Note: if you just want the literal answer to the question posed in the headline, click here to skip down to the video. But I warn you, it contains footage that may be disturbing to some viewers, except for those who harbor an intense hatred of the violin.
As frustrated as I have gotten at my various violins over the course of nearly forty years of practicing and performing, I have never lashed out at any of them in anger. I did once fling a cake of rosin across a guest bedroom in my grandparents’ house. As soon as it left my hand, half of me wished I could snatch the rosin back, and the other half watched in awe as it shattered against the wall into what seemed like a million shards of amber, each one catching a glint of late-afternoon sun before burying itself into the deep-pile carpet.
In case this ever happens to you, let me give you a tip from the pros: vacuum cleaners put out enough heat that tiny shards of rosin will melt when brought within range. This is to be avoided around deep-pile carpet.
The thought of harming a violin, or allowing one to come to misfortune, has always filled me with horror. My parents, lifelong flute teachers, instilled this in me from an early age. I remember stern warnings about certain activities, each of which seemed natural to a young boy:
- leaving a violin on a chair
- leaving a violin on the floor
- leaving a violin (shoulder rest attached) in an open violin case
- hanging a violin on a music stand
- bow swordplay
Consequently, I carried a perfect record of instrument care and maintenance into my fortieth year. (I make an exception for an episode in my teenage years when I changed my own strings for the first time. I decided that the most efficient way would be to change them all at once, and so discovered that the bridge and soundpost are not glued in place.)
But I’ve always wondered whether I was secretly the kind of person who might lose control at a particularly raw moment, and take out my rage on the very object that was causing it. I haven’t lost it yet, but could it happen?
An offer I could refuse
I got the chance to find out a few months ago, when I was asked to be the soloist for a set of four compositions on the LA Philharmonic’s Fluxus concert at Disney Hall. These pieces, as part of an entire day of Fluxus events at Disney, would be curated and led by composer/conductor Christopher Rountree and director R.B. Schlather.
I had no idea what a Fluxus concert might be. But the LA Phil is smart: it (they? I often think of the organization as a singular, sentient being) knows that by now, it has asked me and my colleagues to do so many crazy things that we’re completely desensitized. We’ll say yes to just about anything in the name of art.
Just off the top of my head, I have said yes to the following questions:
- Will you walk across the street and back, in your tails and patent leather shoes, playing the first violin part to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique?
- Will you wear fake chest hair for a performance of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels?
- Will you simulate a mental breakdown by laughing maniacally during a piece on our Green Umbrella series?
So when I got the Fluxus request, it wasn’t a shock. I was knocking out emails, and this one most likely came in between a lesson cancellation and a message from the headmaster of my daughter’s preschool.
Here was the proposal as it appeared in my inbox:
Ben PATTERSON Overture III (1961): This piece includes unwrapping a box. Within the box will be another box to unwrap. This will go on for a few boxes. The final box will include a violin.
La Monte YOUNG Composition 1960 #13 to Richard Huelsenbeck: This piece instructs the player to learn a piece very well and perform it. Chris Rountree would like you to play a short solo, Biber’s Sonata No. 13.
Nam Jun PAIK One for Violin Solo (1962): This piece instructs the performer to smash the violin. We would like you to smash the violin you play the Biber on, so we would provide this violin for you.
Yoko ONO Wall Piece for Orchestra (1962): This piece instructs the performer to bang their head against a wall.
If this all sounds agreeable please let me know.
That last line, immediately following the description of the Yoko Ono piece, made me laugh out loud!
I paused before deciding to be 100% agreeable. After all, I had never played this Biber sonata before. I didn’t yet know what kind of head-banging we were talking about. And of course, there was the matter of the violin-smashing. Wasn’t that a little too, I don’t know, Pete Townshend for the Disney Concert Hall?
Is it a violin or a VSO?
Then I did a little research. Customarily when Paik’s One for Violin Solo is performed, the violin to be destroyed is hardly a violin at all, but rather a “VSO”, or “violin-shaped object” as it’s known in the trade. It’s a factory mashup of the lowest quality wood, glue, and steel money can buy. Few tears are shed when these assembly-line fiddles go to meet their makers. Actually, that’s the problem: VSOs have no real makers!
But as I looked over the proposed program, I realized that a VSO would not do in this case. The main clue was the phrase, “smash the violin you play the Biber on”. As I listened to a recording of Biber’s “Guardian Angel” sonata (by my Curtis classmate Liza Ferschtman), I simply could not imagine performing such a beautiful piece on a truly terrible instrument. After a few notes, any reasonable audience would be rooting for me to hurry up with the smashing!
I realized that, were I to accept this assignment, I would have to strike an uncomfortable compromise. I would have to find a violin good enough to play Biber in front of 2,000 paying audience members, but bad enough that destroying it wouldn’t constitute an artistic felony.
There was a moral question to reckon with as well: was any work of art worth the destruction of an instrument that someone could have made use of? A less fortunate violinist, for example? As I ran with this question, I realized that it might apply to any expenditure in the name of art. I could start close to home, at Disney Hall: couldn’t we do without fancy program books, pre-concert lecturers, valet parking attendants, even (gasp) that 32nd violinist for the Mahler symphony?
We who present and attend concerts have long ago reconciled ourselves to spending money on art that might instead go toward something more practical. Therefore it was not the waste of money that was eating at me, but the waste of the violin itself. And since that was precisely the point of Nam June Paik’s work, I would have to either embrace it wholeheartedly or reject the assignment.
I finally rationalized my participation in two ways. First, the LA Phil does more for the youth in its community than any other American orchestra. The YOLA program (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) serves more than one thousand underprivileged students every year, including providing free instruments and training. The loss of one violin wouldn’t stop YOLA.
Second, and rather lamely, I told myself that if I passed on this opportunity, one of my colleagues would take it instead. And I did very much want to perform that Biber in Disney Hall!
A house divided (Akiko has her say)
It turned out that my wife (and Assistant Concertmaster) Akiko would not have been one of the colleagues vying for the assignment. She was against the idea of the Paik. And while she wasn’t going to try and stop me from participating, she wasn’t going to watch either. While I was finalizing my decision, she wrote to one of our artistic planners:
I wanted to clarify my feelings about the violin smashing. While I certainly appreciate your explanation, I think the piece seems like it’s in terrible taste because it disregards the feelings of musicians. By that, I mean the people whose lives are intertwined with instruments, who spend their lives nurturing a relationship with them and protecting them physically. And I don’t feel that that was a conscious decision on the part of the composer, I think that it was a blind spot which, in my humble opinion, changes it to “bad” art.Akiko Tarumoto
A different kind of violin search
Now that my name was on the books, I got moving. Most of the prep work for my part of the Fluxus concert had already been done by Chris and R. B. They had devised the set of four pieces, along with some modifications that would help each piece flow into the next. So there wasn’t much I had to take care of other than learn the Biber and practice my choreography.
But I did have to source not only the ill-fated instrument on which I would perform, but a “rehearsal” violin as well. As cutting-edge as the LA Phil may be artistically, we’re still rather old-fashioned when it comes to things like the audience’s physical safety. And some of our stakeholders were naturally nervous about sharp violin shards whizzing into audience members’ eyes.
There are many things in this world that you can learn with a simple Google search, but the pattern of destruction (actually, the term is “debris throw”) of a violin is not one of them. We were going to have to discover it ourselves through the rehearsal process. To put it simply, I was going to be smashing two violins that week instead of just one.
First rehearsal surprises
We scheduled two rehearsals: the first in a rehearsal hall, and the second a true dress rehearsal in Disney. The first was meant to be a “blocking” rehearsal, where I would practice handling the props and hitting my marks on the set.
I arrived at the blocking rehearsal already familiar with the instructions for the opening piece, Patterson’s Overture III. Even so I was shocked, on entering Disney’s Choral Hall, at the size of the box that greeted me. It was a massive wooden packing crate, at least three feet to a side! Chris and R.B. saw my face and laughed, assuring me that I would soon be fast friends with the box.
“At the dress and in the show, there will be a speaker in there, with this maniacal laughter coming from it, and you’re curious where the laughter is coming from,” R.B. explained. “So when you unpack the box within the box, and start working your way inward towards the violin, the laughter will transfer to the house system and it’ll bounce all around the hall!”
Now it was time to learn how to unwrap package after package. We worked on how to tear the lid off the crate so as to create the maximum vacuum effect, scattering styrofoam packing “peanuts” far and wide. Chris and R.B. also coached me on how to unspool bubble wrap as noisily as possible, and how to tear aluminum foil so that the audience would catch the glint of the spotlights.
Finally, I came to the innermost object, the one that I (or at least my character) had been searching for: a silk bag containing the rehearsal VSO. This moment, the “reveal” of the violin, was going to be critical in the performance. I had to wrest the violin from the bag and hold it high over my head for several seconds. If I did it just right, the audience would connect that moment to the one seven minutes later, when I would repeat the pose just before destroying the instrument.
Speaking of that later moment, R.B. had done some homework and had what I thought to be some solid destructive ideas, backed up by practical experience. He had seen the Paik done before, and the final moment rarely came off as planned.
“Violins don’t just shatter like you’d think. The last time I saw this, the body of the violin just popped off the, what do you call that part, the neck, and it just bounced across the stage. It was more funny than dramatic, and that’s not what we want!”
We thought that a corner, or perhaps an edge, of the packing crate would do the trick. But our stage manager balked at testing our theory only the day before the concert, in Disney Hall. If pieces flew into the seats, we wouldn’t be able to make adjustments and try again before the show. So he declared, “we’ve got to break this one here to find out.”
I was caught completely off guard. I thought I’d have another couple of days, until the dress rehearsal, to talk myself into this. But I knew the stage manager spoke the truth. Even Gallagher gave his audiences plastic tarps to shield them from flying watermelon guts; the least we could do was to protect our crowd from high-speed violin innards.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get another violin,” reassured the stage manager. “Didn’t you say this thing’s existence was a crime against music anyway?”
R.B. offered encouragement as well. “Get some body rotation into it. It’s all about the legs.”
Gripping the VSO’s neck with my right hand, I measured my distance from the edge of the crate, rotated left, then closed my eyes and uncoiled, doing my best imitation of a Roger Federer backhand.
The impact sent a jolt straight up to my shoulder, but the sound was what really shocked me. I opened my eyes, half expecting to see my arm in pieces instead of the VSO. In fact, the instrument remained whole! I had put a large crack in the back, but there was certainly no explosion.
“Keep whacking it! If that happens in the performance, just go nuts until it’s done,” shouted Chris. Two backhands later, we had a fine collection of VSO scraps littering the floor of Choral Hall, mixed in with the styrofoam peanuts. The neck, with two strings still attached, felt unnaturally light in my hand.
After a few seconds of silence, the four of us made eye contact. The stage manager did his best impression of Roy Scheider from Jaws: “You’re gonna need a bigger stage.”
“Yeah, that sprayed further than I thought it would,” agreed Chris.
R.B. was excited. “Now in the show, you walk up to the edge of the stage and drop the neck right into the audience, like you’re Michael Corleone leaving Louie’s restaurant.”
An ominous dream
Waking up the morning of the dress rehearsal, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just had a nightmare. There was definitely a violin involved. I had an uneasy sense that in my dream, there had been some kind of an accident.
This kind of anxiety dream was not an unusual occurrence for me. Some people’s performance nightmares center on unprepared concertos, or seeing old elementary school principals in the audience. Mine usually involve mundane objects: lockers that won’t open, missing bow ties, lost car keys. But occasionally, my instruments get involved: bows snap in two; violins develop unexplained cracks or holes. My dream the night before must have been along those lines. Something was broken that should have remained whole.
A performance with no audience
When I arrived at Disney Hall for the dress, Chris and R.B. shared their solution for the big swing. They couldn’t get around the fact that the “debris throw” from the packing crate’s front side edge would extend into the audience. But looking closely at the stage that morning, they had found another option. There were a series of risers installed on the stage, and their exposed corners might just do the trick. One in particular was at such an angle that the resulting debris throw should extend directly across the stage, rather than into the crowd.
To make this a true dress rehearsal (minus my concert black), I needed to go through the entire performance, including the Biber. Of course, that wasn’t going to be possible on this second VSO they had packed into the crate. So I brought my regular instrument on stage, in its case of course. The plan was to unwrap the VSO, set it aside and play the Strad for the Biber, then swap and smash.
Playing the Biber (written around 1676) in this wonderful space, on an instrument made just over fifty years later, was a glorious experience. But it was bittersweet: for one thing, nobody was there to hear the performance, save for Chris and R.B. And for another, it was hard for me to savor the moment while anticipating the letdown I’d feel the next day, playing the factory fiddle.
You’d better believe that after the Biber, and the swap, I took a long look (then a second and a third) inside the VSO to see that reassuring factory label before going through with this second of three planned demolitions.
The visual demonstration
Here, courtesy of my phone that I clamped to a nearby music stand, is the climactic moment. I apologize for the exposed midriff of my rehearsal outfit:
Again, I failed to complete my task in one blow, but I was closer. And the debris throw was just what we were hoping for: close to the imaginary people, but not among them.
If you do watch until the end, you’ll see the last piece in the set of four: Yoko Ono’s Wall Piece. The words “for Orchestra” were appended to the title in an apparent reference to the fact that no orchestra would commission her to write an orchestral piece. Instead, she composed Wall Piece for Orchestra with herself as soloist, repeatedly banging her head on the floor. Thankfully, Chris and R.B. were only asking me for one bang.
With both rehearsals behind me, all that was left was to practice the Biber and mentally run through my on-stage moves. I had to be sure and hit my “marks” so that the person running the spotlight would have an easier time blinding me.
There was one more task, actually. The morning of the concert, we rehearsed the orchestral pieces for the evening show. Immediately following that rehearsal, the stage and production crew would need to fly into action, prepping the stage and all props, including the violin in its elaborate sarcophagus. It had to be tied in a silk bag, wrapped in foil, then Christmas lights, then bubble wrap, and finally taped inside a cardboard box, before being packed into the shipping crate among the peanuts.
Therefore the instrument would be inaccessible as soon as our rehearsal ended. So at the mid-rehearsal break, I gave the sacrificial violin one last check before it was entombed. I tuned it as best I could, knowing that it might still emerge from its wrappings horribly off pitch. I played the first few bars of the Biber, whispered words of encouragement (something about being part of a greater good) and handed it off to the production crew.
I entered my usual dressing room that night to find a note on the counter. It was from R.B. and I reproduce it here:
As showtime approached, I took my place just off stage left as usual. Actually, it’s only usual for me about a third of the time, since as First Associate Concertmaster I’m more often than not sitting second chair in the Philharmonic. For those concerts, I begin the show already in my seat. It’s only when I sit concertmaster that I wait backstage to make my own entrance and call for the tuning A.
But walking onto a dark, nearly empty stage, without an instrument, was a first. I handed my bow and leather shoulder covering to our production manager before I walked out. It would be his job to walk on stage and hand these to me as soon as I unearthed the violin and held it aloft.
I wasn’t sure if the audience would applaud as I walked out empty-handed, but they did, and as soon as that died down, the laughter began. First it was just the unhinged woman’s laughter from the speaker inside the crate, and then for a few moments it was nervous laughter from the audience. They were clearly caught off guard.
I stuck to the script, hit the marks, and successfully enacted my Sword in the Stone moment with the violin. The production manager emerged from off-stage with my bow and shoulder cover, and I began to tune.
Instantly I had the sense that the instrument was resisting every move I made! Inexpensive violins are notorious for their ill-fitting pegs, but this seemed to go beyond poor workmanship. It brought to my mind a passage from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Silver Blaze, in which Straker the horse trainer steals away with a prize thoroughbred in the dead of night to secretly injure the animal, and to sabotage its chances in an upcoming race:
“Once in the hollow, he had got behind the horse and had struck a light; but the creature frightened at the sudden glare, and with the strange instinct of animals feeling that some mischief was intended, had lashed out, and the steel shoe had struck Straker full on the forehead.”Sherlock Holmes, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze
I’m not a superstitious person, but I have on occasion felt that a violin I was playing had a mind of its own. If this instrument had strange instincts, they were roused. And while the violin was unable to deliver a fatal blow to me, it did its best to sabotage the Biber. Each time I returned to an open string (and there were hundreds over the course of seven minutes), it sounded slightly different from the last time around. The chords sounded less like a chorus of angels than a pack of wounded animals.
Finally, and mercifully, it was time for this brave object to serve its ultimate purpose. It may not have volunteered, and it may have complained when its moment came, but it deserved a moment of reflection. As I raised the violin high over my head, I wondered how many instruments in history had been built to play only a single piece of music, just once, from beginning to end.
Just before I delivered the first blow, a voice suddenly rang out in the hall, “Don’t do it!” In the millisecond it took for me to register that it was clearly a male voice, I wondered if Akiko had snuck into the hall after all!
As the last piece of the violin fell to the stage, the hall fell silent. I had spent so much mental energy on everything leading up to this moment that I had never considered what might happen next: more silence, gasping, booing? The applause that followed instead was jarring. I had to wait for calm before banging my head (a bit more loudly this time) on the side of the Disney Hall stage.
The crew had quite a job cleaning up my mess so that the orchestral works could follow immediately. And apparently they missed a few details, since more than one colleague caught up to me after the first half, with souvenirs: I found a peg! Missing part of your bridge? Need a soundpost?
Is it art?
I was still a bit shaken up at the end of the intermission. But after playing Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia in the second half of the concert, I had a chance to start winding down. As the days passed, and I looked back over the evening, I came to appreciate even more the thought that had gone into the sequence of works for my part of the program. I found it hard to imagine how any one of them had ever been successful on its own.
Akiko was right: the destruction of a violin is bad art, and meaningless. Perhaps the composer, and his Fluxus colleagues, saw it as a kind of course correction at the time, but like so much “art” music written during that era, it corrected to excess. The original instructions for Paik’s One for Solo Violin, in fact, ordered the performer to hold the instrument aloft for five full minutes before smashing it.
Likewise, it’s hard to see Patterson’s Overture making much of an impact now with its boxes inside boxes, whether the final object were some kind of “noisemaker” (as in a previous version of the piece) or a “canned woman’s laughter” (the version from which Chris and R.B. drew their inspiration).
When I attend a concert, I’m thrilled by the potential in the silence just before the music begins. I know that anything could happen, and that no matter what does happen, it will exist only for those of us in the room, and only for those few moments we are together.
My understanding of the Fluxus movement is that its creators were likewise obsessed with that interaction between time, place, and person. But they questioned the very idea of art, and the meaning of performance. Destroying a violin was thus a perfect way to show contempt for both at the same time.
I’ve now come to believe that Chris and R.B.’s Fluxus sequence stood that attitude on its head. The centerpiece, comprising seven out of the twelve minutes, was nothing more or less than a performance of beautiful music. And whether or not the listeners were aware of it, they were the only ones who would ever hear that violin’s voice. Its destruction was a manifestation of the transitory nature of music. The Paik played in service of the Biber, and not the other way around.
Won’t get fooled again
I’ve spent extra time since the Fluxus concert holding my instrument, studying its physical details, and imagining all the performances that it has given. The Biber sonatas, though finished in the seventeenth century, were unknown until the twentieth. In these last hundred years, how many times had my violin played the Biber? I wondered about the first piece it had ever played. I wondered which pieces it had never played.
I also found myself contemplating the end of each violin’s life. The vast majority are not smashed in front of paying crowds, of course, but neither are they ceremoniously buried or cremated. They’re simply forgotten, under beds or behind winter coats in wardrobes.
I can say with confidence that I’ll never destroy another violin. Of course, I never imagined I’d destroy the first one, let alone three. But I just don’t see all the elements lining up again in the right way, giving meaningful context to such a violent act.
Even Pete Townshend might have stopped after smashing his first guitar, but it eventually took over The Who’s concerts. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he explained that after the first time (which was apparently an accident) a newspaper asked him to do it again the next night. “After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since.”
Luckily, nobody has asked me for a repeat performance. And thanks to Chris and R.B., I’m no longer worried that I’ll cross the line from frustration to violence while holding a violin. That line turns out to be a thick, solid one, and it took too much out of me to cross it once. Besides, my own violin was a witness to what happened in that video, and I’ve only just begun to regain its trust.