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The Relative Violins

violin descriptions

The Regular Violin

Before I start to describe The Relative Violins of Jon Rose, it is beneficial to hear some extracts from his contribution to the art of improvisation on the standard instrument, whether it be traditional violin genre, his use of scordatura, or his high velcocity free form solos.

As Rose says 'An all round improviser on the violin should be able to invent a new solo line for a classical violin concerto, peform lounge music, or play a counterpoint to an industrial digging machine, but above all engage with the digital age in which we find ourselves'.

1. The 19-string violin

Begun as a violin on a frame, this instrument is bolted to a tripod and amplified in stereo, with strings going over, through, and around it much like a violin caught in a spider's web. In a perpetual state of experimentation, strings were added--old cello strings, guitar strings, piano wire, any string or wire to hand. Rose stopped adding strings after the total reached 19. How did he know to stop there?.

'In the same way that an abstract expressionist knows when a painting is cooked. I started with the idea of making the violin self-supporting. By putting it on a frame, my hands were freed up from any instrument support role, so I could move all over and around the instrument.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 2.

2. The half-size megaphone violin

This instrument has a cheap amplifier built into it plus an FM (frequency modulated) microphone. Apart from having on board amplification, it also can function as a mini radio station.

'Because of the microphone's cheapness, it broadcast on 30 or 40 different frequencies. People listening to any station on FM within a range of about a hundred meters were terrorised by it. It was mobile and noisy, a sort of low-decibel Jimi Hendrix sound when amplified.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 20.

3. The aeolian violin

A sail on this violin catches the wind and excites the eight strings, making them sound. Pitch modulation is effected by continual use of the tuning pegs. It has twin necks, the second neck attached to the base of the instrument.

'The strings have to be excited in just the right way, requiring technique quite different from bowing. If the strings are tensioned too tight, they just stop; there is little room for maneuver. The sail has to be somewhat slack and it's difficult to get it all working, but when the wind conditions are right, it sounds great. Another option on windless days was to use a vacuum cleaner with an exhaust function. I had Mount Kosciusko in The Snowy Mountains in my sights as a performance venue. Nowadays, the experimental musician has 'e-bows' which work magnetically, doing the same trick as the wind but with much less messing around.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc Two, Track 12.

4. The tromba-mariner

In its medieval incarnation, the tromba-mariner consisted of a long sound box with one string and a bridge, one foot of which rested on the belly and one foot inside the instrument, making a buzzing sound. One played it with harmonics only, leading listeners to mistake for a trumpet played under water, hence its name. The Rose tromba-mariner was attached to the side of a boat, with six sympathetic strings. The main playing string was a double bass A string.

'I used a metal drainpipe, an excellent resonator. The sound was transformed depending on how much water filled the tube. Contrary to scientific opinion, there is a sonic difference to the pipe being half full as opposed to half empty. The locals used to think I had some weird, state-of-the-art gizmo that attracted the fish. While out playing on the river, I would often become aware of fishermen's boats closing in, hoping to profit from my mysterious aquatic machine.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 12; Disc One, Track 30.

5. The double piston, triple neck wheeling violin

Modified from the 'elbow violin,' this instrument works with a similar piston mechanism as a steam engine. Two bows are attached to the pistons, and as the wheel goes round, it pushes the bows up and down in an arpeggiating movement. The violin has three necks, two in the main playing part, with a bridge dividing down the middle, and a third with five resonating strings. A vital environmental consideration on the music was the condition of the road. Small bumps gave rise to interesting spiccato affects.

'As I pushed it along, and depending on the speed, you got the sense of not how long is a piece of music but of how far is a piece of music. Of course, by walking backwards, the performer could hear again what he had just played in retrograde. Thus, with this instrument a new dimension was added to the parameters of musical structure, that of distance.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 11.

6. The 16-string long neck micro tonal violin

Designed specifically for the production of harmonic clusters, the 16 strings, made of low gauge, high carbon steel wire, are tuned within an octave. The neck and fingerboard are double the standard length. A stand was constructed so that the instrument can be played horizontally. As with many of these instruments, contact microphone, graphic equalizer, volume pedal, and amplifier are attached for the projection of all sonic possibilities, including those that exist only at a low volume level.

'When I saw this violin again, hanging on an exhibition wall in Berlin in 1998, it was in a sad state of repair, reflected by its green body colour. The tension of all those strings had obviously been too much for the instrument, as the front belly had completely collapsed under the extra width bridge.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 6.

7. The trapezoidal five-string viola

This is the only 'violin' that Rose made from scratch. (Almost without exception, the others are recycled, cheap Chinese instruments.) It is based on an invention by Felix Savart (1791-1841), a scientist who decided that the classic shape of the violin was irrational. The Frenchman set about trying to make a rational instrument which included no arching and straight sound holes. Although his designs were approved by The Academies of Sciences and Arts, they never really caught on, but he did make it possible for an unschooled 'hacker' like Jon Rose to make a playable musical instrument for less than $4 in a couple of days. The traditional pine was substituted by marine plywood.

'It has a mellow sound, like an early music fidel and, unlike many of The Relative Violins, it has survived and is to be found today in the Rosenberg Museum, Slovakia. (More about the museum later in this article.) The trapezoidal viola is normally played amplified and its sound projects through a revolving double speaker system powered by a washing machine engine. More directional than the commercially produced Leslie, this amazing piece of apparatus was made by the wayward genius of Australian homemade technological wizardry, Don Mori.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 34.

8. The 19-string cello

This was made to replace the 19-string violin which was stolen in London. It started life in January 1981 as a student Chinese cello and, according to Rose, it came in a classic floral wallpaper-lined case, straight out of Mao's late 50's China. In the 22 years of its relative existence, the instrument has been central to much experimentation in tunings, stringings, on board percussion, and stereophonic amplification. The cello has a fret board on the back. By the manner in which it is amplified and by hammering down the fingers on the frets and bowing simultaneously, Rose can produce two or three sounds from the same physical action distributed throughout the stereophonic field. All the extra strings can act as sympathetic or be played arco or pizzicato. Initially, there were some 5 movable bridges employed; one auxiliary string started halfway up the main fingerboard acting as a top end resonator and occasional drone; various bowable and adjustable wooden rods, metal springs, plastic resonators and rotating appendages protruded from the body; another string went right through the middle of the main bridge causing intense overtones similar to a Hardinger fiddle.

'Throughout the 1980's, I toured world-wide with this cello, using it in a variety of improvising group contexts. It worked very well in duo combinations, such as with Shelley Hirsch, Jim Denley, David Moss, Toshinori Kondo, Eugene Chadbourne, or Simone De Haan. Jim Denley once suggested that the 19-string cello had superseded the string quartet.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc Two, Track 11.

9. The Madonna and child violin

The Madonna (cello) stood on two legs while the child (violin) was bolted upside down to the cello at breast height. They could be played at the same time by bowing simultaneously across both instruments.

'The cello had metal strings made of heavy-duty electricity cable, so it didn't sound like a cello. Sometimes, it made grating noises because of the inter-surface vibrations, a violent differential between the competing frequencies.'

Vivisection - Aufruhr Records: track B2

10. The whipolin

This disemboweled cello has hurdy-gurdy action in it, but unlike the hurdy-gurdy, it has interchangeable wheels, some with spikes, one with leather thongs, some with serrated edges, some with a wooden surface with bow hair on them--all serving in differing ways to trigger or excite the strings. In terms of tone production, this is a loud acoustic instrument. There are two playing strings usually tuned in unison.

'I made the whipolin specifically for the Hyperstring project, using it as a huge sonic resource station. I was hungry for some new sounds. It's lots of fun to play but too big to travel with. Cello strings function better on the softer wheels, however the spiked wheel frays them to extinction in a matter of seconds. I switch to trusty high gauge piano wire when the playing action is fast and ferocious.'

The Hyperstring Project - ReR JR6: Tracks 2, 8, 17, 18, and 20.

11. The double-necked violin

'A failure. I started with an idea of taking off half the belly and discovered that with a cheap violin, it often sounded louder, better not being an option. It had eight strings, I added an extra neck, then I couldn't figure out how or what to play on it. After one performance, I realised that I had arrived at a HUP situation (Hopeless, Useless, Pointless). I never got further with it.'

12. The Automated Violin Quartet, AKA The Agony and the Ecstasy

Commissioned by The Inventionen Festival of New Music, Berlin in 1989, this string quartet was an automatic installation of four violins. Electric motors powered the arpeggiated bow action at variable speeds. One of the violins had a low-end budget sampler built into it as well. They all had built-in amplifiers with horn speakers chosen for their lively mid-range characteristics. By all accounts they made a ferocious noise.

'The installation was set up so that when someone walked into the room, the lights were triggered and all the violins (perched on stands and residing on a specially built stage) went off in a confrontational high pitched arpeggiated wall of screech. This installation clearly had something of a minimalist irony about it--think of all those hours practising bowing exercises. A display of mechanical excellence was not an issue, and there was no intention to attempt one of those fantastic automatic violins from the early twentieth century which ran on player-piano technology. (Rose recently told me that he plans to convert one of these 'Violano Virtuoso' machines at The Power House Museum in Sydney into a fully MIDI-controllable instrument.)'

The Hyperstring Project - ReR JR6: Track 21.

13. The 10-string double violin

Played with a double bow, this Relative Violin construction shares one neck and the same strings. The two bridges are positioned in the normal place on their respective violins. There are seven playable strings tuned in fifths and three sympathetic ones. One bows two separate violins at the same time, with pitch manipulation achieved traditionally by the left hand, although it is placed between the two bows. As one goes up in pitch on one violin, a mirror inversion of the same pitch happens on the other violin.

'The instrument works with Pythagorean logic and simplicity... The interval relationships on each shared string are, by the laws of the harmonic series, unchangeable unless the thumb is utilised on the fingerboard as well.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 25.

14. The two-string pedal board

This operates with a clavichord-like action, the pedal keys dividing the heavily amplified string into two sounding parts. The instrument was specifically designed to be used at the same time as playing the violin and premiered at The Ars Elektronica Festival, Austria in 1990. Rose happily admits to being inspired and influenced by the seventeenth-century organist and violinist Nikolaus Bruhns, who gained a reputation for playing a ground bass on the pedal board of his pipe organ while simultaneously supplying two- and three-part variations on the violin.

Rosin - ReR JR 8-11: CD3 tracks 5-13

15. The double musical saw

Two saws are joined together by the handles which are mounted on a metal resonating tube. The instrument sits on a tripod. It is designed to be played with two bows, one per saw. Each saw can be flexed through the use of two foot stirrups. Bending the saw blades in this way makes independent pitch is possible. The instrument is very loud which causes maximum ring modulation and a pandemonium of beating difference tones.

'I carried out a number of experiments using metal plates and large springs as resonators instead of wood. I played the saw once in a concert beside a country road. Passing motorists were given a sort of sonic UFO experience, hidden as I was between the trees.'

16. The Bicycle-powered double violin

Supplied with a playing mechanism which looks very much like an old French moped, with the engine (violin placed upside down with a specially concave cut bridge) resting on top of the front wheel. The wheel-driven violin provides the drone and noise, while another violin positioned above it is played in the more traditional style.

'The first and only version so far built of this machine uses the front part of a bicycle only, so it is in fact pushed rather than pedaled. The definitive fully operational version awaits genesis.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc Two, Track 18.

17. Der Hund (The Dog)

Heard at Rose's final concert at The Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 1986, this violin suffered two long rods protruding through its belly and was pulled along on a lead half a meter off the floor.

'It was armed with a radio microphone and being heavily amplified, emitted massive howling feedback.'

18. The triple hummer bow

Finally, an ecological use for all that old quarter-inch audio tape. Originally inspired by the buzzing noise attachments to Chinese kites, the hummer of Jon Rose was designed to be clipped on to the side of moving automobiles and looked like a crossbow.

'The hummers were used in two situations. One was a clip-on to the side of a car, with the window down so you could get music while you drove. It was great, particularly on a long downward slope where you could turn the engine off. (For example, the downhill stretch of road from Cowan to the Hawkesbury River.) The other version was left attached to one of the river navigation markers, one of two huge port and starboard posts, in the center of the river. This hummer was positioned so it could catch the variable southerlies and westerlies common on the kilometer-wide river estuary.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 14.

19. All the long-string installations and Fences

Spanning anything from two to twenty five meters in length, many with a special resonating bridge, these playable installations have been built at regular intervals over the last twenty-one years. They are played with special techniques from bow, hand, feet, sticks, and an inverted violin used as a bow. Pitch material is derived from the natural harmonic system of each string. Jon Rose describes this playing as 'taking a string for a walk.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Tracks 15 and 41.

20. The windmill violin

Installed in Freemantle in 1983 when Rose was in residence at the Praxis Art Centre, this violin employed available telegraph wires. Positioned over a quiet side street. It had a simple action. Wind turned the sails of the windmill, and plectrums attached to the arms of the sails plucked the strings at regular and high-speed rhythms.

'It didn't survive the first major storm.'

21. The violin with metal resonator.

This is a four-string violin with the bridge sitting on a metal plate. This instrument is directly inspired by the Stroh violin which amplifies the violin strings through a membrane and metal horn.

'The idea of the metal plate was so I could experiment with a number of different resonating materials--plywood, porcelain, and plastic. The metal plate accentuated high frequencies but lacked a strong fundamental, giving it a sound more out of the Islamic tradition than the Occidental tradition.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc Two, Track 16.

22. The violin with polystyrene.

A variation on the violin with plate resonator, the polystyrene has turned out to be a huge resonator of sound--not at all refined, but bone-jarringly effective. The frequency depth of polystyrene means that bass guitar strings can be used. It is extraordinary that such a small instrument can work so easily two octaves below middle C. The aesthetics of polystyrene put this Relative Violin in the extreme end of the left field of folk 'bricolage' tradition.

'It's not a pretty sight.'

Fringe Benefits CD - Entropy 006: Disc One, Track 16.

©Hollis Taylor 2001

For Questions and Answers to the how, where, when, and why of The Relative Violins.

What's New

April 2023
'Rock/Paper/Scissors' - first performance of a radical new interface between violin improvisation, composition, orchestra, and conductor. Highlights here.
KNM, Berlin
March 2023
'Beak' - Kronos Quartet plays the world premiere, a composition based on the song of a Pied Butcherbird by Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor.
Adelaide Festival
March 2024
'Night Songs' celebrates an interspecies multi-media engagement between the ancient music of a uniquely Australian songbird - Cracticus nigrogularis (the Pied Butcherbird) and Australia's premiere new music group Ensemble Offspring. Documentation here.
The Adelaide Festival
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Jon Rose with shopping trolley full of relative violins, Berlin 1995
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