Thursday, November 1, 2012

Adventures in violin rescue, part three: violin tasting

"Gallagher's Frolics" (traditional Irish), performed on two violins

#1) 1840 C. F. Hartmann, Nazareth, PA.  The label says "1840, Nazareth, PA," but underneath the top it is signed and dated 1820, which is apparently the year Hartmann was born--somewhere around Neukirchen in Saxony.  This could be the first violin Hartmann made in America.

#2) c.1800 anonymous Saxon violin.  I'm still getting the intonation dialed in on this fiddle, so try to ignore that...It's an odd thing, because violins are not all that different, but it takes more than a week to get used to a new one after 28 years on the old one. 

This is a bit of an experiment, comparing these two violins.  I'm not sure the audio recording quality delivers the sound of these instruments, but the difference for me is how easy it is to play #2, and how everything is more connected with a fuller tone.  More sweetness in the high end in #2, as well (compare :22-40 and 1:06-24).  Can you hear the ringing sound at the very end?  Violins all do this to some degree--the strings act as spring reverberation devices when they aren't being played and their harmonics "ring" when they coincide with the harmonics of the note you're playing.  These "chords" are especially lovely in the sound of violin #2, kind-of intoxicating when the instrument is under your ear...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventures in violin rescue, part two

Saxon/Bohemian violin, c.1800, all set-up and sounding fabulous...

This last week I posted images of this violin on and found out some interesting things about this instrument I had written about in the previous post.  That 1791 Casper Strnad label is a standard lithographed copy of the original copper engraving label, in other words--not genuine.  Another participant had a similarly-anonymous violin attributed everywhere from Prague to Schönbach (west Bohemia) to Saxony with this same bogus 1791 Casper Strnad label.  Apparently in the late 19th century, violin dealers in Markneukirchen in what had been Saxony (but was now a part of the new German State) had copied labels of famous makers and stuck them inside violins, in this case, into one that was already around 100 years old at the time.  It probably had lost its label decades before; maybe it's under the fake label.  It seems that most features of this violin point to late 18th-century violins made in Saxony and western Bohemia.  One weird feature of this violin that indicates that it could have been made in Prague is this hole in the back of the peghead.

Apparently some makers in Prague (including our man Casper) would drill a hole to make stringing the A string easier, but the consensus on the site was that the dealer who put in the fake label probably had his guy drill this hole and then plug it, so that it looked like it was from Prague.  More likely is that it is from further west, as the original Skinners auction description proposed somewhat tentatively.

So, not a Caspar Strnad.  Looking at all the repairs, both participants and my friendly neighborhood string instrument repair god, Paul Hill, suggested that this might not necessarily sound very good.  When I showed up at his workshop yesterday, I was expecting that I had thrown my money out the window, pretty much.

After carefully checking that every single repair was stable (especially the ugly ones), he fitted a bridge to the top, cut a rough arc on top of the bridge, and put the strings on.  Here he is in action.

Then he handed it to me, I tuned it up, and...

Oh, my...Both of us looked at each other with our eyes wide--this thing was wonderful!  So, then it was worth it to go all out.  He trimmed down the bridge, we kept going back and forth, playing a bit, shaving the bridge here and there...Then he tweaked the soundpost here and there.  In about an hour, it was perfect.  As Paul said, "This fiddle has a voice!"  

I played a real Stradivari once, which was interesting in the way it threw an amazing singing tone out all around me.  I can see why classical players love this, but it's not an instrument for fiddle music.  The 17th-century Jacobus Stainer I played once was a different story; that violin had a rich, intimate sound, complex and dark down low and sweetly singing up high.  I wanted that fiddle!  And I have to say, this anonymous 200-year-old violin from Schönbach or Markneukirchen or wherever had that intoxicating Stainer sound.  For about $250K less than a good Stainer would cost. 

Ideally I should include a link to a little soundfile of it on my website, which I will eventually do, but first I have to get to know this instrument for a couple of weeks.  We'll be spending a lot of time together...

Friday, October 19, 2012

Adventures in violin rescue, part one

(What I think is a) Caspar Strnad violin, Prague, 1791

I have been interested (some would say obsessed) with antique Central Asian nomadic carpets for a few years now.  Besides being enchanted by their beauty, my recording environments are tuned by their presence on the walls and floors.  Another part of this story, though, has been my discovering the online market for these weavings, and I confess to a delight in combing eBay and so on for undiscovered treasures.  Buying a rug from internet images and getting what you think it ought to be is not all that difficult, provided you know the rugs, and though I suspect the golden age of rug acquisition in this way may be fading, there are still some pretty nice rugs for not much money on eBay (and A LOT of wretchedly awful ones for too much money).  Official fancy auction houses like Skinners, Christies, Grogans, Rippon-Boswell, etc. have oriental rug auctions of course, but unlike eBay, the best auction houses appraise their items and offer their inventory to dealers.  Not much is going to get past that audience into the hands of a "bottom-feeder" like me, but I still look at those online catalogs to learn more about rugs and I do just like looking at them.

So, in September I was looking at an odd auction that Skinners in Boston runs once a month, called a "Discovery Auction," where they offer all sorts of different things, including sometimes good rugs.  As I was scanning the items, I was surprised that it had a few violins, violas, and related stuff.  They never do that, or at least rarely.  And the violin above was lot #827.  I thought it had a very lovely shape, elegant scroll and f-holes.  Lots of face cracks.  And they said it was c. 1800 "probably Saxon" and labeled "Casper Strnad."  A little research confirmed what I thought, that Strnad (1752-1823) is a famous violin maker in Prague, who around 1800 started building violins in the lower-arched style of the Italians like Stradivari and Guarneri. The way that Skinners description was worded made it sound like they thought the label was suspect (the famous violin-making centers of Saxony are over the border from Prague, which is in what was then called Bohemia).  I wondered if the usual competition from dealers and other interested parties that would keep me away from the official Skinners musical instrument auction might be absent at this event.  The estimate was only $200-$400. 

Fake labels in violins are more common than genuine labels.  Thousands of cheap "factory-made" fiddles have been produced in Europe (and more recently in China) labeled as "Stradivarius" or "Guarnerius" and the conventional wisdom is that a label is usually worthless, unless it exactly matches the known surviving examples of that maker's labels, and the other aspects of the violin correspond to that maker's style and quirks.  I liked the look of this violin somehow (in spite of the considerable cracks), in the way a good rug will catch my eye in an online image, though I suspected it was a nice Neukirchen (Saxon) violin of some sort or another.  Still, a 200-year-old violin of a sort that can sound wonderful for fiddle music, and I got to thinking that I might try a bid.

Buying a musical instrument online is of course an entirely different enterprise than buying a rug.  There are more knowledgeable people out there hunting for violins, there is generally much more money involved, it is far easier to conceal evil of various sorts, and most important--you can't play the instrument!  I have a friend in Boston, though, who regularly goes to the Discovery auctions looking for rugs, and his partner is a retired professional 'cellist, so I asked him if they would take a look, and the report was that it was a pretty interesting looking old violin, though I didn't have a photo of the label...

OK, so I bought it for $356 ($300 plus buyers premium).  That's less than you would pay for one of those German factory fiddles.  I put it out of my mind that it could actually be a Caspar Strnad.  The violin in the Skinners auction had the higher arching of the earlier Tyrolean/Saxon/Bohemian style, but of course this is the style that Strnad used for the first forty or so years of his life.  I wonder if the Skinners appraiser was looking for Strnad's later style.  Who knows?  As far as I'm concerned, the sound of the higher-arched style is much better for fiddle music, and I have in fact played a few fabulous Italian violins, including a Stradivari.

When the violin arrived yesterday, the first thing I wanted to see was the label, because I had tracked down an image showing two versions of Strnad's labels...
Here are two views of the label inside my violin.  It sure seems to me to be very similar to the first one, above...I will post images of this violin on a violin site and see what some experts have to say...It sure looks like this is the genuine article.

So now the next part of this adventure is to get some strings and get this instrument set up, and I will find out if this violin can sing!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Southeast view from the porch this afternoon.

Today I finished the score and recording of the first act of my opera.

It is a peculiar experience to finish something I have worked on for so long.  And of course I must go right into the second act, but this is something that I will be able to send out to a few people who have expressed interest, so it represents the beginning of putting it in the world.  Or yet another beginning, and there are more to come.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Sunset in August, 8/15/12

Last year's pink cloud of epilobium is still out there, but much reduced, and now the fescue, asters (maybe too many but they're nice and pretty hard to stop), yarrow (likewise), and others have come into their own enough that nothing seems to be able to take over. There is also a blue cloud of asters now, though, as is so often the case, you can't really see that in this image. There is an afternoon's worth of china lettuce to dig up out here (tomorrow...) but that isn't bad.

I wonder if I should lighten the seed load by mowing. There will be a lot of seeds going in if I don't and there are plenty of those plants already--asters, yarrow, and epilobium. The fescue has already seeded so I will continue to get grass seeding itself (I think that is a good thing). That decision will have to be made this week. Still, it is an inspiration to look out there and see even this fairly plain view...this is what late summer native Palouse prairie looks like, which is why I hesitate to mow it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

30 years

My arrangement of François Couperin's "Les Barricades Mystérieuses," video recorded by Thomas Arthur, 7/31/12

It has been about 30 years since I recorded this piece on my first record. Since then I quit and rediscovered the banjo, and here I am playing it again.

It is one piece from that first LP that people continue to ask me about. It is so beautiful and strangely idiomatic on the banjo, and I only just recently finished writing out music/tablature for it. I was so delighted when I found that I could play it on this new instrument. If you email me (, I would be happy to reply with the PDF version of the written arrangement attached. For some reason, I wanted to do this video before I started on the gourd banjo CD project. So, now I'd better get to work...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Back on track

A July thunderstorm approaches...
...trying to get a sense of the summer panorama out in the prairie. The white flowers are yarrow (and some phacelia and wild buckwheat) and the pink are clarkia...Gallardia, cinquefoil, Rocky Mtn. little sunflowers, and lupines are also blooming, but it is an odd thing about photographs that you can see these things when you are standing there, but it is hard to see them if you can see them at all in a photo.
I finished my never-ending CD project this week, and I'll post a track or two on my website eventually. It was a lot of fun to lose myself in country music for half a year, and I learned a lot, too. I hope Shiloh has a great success with her recording, but I am so very pleased that I get to return to my own projects at last!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A sonic signature

Gracie and lupines, 6/14/12

I am at last mixing the project that has had me sidetracked this Spring.  In the middle of mixing one of the songs today, I had soloed my piano and fiddle parts right at the end, and it just sounded like this place and its music somehow, like a logo for palouserivermusic ought to sound.  Russ Rosenbalm played a lovely cymbal wash at the end too, and so I put that in there.  In the actual mix you will probably barely hear it... Here it is.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Spring 2012

Delphinium nuttallianium, about a week ago

I didn't plant this patch of upland larkspur in the far southwest corner of the property.  I have carefully worked in Idaho fescue around what was 1 or 2 plants for years, praying that I could get them to spread.  All of a sudden this year, about thirty showed up!  They are difficult to get going.  The only patch I have been able to establish myself from seed is in the otherwise-disturbed southeast corner (a former cow manure dumping site decades ago, I was told). 

Camas is blooming!

It just really opened up in the last day or so, and it looks like there will be a nice drift throughout the middle of the property.  As with much actual news in the prairie, the most interesting thing to me is barely visible in green--hundreds of new camas plants, apparently coming from seed, everywhere.  I put a 1/2 pound of seed out maybe five years ago, and I planted a lot of locally-collected camas seed last year, so I'm not sure which planting has arrived.  Anyway, it is inspiring to see that the camas part of the project is essentially finished; in another few years when these are all blooming, there should be a nice blue pond every May.

"Standard view"

I came up with this view years ago, before I knew how this was all going to come out, and I think I have to show it for comparison, but most of the excitement is closer to the house.  In the sense that the news there is invisible because it's green, it is showing lots of promise.  There is another blue elderberry on the right, a syringa, and a snowberry.  Significant shrubs in the future.  The Idaho fescue is mature and filling in very well, and there are few weeds.  The intense cover of epilobium from the previous two years seems to have toned down and clarkia is coming back vigorously.

Lomatium triternatum in bloom

So, if I do walk towards the house, I come upon a scattering of nine-leafed lomatium.  These are spreading throughout the northern part of the property, and are interspersed with the camas too, as they are in several of the surviving camas patches around here.     

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Idaho blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhincium idahoense) blooming in the prairie, 4/7/12.

About a year ago I made a post about voles and how they had destroyed the first bit of real prairie I had created. There were tunnels and tunnels and nothing came up and it was all pretty bleak. The theory I had then was that maybe they also helped spread the plants that they consumed, and I decided I would wait until the next year to see what happened in that spot.

I am an optimist, and I do think that regular everyday life reveals mysteries and what would be miracles except these things are not extraordinary. It's just what happens. And so it was with these prairie spots. Yeah, the voles went insane (and then mysteriously went away...until they inevitably will return in a few years), but as I suspected, they did indeed spread plants around. All through this area now are stalks of sisyrhincium (Idaho blue-eyed grass), and many of the grass-like hairs that will become full-blown sisyrhincium in the future. I spotted two fritillaria pudica coming up, too.

We have had too much snow, but it is a fine thing to see Spring poking through!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stereo Banjo

Recording setup for stereo banjo, 3/22/12

When I recorded my banjo back in the 1980's, I always went with whatever the engineer or producer had in mind, which was the standard approach, putting the microphone out front. As I learned more about recording and paid attention to how a banjo sounds, I started notice that the richest sound came out of the back. This is why I prefer the open-back banjo sound, and put the soundhole of my gourd banjo facing me (earlier posts...). So, when I went back to recording the banjo in the last few years, I wanted to try to record the back, which did indeed sound much richer, and from there I got the bright idea to put two small-diaphragm condenser mics (here, two Neumann KM184s) in the configuration you see above, one in front and one behind, panned into a fairly-wide stereo. The first time I tried it in an official session was on Paul Ander's banjo on this track of the Steptoe project. Both his banjo and mine above have a rag stuffed in them, too. I love this stereo banjo sound, how it is somehow three-dimensional in the mix without being in the way of anything else. Now that I think of it, the Steptoe project wasn't the first time; I used it on my great-grandfather's 1893 Fairbanks banjo when I recorded Lullaby on Handmade. There it is in the background, but it has that same 3-D effect.

The banjo here is a c.1918 Bacon Blue Ribbon (it has the proto-flathead tone ring of the later Bacon & Day banjos and a weird detachable cover for the back that anticipates their later resonators, which I just leave off), with a neck I made for it in 1985, and a real skin head. Recording Shiloh's CD gives me a few opportunities for trying my banjo sound out on a new audience.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Russ Rosenbalm's drums, ready for recording, 1/25/12

So, I was right on the cusp. A couple of parts to score and record in my musical recording project. Ready to start recording with the new gourd banjo. Then, I disappeared!

Dona saw it coming, when we scheduled Russ to come down to record, she said, "Could you finish that shelf in the bedroom, maybe..?" Too late. But I had points for finishing her room from last year (earlier post), so I'm OK.

I have had several of these interventions in my long-term plan, which explains a lot, but they have always been great projects to do, and this one was now or never. Shiloh Sharrard is a local (Moscow, ID) singer, who I first heard when she was 11 (and was already a great country singer...), and later recorded when she was almost 15. She is really good. Now it's four years later and she and her dad are going to Nashville, and they need a new CD for a thousand reasons, but this meant a whole production from the ground up. I knew a great drummer who had just moved to Spokane. How could I not do this?

Anyway, this kind of thing takes over your life. Another month, I'll be making the shelf.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I rarely finish anything cleanly; there is always some sort of edit involved. On the gourd banjo I had to make a new nut, and tweak a few other things over the last month or so. After a few weeks of playing I started to crave some sort of position markers when I realized that flying up for what would be a 12th-fret or 17th-fret note was never going to be anything other than a gamble if I didn't get a visual cue. So, I added little rosewood position dots today.

This is the current bridge design. There is a rosewood cap, with a break between the 4th and 5th strings, and a bone inlay for the 4th string. There is a bit of inspiration from the work of physicist Michael Kasha with guitar design in the difference in the two feet, the top one meant to spread the bass frequencies and the bottom one to focus the treble. I think the brace (see previous posts) acts like a fulcrum for the movement of the two different feet. I may separate out the foot of the 5th string from the bass foot and lighten the treble foot somewhat...we'll see...

This is such a lovely instrument to get to know. Much more of a voice comes out of this than any banjo I have heard. I'm starting to get comfortable with it.