Turn on/off the embedded sound

the relative violins

questions and answers 2

a conversation between Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor 2001

HT

OK, let's try a 'who' question. Who are the Rosenbergs?

JR

When I started to make my own history, I realised that one person, one violin player, was not going to be enough. I began to invent aliases, hence Johannes for pedagogy, classical composition, ethno-musicology, and research; Jo 'Doc', the legendary bebop violinist; and Jimmy, the country and western turned heavy metal violinist, who died a tragic death in East Berlin. I set those careers running, and I plagiarized my own work to supply the material, and hence proof of the existence of that dynasty of Australian violin players. The books 'The Pink Violin' and 'Violin Music in the Age of Shopping' plagiarized my work to support the notion of this fictional dynasty of violinists.

HT

Inhabiting an alter ego with suspiciously familiar biographical markings to your own requires quite different skills from that of a performer. Instead of stalking the boards front and center, you all but absent yourself, becoming a watchful background presence, fabricating the stories of 'others.' By filing your work under the Rosenberg name, were you worried about opening yourself up to criticisms of not being serious?

JR

The Rosenbergs are not like PDQ Bach because they have a political intent and are a savage satire on the state of music and culture today. PDQ is fun; the Rosenbergs are more than fun, they are seriously critical of our current cultural demise. There is some very nasty stuff in those books!

HT

I can see that you steer right down the dotted line that separates literal fact from literary re-imagining. Do you see the use of fictional characters as an aesthetic honesty prevailing over an intellectual one?

JR

Elements of truth can be revealed from great untruth. Still, using fictional characters to provide a cultural commentary is not dishonest, is it? Intellectual rigor is perhaps more accurate. You spend time questioning your own decisions and others. The argument is never finished, but at least you know the cases for and against. When I apply criticism to my past work, it's usually that I didn't go far enough. There is always another set of options or possibilities which I didn't look at.

HT

What are the Rosenbergs up to of late?

JR

The Rosenbergs are an ever-expanding family of relations. This additional team became a philosophical backup for a lot of projects. Dr. Johannes, for example, predicted that with the demise of communism and capitalism would come the age of shopping. It turned out to be true.

Throughout the 90's, there were a number of shopping projects, and with this a huge collection of kitsch to do with the violin began to accumulate. The instrument as an advertising icon, the use of the violin in the shopping culture is massive. It has found its way into everything from banking to insurance to luxury goods, lifestyle statements to posing politicians to heaps of violin porn.

Rainer Linz and Cathy Macdonald in Melbourne collected a lot of stuff. I collected material, and people gave me things and sent me bits and pieces. Then, in Slovakia I met Josef Cseres, who teaches aesthetics at Bratislava University. One day while driving with Phil Niblock, a New York minimalist composer, Josef suddenly discovered they had stopped in a town actually called Violin, which means violin, built by a Hungarian count at the end of the nineteenth century. The count later lost the town in a card game. In the 30's, the place was all but wiped out by the flooding of the Danube. It's an extraordinary story, one you couldn't make up. I thought that there was no way I could fake a story as good as this one, so I asked him if he wanted to be the director of The Rosenberg Museum, and he agreed. Also, no one else wanted the job.

The population of Violin is approximately 100. The mayor gave Josef the football club to be the museum. It is a classic East Bloc concrete bunker, but it has a stage, a bar, and a library, which no one appears to have seen because the key is lost.

In 1999, the inaugural concert of the museum was given featuring four improvising violinists (Aleks Kolkowski, Kaffe Matthews, Phil Durrant, and Jon Rose). There are approximately 650 items in the museum, including a package of Finnish condoms with a violin on it and a bottle of cider with a photo of violinist Linda Brava, a peroxide blonde who models underwear while playing her Zeta violin. The museum has no aesthetic borders; it will accept anything, providing it has to do with the violin. The museum also houses a collection of violin art and most of Jon Rose's remaining Relative Violins, many in need of restoration work.

HT

With The Relative Violins tucked away in Slovakia, Rose is now playing, in addition to his standard violin, a tenor violin, both of which he commissioned from the legendary Australian luthier Harry Vatilliotis. The tenor is a phenomena, the cross-fertilization of a violin and a small viola, sounding full and deep-throaty a whole octave below a normal violin. I heard it in Mark Dresser's string quartet at the Tonic Club in New York City, and was struck by how it projects acoustically. Such an instrument as this Australian tenor violin poses questions for future developments in the world of acoustic string instruments--in what directions can bowed pitch and timbre still go?

JR

Contemporary-wise, you have the Hutchins octet based on the idea of a family of instruments (as in the viol consort). Scientifically researched for decades and sized to get the best sound out of the violin shape, unfortunately only three operational sets exist. One set is now being played by members of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, but Rose says it is hard to set up work for them given the conservatism of string players in the world of classical music. In the same string festival at Tonic, I heard Dominic Duval play one of the Hutchins basses. The sound is rich and colossal, and it shakes one's confidence in the evolutionary history of string instruments.

HT

I think of instrument makers as inherent tinkerers, and certainly I include you in this group although you disavow any specific luthier skills. How much do you separate making from playing?

JR

The best stuff comes from tinkering. You can sit and imagine anything, but the reality is that music is a practical business and one sound leads to another, so it's in the building and playing of instruments that things follow from the business of doing. Where composition really falls apart, because it's not done through the instrument.

HT

Do you only write for strings?

JR

If I'm going to write. to me it's a practical problem. There's no point in having string players improvise because most of them can't. You have to figure out what they can do. It's interesting when the context has been radically shifted. I love collisions. I hate cross-over, multi-culti--I prefer a colossal smash, where you get sparks which actually deliver something else.

The notion of musical possibilities defined by the instrument and by the playing, scordatura, for example--that's of interest. But when the instrumentalist tells the composer what's possible and what's not, you don't get the best results. An improviser is going to actually deliver that stuff all the time they play. That's in the nature of music practice.

HT

These home-made instruments certainly required new and extended techniques. Did playing these instruments affect your approach to the standard violin?

JR

Not at all, except in the respect that I am basically an auto-didact. I ceased formal studying after the age of 15. The violin is good for certain stuff and not for other stuff. For the other stuff I make instruments. On the violin, there are 4 or 5 strings--I ask myself what I can do with them, what the instrument is good at. If I flatten the entire bridge, I can get a drone. With a bow, I can do certain things. I am interested in velocity, for example, in notions of acceleration, speed, playing on the edge of what is possible for as long as possible and how that translates.

Clearly, there is an emotional aspect--you don't have to worry about that, it's going on, but also there are musicological notions of how far you can take counterpoint. This arrives at my 'Hyperstring' project where you can deal with counterpoint on a traditional basis of independent lines combining or conflicting with each other, just in terms of the pitch material. But then you can take it further, to incorporate bodily motions of counterpoint, so that the counterpoint of the body is also part of that relationship. It's like the classic Leonardo drawing of the man with his arms and legs stretched out, and it measures a circle. If music is defined not just by its intellectual content but also by the physiology of human beings, then that physiology must also be inherent in the music.

The piano is easy to play fast, but the violin requires such an effort just to get a decent sound happening. If you take things like the inventions of Paganini and apply them to improvisation, then instead of improvisation being the poor man's violin playing, you can make it be the most technical stuff that ever hit the planet, music that if some poor bastard had to go away and learn it, he'd be tied up for ten years.

Music also takes on the characteristic of sport, the adrenaline rush of speed, height, etc. These are significant parts of music lost in the present malaise of things gone user-friendly and P.C. and safe. Humans aren't like that. They can be, that's part of it, but that's not the whole story.

When I go to hear a concert, I also want to see it. I want to see those defining moments of why people do things--impulses that make muscles move, impossible positions happening and stimulating things, people not getting on, or getting IT on. I want to see the whole show of what it is to be human. I don't want to have some pretense that suddenly we are in a refined world where everything is pure and clean and explained and therefore covered up.

HT

Mozart believed in 'artless art' in which the hard work of composing disappears beneath a surface of serene simplicity. One critic sizes you up this way: 'Many of the tracks on 'Hyperstring' come across as an urgent report from the front-line, from Rose's personal battlefield with the instrument. Several tracks feature the sinister rattles of his whipolin, a seven string disemboweled cello. . . .' Do you feel on-stage that you do battle with your instruments?

JR

Battle is a bit much--there is a struggle. It's a struggle to be alive, and music contains struggle. so I like that notion of challenging what's physically possible, musically possible. It's a bizarre thing to say because I don't like failure, but I think you have to go there and look at that stuff. I'm sure Mozart did in his own way, too. It's just that it's become such a figure of the people who write music history in the West that it's very hard to say what he was really about. Even the Amadeus film, which made him a groovy cat who swore and told dirty jokes, still comes up with the idea of genius, perfection, but you hear lots of Mozart that is hacked out very quickly where many other options could have happened. I think Mozart fits into the Western notion of high art. It's had some really bad ramifications, one being that people can't improvise, even though he could. The other problem is that it's the tyranny of the Western harmonic system.

HT

Mahler said that tradition by itself is laziness, that one needs a correct understanding of their heritage to make something of it. What are most traditional violinists missing?

JR

Any sense of exploration. The violin when invented was an experimental instrument. It was also considered a bit of a rat bag compared to the viol, so it was proletariat in its origins. The viol was played by the amateur aristocrats, while the violin was played by the professionals, who lower down in the hierarchy. In its first 300 years of existence, it was all flat out innovation and experimentation. All the Italians first. then Bach, then Paganini. I guess he knocked it on the head.

So what are they missing now? The idea that music is an aural experience and therefore requires some movement from the people who express it, movement to the world in which the music exists. All the music that has existed until this century belonged to the time it was made in some way, even the radical stuff. When the violin was invented, people had just stopped hanging and drawing and quartering but were still doing mass executions and mass torture as a political tool of maintaining the state. The violin was perfected in Cremona and nothing else was going on? People had short, painful lives, and there was state terrorism. The life of a musician was tough. To reduce violin playing to some sort of mediocre fodder for Muzac, which is basically what it has become, seems a bit of a letdown, really.

From Muzac we went into the theme park melange, where music is slung together as a marketing tool. That is the new laziness, music falsely sold as experimental or radical cutting edge, or getting somebody famous to do something they aren't normally used to doing.

HT

For all intents and purposes, innovation in instrumental design stopped in Cremona, but by glancing through the ads in any music magazine, one can see a plethora of electric violins. Still, your world seems separate from that.

JR

Sonically speaking, a lot of electronic affects such as ring modulation and phasing happen naturally and certainly happened often on these homemade instruments because they were designed as open systems. In some situations, I was thinking the opposite to that of a violin maker, who would be trying to get rid of wolf tones. I was looking to find as many furry animals as possible. The instruments were laboratories for the exploration of all sonic phenomena associated with strings.

©Hollis Taylor 2001

continued under: the relative violins - questions and answers 3.

What's New

16-21 March 2020
Jon will be composer in residence
Monash University, Melbourne
03-30 April 2020
Jon is on tour in Europe
Berlin, Treviso, Mestre, Trieste, Berlin
24 July - 9 August 2020
The Rosenberg Museum
Articulate Space, Sydney
04 November 2020 - Premiere
Jon is currently composing 'Mendel's Mix' - A commission for Brno Contemporary Orchestra. The work is inspired by the 'father' of genetics, Johann Gregor Mendel, and based on the structure of DNA
Brno, Czech Republic
Latest Stuff
Jon Rose with shopping trolley full of relative violins, Berlin 1995
website by jos berkers