A collection of instruments for tonal and aesthetic exploration.
This began as a Covid project. I’d long wanted to make an instrument that showed off some of the the attractive stages that the violin goes through during the construction process. The Dimpled Viola made a feature of hand-tool cuts in the wood and enhanced them by using antiquing techniques that I had learned working on my regular fiddles. Both the process of making the viola, and the finished instrument itself, raised many questions and sparked many ideas for other unusual instruments. I am currently working on the fifth “Experimental”, “Exploratory” or just “Off-beat” instrument: the Tabolin. Here are some thoughts about the instruments as a collection.
Working on these instruments has allowed me to
- Conduct some, rather loose and undisciplined, acoustical research
- Look to the natural world rather than to old violins for aesthetic inspiration
- Probe some of the mores of the violin world
By pushing treatments of traditional violin forms and materials to extremes, I hope to learn more about normal violin function. I build these instruments with every intention that they should sound and play as well as possible. Changing elements in their construction is a way to test my assumptions about how violins work and to try and identify which are the critical factors in tone production.
Many people, including me, have been surprised that the fairly radical carving treatment of the outer surface of the violins has had little discernible effect on the sound of the finished instruments. The variation in sound between these instruments appears to be within the range of variation that I would normally expect between instruments built on the same model I think that this is quite important news in an industry where we often make to-the-tenth-of-a-millimeter copies of successful old instruments, with the hope of unlocking their tonal secrets.
My takeaway from these explorations is that while there are many things that influence that sound of the violin, the basic design is quite robust and there may be fewer essential key structural and tonal factors than is generally thought.
I love old violins, but after thirty years of making copies of half a dozen instruments that were made 300 years ago, I was feeling a little stifled. A musician might who had been told ” You know, you should really only play Bach… all of your life.” might feel the same way. When I asked myself the question: “If not old instruments, then what should the source of inspiration for my instruments be?”, the obvious answer was “anything that inspires you!”. See Shoki’s scroll for my first thoughts on this.
Because I think that things in Nature tend to be the most satisfying visually, I’ve tried to give these instruments a strong organic feel. My hope is that some of my excitement about natural objects will be felt by others seeing the instruments.
Trying to find a way to convey the excitement that I get from Nature, I’ve realized that all arts from painting and sculpture to poetry, music and dance, use the same elements or tools to evoke emotions in their audiences. Line, texture, rhythm, repetition, theme and variation occur all over the natural and artistic worlds, and we humans are wired to react to them.
Navel gazing or Stargazing
The violins are like sketch books where I make studies of natural objects, striving to identify and capture the elements in those objects that excite me, so that I can share that excitement with other people. This is an outward looking and expansive view of the world, which is in contrast to the traditional violinmaking view which tends to be inward and backward looking. In the traditional violin there are strong references to the outside world, the top of the instrument, for instance, looks like a belly, the scroll looks like an unfurling fern or a shell, but these references are not developed. Instead, in the violinmaking tradition, the most common goal is to make a perfect replica of an existing instrument, preferably one made several hundred years ago. All references are contained within Violin World. With the Off-beat fiddles, the violin becomes a lens with which to explore and examine the outside world, and a medium to record some of the discoveries.
As a maker, these different approaches have an impact on my daily life. Working as a traditional maker, my work world is a more separate, self contained place. When working on the Off-beat violins, I feel that work is more integrated with the rest of my life and interests. I find that I am constantly looking out for, and stumbling across things that could become a feature on a new instrument. This enhances my enjoyment of the world around me
Reactions to the Off-beat violins
I’ve noticed that when I show the Off-beat instruments to people, they almost invariably immediately reach out to touch and feel them. This is in stark contrast to when I show traditional violins, where people tend to stand at a respectful distance.
“I love these but I’d never be allowed to play it in my orchestra!”
“I want one”
What are they good for?
With these Off-beat instruments I’m not suggesting that we should stop what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years. The traditional designs work as musical tools so they don’t need to be reinvented. The world in which they are used embraces both old and new music, so they fit in.
Of course I do enjoy the attention I get from shaking things up a little, and it is interesting to examine our preferences and prejudices by engaging in a little iconoclasm, but the more personally satisfying part of all this is that I get to explore the outside world. It is one of those things where the journey itself, the process of having the inspiration, overcoming the challenges and reaching a possibly unexpected conclusion, is almost more rewarding than holding the finished item.
A Loan Collection
Because it is easier to explain the ideas behind these instruments when they are seen as a collection, I’ve decided not to sell them. I am interested in loaning them out, individually or as a group, to anyone; musician, composer, artist, videographer, who wants to make a video or sound recording on them. If you have a creative idea, please contact me.
Own your own
If anyone is interested in owning a fiddle like this, let’s talk! Besides owning a great sounding instrument, having an easily recognizable, “calling card” fiddle, could be a big asset for some performers. I really enjoy collaborative projects, so I’m happy to discuss ideas. Please contact me!