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the relative violins

questions and answers 1

a conversation between Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor 2001

The frontier is where he likes to be, deploying his gifts and skills in the tactical emergencies of a perilous quest. To guarantee surprise, he regularly sabotages his own facility as a violinist. His twenty plus home-made Relative Violins stand as a testament to this bent. His direction is not so much forward, from one thing to the next, as incessantly sideways, from one thing into another. This helps to explain the longevity of his muse: he doesn't have to remember what he is about. Through his routines of serendipity, his art can more or less keep track of itself.

HT

How did you come up with the name for your home-made instruments, The Relative Violins?

JR

There are two famous images of Einstein which I have always loved: one where he is playing the violin and one where he is sticking his tongue out. The violin, like Einstein, is an icon, even if a little dated relatively speaking. The violin, space, and time--it's a heady mix. Someone sent me a postcard with a convoluted string instrument on it, and he wrote 'This is another one of the violin's relatives.' That fit in with the notion of the violin as a generic term for my string instruments, all the experimentation, and an extended family of relatives. My work still is an ever-expanding family of relations. I wasn't planning a big collection of deconstructed violins but once it got going, I began to see them as extensions of the family. They each had a story, too. With the Double Piston, Triple Neck Wheeling Violin, for example, each revolution could measure the distance that you were traveling and the amount of arpeggiation per meter, measuring music in distance rather than in time. If you can say how long a piece is then you should be able to say how wide it is, right?

HT

You seem to have gone out of your way to undermine the set assumptions of shape and sound associated with the violin. Where are you coming from?

JR

There is the western experimental music tradition as exemplified by the work of Harry Partch or Percy Grainger, making instruments that your own personal vision demands. Then there is the folk tradition in Europe of the do-it-yourself, string up a box or a door, tune it up and off you go. I am old enough to remember the skiffle groups of late 50's Britain with the tea chest one string bass and the washing board percussion. The notion of home-made instruments is as old as music itself, of course. It is sobering to note that the violin in its first hundred years of existence was very much the poor relation to the aristocratic viol.

HT

There are the home-made folk violins of Mexico, the pan European bumbass tradition, and I have this photo of a 'Violon a Rolettes' made in 1946 in Belgium of two violins with shakers with coca cola tops attached. My own collection includes an Apache violin made out of agave stalk, an Ethiopian violin made from a coconut, and several Turkish ones made from gourds, but everyone's favorite is the Cracker Jack box violin with the fishing rod bow made for me by a trucker from the American West.

JR

In 1975 there was an exhibition of Islamic music in London which included many instruments recently collected from the Sahara Desert region. They had a range of string instruments with resonators made out of petrol cans, out of bottles, trash, out of what they could find. These makers were improvising with materials to hand. It was very inspirational to me.

In terms of the folk tradition, it's called bricolage in French, and the Germans have the verb bastler. In English, we have no word for it except in the realm of computers, and with that we get the word hacker. But really I didn't think the violin could be touched, especially with the education that I had received. I had a good instrument but once I bought my first cheap Chinese violin and took it apart, I realized it was just 70 pieces of wood put together by a man's hands. After that, there was no stopping me.

Once you start looking at the western pre-violin tradition, you realize the huge variety of string instruments, such as the rebecs, the lyra, the crwth, the hurdy gurdy. These lead to the more Islamic-like worlds of the viola d'amore or the extraordinary baryton. A bizarre archaic instrument fancied by an Esterhazy prince Nikolaus, the baryton was like the six-string viola da gamba but with a chromatic octave's worth of extra strings that could be plucked by the thumb behind the fingerboard. Haydn wrote several hundred trio sonatas during his thirty-year career with the decadent Esterhazys. In 1974 I wrote a piece for Ricky Geraldi, who was one of the first musicians since the eighteenth century to get this instrument out of the museum and onto the concert stage. More importantly, the baryton was without doubt the main influence on my 19-string cello construction.

In the early 70's I also studied sitar for a couple of years and taught myself how to play the Delruba, a fretted version of the better known Sarangi which is a killer on your finger nails. I was not interested in learning how to play Hindustani music per se but how to bring this sound world into a western contemporary music aesthetic. In other words, I wanted all that overtone resonance, buzz, string bending, and metal sound without always being constricted by a new age drone. Money was short, as in none, so I was pointed towards cheap junk instruments.

Every low-grade instrument I made was an improvisation, although I usually had some drawings. Once it was even half ready, I would put strings on immediately, and each instrument became an improvisation. The 19-StringCello was an organic improvisation--the building and the playing wereinterchangeable and never stopped until I put if off the road in the early 90's.

HT

The 19-String Cello exemplifies how Rose's level of experimentation caused him to approach tuning in a more sculptural way. His idea was that any string should be playable with a variety of techniques--plucked, bowed, and by various objects applied to excite it. On the cello, even the sympathetic string groups (three departments of that) were designed to be bowed. They were tuned in simple chords or microtonally. A Ligeti cluster was available on one instrument, and suddenly one didn't need a whole string section.

JR

The widened fingerboard took five strings, four tuned in fifths the standard way and another which was interfered with, scordatura-style, from performance to performance. On the duo LP 'Les Domestiques' (1987) with French double bassist Jöelle Léandre, the extra string is tuned to a minor sixth above the adjacent bottom C. Rose's notebooks contain various examples of tuning strategies.

HT

String players in the western tradition have been tuning their instruments in fourths or fifths for a few hundred years, and very successful it has been. What was your criteria for moving away from that?

JR

I found that the instrument itself 'chose' for certain pitch relationships, that the number of strings and amount of tension on the instrument gave rise to their own 'physics.' If I used my ears, there was always some strange combination coming up. Also important to the idea of tuning is that you don't just tune a string to a pitch--you tune a string to a function. If it is very slack, you can grab it from behind the bridge and pull it up to a fifth above the original pitch. Tuning became more like intuitive orchestration. It struck me as absurd to suggest that a thick gut string wound really tight, say a middle C, had the same tuning as a slack thin metal wire ringing its fundamental at the same pitch; the sounds emanating from each string gave rise to completely different sound palettes. Then, add that to all the mysterious sympathetic resonances that suddenly appear out of nowhere---yes, tuning took on another meaning. In Western music these concepts still don't exist. A pitch is a pitch is apitch. Other traditions understand the totality of these relationships better than the Occidental one. The very first scales I learned to play on the sitar had you pulling the strings up to the next consecutive fretted pitch rather than jumping from note to note.

HT

What about the Australian landscape, the region's numerous, unexpected, ancient, ungovernable eccentricities. How have they made their impact on you?

JR

The classic white composer's view of the Australian landscape is a romantic one (Sculthorpe), that it's nice and big and spacey, and everything happens really slowly in some kind of new age dream time. When I first heard Aboriginal music, I was struck by the fact that it is anything but that. It's fast tempos, intense and vital rhythms, high energy singing--in other words, it's music to keep yourself going with, quite apart from the vehicle for transmission of oral culture. If you look in detail at the landscape, it's anything but easy listening. It's a turmoil. The landscape is expressed most by the stuff sticking out of it, like the trees, which seem to be having a nonstop bad hair day!

HT

So, The Relative Violins owe a debt to the Australian landscape?

JR

I would never have done anything like the Relative Violins elsewhere--that notion comes through a kind of frontier approach to music that doesn't exist in Europe. They have the tradition of culture, they think they have culture, but if you start pulling down the Leaning Tower of St. Peter's in Paris, that's the end of Europe. Violin iconography is in there with it. In Australia, try as hard as they do to make it in one big golf course, the place is so big and so hostile that it becomes interesting. It fights back, very strongly. The damage done here is colossal. It won't take it, the environment. White Australia rejects innovation, even from it's own ranks, even though self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, allowing perversities and deviations to take place because of the situation have been a strong characteristic of the culture, especially in the early years. That's denigrated here by the people who run culture. That's why I'm doing the Australia Ad Lib project, to see how much 'do-it-yourself' is still there.

HT

Tell us about the cousins to The Relative Violins, your fence work.

JR

Living in Australia amongst really long telegraph wires and the two longest fences in the world (the Dingo Fence and the no.1 Rabbit Fence), you start to get involved with the idea of playing really long strings. I began to get serious with this in the early 80's. When a string becomes really long, not only is it the trigger of the sound, it also becomes the amplifier of the sound.

In America, Ellen Fullman works with rosin on her fingers and strokes the string. In Australia, Alan Lamb lets the wind do the talking. I use everything I can imagine, including bows, mallets, and violins, the wire itself as the bow, amplification, etc. I set no parameters as to how to excite the string(s) and uncover the sonic world that exists new with each installation. The lower the fundamental goes, the more of the harmonic series becomes audible or available.

I designed long instruments modeled on fences so I could play waist-high strings with a bow while at the same time playing strings only an inch above the floor with my feet. Jumps of over one meter to raise the fundamental pitch half a semitone were not uncommon.

HT

You talk about your experiments as if they were the obvious next step for a string player, but unlike you, the rest of us are still trying to wrestle down our technique on our one standardized instrument. Why did you keep running with your imagination?

JR

It's an addiction, an obligation to do this. Before I came to Australia in 1976, I had experimented with instruments but couldn't put it all together either musically, conceptually, or practically, because I had not put the violin at the center of it all. By moving to an environment with limited cultural baggage, I had my little epiphany which was this 'Gesamtkunstwerk' idea--to create a personal, alternative history for the violin, an expansion of the accepted canon.

History is written by very few people, basically the people who run it and control it. When I came to Australia, I had the feeling that I could do anything, make up my own rules. The idea of relying on your own resources and wits in a place relatively removed from Euro-culture appealed to me.

'Why' is the time-honored question/search/god thing. Why make music? If you came from another galaxy and heard a bunch of people scratching away on strings, you would have to shake your head. To some degree everyone has their own history, but I was determined to explore areas not included in the given history. Not the 'this-is-the-violin, this-is-how-you-play-it school.' I've never gone along with the demarcation of western music into god, composer, and the foot soldiers being trained up to churn it out. The internet now gives me, one guy with limited resources, the option to state my case, for what it's worth.

©Hollis Taylor 2001

continued under: the relative violins - questions and answers 2.

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