A commission from Bay Area cellist, composer, and songwriter, Mia Pixley led to a creative partnership and the development of one of the few new sounds ever to be added to acoustic bowed instruments.
Mia was interested in the Off Beat Fiddles. In her performances Mia makes a lot of use of percussive techniques, tapping the cello body to get a range of additional sounds. When she first came to visit me, she had seen the Tabolin and imagined a cello with a booming drum incorporated into it. Unfortunately I couldn’t think of a practical, durable way to do this, but we got thinking about other sounds that might be available from an instrument with a carved, textured surface.
A theme for the cello
As a composer and improviser, Mia is used to taking some interesting aspect of the world, such as “the Earth’s core” or “Snacks” and transforming it into music. I wanted to do something similar with the cello. Since sound is a common interest of both violinmakers and musicians, I thought that “sound” and “waves” might be an appropriate visual theme for the cello.
An essential part of successful violinmaking is forming some sort of mental image of how the violin produces sound. This image is often the basis on which we make decisions about things like what kind of wood to use for the various parts and how best to shape those parts. My mental image of how the violin produces sound involves waves of various sorts.
The wonder of waves
There are many different kinds of waves and examples of several occur in the violin. “Traverse” waves that travel up and down the string as the bow vibrates it. These cause the bridge and then the body to vibrate. At different vibration frequencies, a wide variety of “standing” waves are formed within the body of the violin. These can be seen as the Chladni patterns which have been of particular interest to violinmakers in the last 100 years. (I used Chladni patterns as the visual theme for the X- and O- Fiddles). When the violin is played it shakes, twists and vibrates and these movements form “longitudinal” waves in the air that radiate outwards in a sphere until they encounter some other object, where they transfer some of their energy to that object. If that object happens to be an eardrum, a further transformation from mechanical to electrical and then from electrical to chemical energy takes place, as the listener responds to the sound they are hearing.
I love the way that a movement over here can pass through a chain of different mediums and cause a reaction over there. Of course in the case of music there is a higher dimension to this because there is also the possibility that an emotion is being transmitted from one person to another via the sound waves.
I’m also fascinated by the thought that there are waves of all sorts passing through everything all the time and imparting a little of their energy as the go, so that everything around us, however apparently solid, is constantly shivering and vibrating
The waves that we are most familiar with seeing are “surface” waves like those as we see on water. These are similar to the longitudinal sound waves in air, in that they radiate outward in concentric rings. Surface waves don’t occur in violins but, since they are so familiar, and since they are a close analogy to sound waves in air, I chose these surface waves and ripples to be the visual theme for the cello.
I studied waves and ripples on water by taking slo-mo video.
The still shot below, taken from the video, shows some of the features of waves and ripples that I wanted to incorporate in the instrument
- Ripples expanding outwards in concentric rings, passing through each other, apparently unaffected, and continue their outward journey.
- Sets of small ripples, such as from raindrops, “floating” on and bending to larger waves passing beneath them
- Waves are preceded by a series of compression waves or wrinkles rather like a the wrinkles you can make by pushing a table cloth on a table..
Because of the large investment of time in making a cello I decided to first make a prototype violin to try out some of the ideas. Thinking of the violin as a prototype freed me up to be more creative and to take more risks than I might otherwise have done.
The Ripple Fiddle
I wanted to have a large wave set that originated from a point somewhere beyond the lower end of the fiddle. These would propagate towards the scroll and, where they reached the top bout, they would be preceded by a series of wrinkles that could function like a Güiro and could be used to add a new percussive sound to Mia’s percussive palette. This main wave would wrap around all sides of the instrument, appearing to pass through it. On top of this main wave would ride a number of intersecting “raindrop” ripples.
The scroll would also have waves and would be twisted giving the appearance of a vibrating object caught in a strobe light.
I attached a frame to the bottom end of the fiddle and used a point on the frame to anchor a large pair of compasses with which I was able to reach most parts of the body.
The waves and ripples carry around the side to the back of the fiddle
I made the main waves sinusoidal, similar to those that occur on a water surface. I made the surface dimpled to emulate disturbed water.
Once the large waves had been established, I added the “raindrops” floating on top.
I left the top section of the back smooth. I wanted it to show the figure of the maple, another wave, grown into the wood.
Note the wrinkle section that precedes the main waves on the top bout. These were placed to be accessible to the player to use as a Güiro.
I made the waves sinusoidal and added a ripple texture
The waves are seen in the front of the pegbox, The head is twisted to one side. I was trying to evoke some of the strange distortions that can be seen when a strobe light is shone onto a vibrating object
I’m mostly happy with the way the fiddle came out but there are a few details which I would like to change for the cello…See Part 2