Joseph Lin is the newest member of the Juilliard String Quartet. He took over the role of First Violin in 2011 and joined the faculty of Juilliard when Nick Eanet resigned from the quartet for health reasons. As first violin, Lin is effectively the musical leader of the quartet—a role he embodies with a self-effacing and exacting persona that carries over to his razor sharp playing. It’s a role that is partially unexpected for the violinist who by his own admission spent his formative years playing the violin but not training to become a professional musician.
Lin didn’t grow up in a musician home. His mother was an amateur musician and his father appreciated music. But, like many parents, they gave him a violin when he was young and encouraged him to play. Their motivations for this were practical. They believed playing the violin would help him hone his skills, prove his dedication to a task, and ultimately help him get into a good school.
“Like a lot of musicians I had my difficulties and frustrations, but since the violin was never supposed to be a career track, I wasn’t pouring my whole life into the instrument,” Lin said. “I went back and forth about being serious about music being a career track for me. Eventually it became apparent that music was my profession.”
Lin’s musical passions are broad. When the Juilliard Quartet played at Meany Hall on the University of Washington Campus as part of the International Chamber Music Series, they brought with them music by Mozart, Elliott Carter, and Beethoven’s famed Opus 131 String Quartet. This quartet is widely regarded to be the pinnacle of Beethoven’s string quartet output.
Lin and his fellow Juilliard Quartet members added Beethoven’s masterpiece to their repertory only last season. For nearly forty minutes, Beethoven’s Opus 131 travels through a panoply of moods and feelings without the traditional break between movements. Lin likened the work to living a life: “To go through a journey like that, it reflects the human experience. Our lives don’t fit into sections. One part runs into the next without order. Our lives will continue in unexpected ways.”
The classics aren’t the only type of music that captures Li’s attention. He is also interested in traditional Chinese music. In 2002, Lin began an extended study of Chinese music, having eventually traveled to Beijing to study traditional Chinese music as a Fulbright Scholar. This study led him to the Guqin—a plucked, even stringed instrument that is one of the oldest instruments and traditions in Chinese culture.
Through studying the Guqin, Lin was struck at the freedom allowed in deciding rhythm while playing. “There is no notated rhythm in the traditional sense,” Lin said. “The student imitates the teacher and rhythm is bound to evolve in a way unique to each player.”
This rhythmic freedom stands in sharp contrast to the way most Western classical music is written. Rhythm is a quality that musicians just don’t mess with—it is fundamental to music. In Lin’s view, this makes rhythm not just fundamental to music but an element that suggests deeper meaning. It is up to each musician to determine how to express this truth in ways that respect the notation on the page but honor each individual musician.
Seattle was among the first cities to experience the new Juilliard String Quartet. It likely won’t be the city’s last encounter with the Lin led Juilliard Quartet. Music like life is a journey. Musicians will come and go, there will always be new repertory to explore and technique to be mastered.
“I will continue to explore music whether it is traditional or contemporary,” Lin said. Judging by the response from the audience during the Juilliard’s last visit to Seattle, classical music lovers in the Emerald City are ready to join Lin in his exploration.