic cartoon. It’s as though Bugs Bunny himself had decided to become a classical musician.
The mystique is gone. Brett and Eddy are just two guys who happen to play the violin quite well and who want to share their knowledge with the rest of us.
TwoSet’s YouTube channel recently reached a subscriber milestone, two millions viewers. To celebrate that occasion a number of their viewers collaborated on a congratulatory video. Here’s TwoSet’s commentary on it: