Category Archives: Fiddle

Draw the bow and finger the strings.

Artifact

I created this hoax to defend myself from potential bodily harm on a tour of Sweden, playing concertina.

I created this hoax to defend myself from potential bodily harm on a tour of Sweden, playing concertina.

In the early 1990s I fell into a certain “company” of Scandinavian musicians in Seattle. Bleak as that may sound, it was an enjoyable few years in which I learned many things about the requirements of playing a hambo or polska. Most of the musicians were fiddlers, and they were taught by my girlfriend of the time, who was an expert in her field. As I wanted to play along, I brought out my wooden flute, made by my old friend Casey Burns, and I found that I was able to keep up with many of the melodies. But eventually I braved bringing out my English concertina, my main instrument at the time. Learning the tunes on the concertina was no problem for me. I just had to learn how to blend in to the ensemble sound.

Eventually, Skandia Folkdance Society was invited to tour a number of folk festivals in Sweden. Consensus in the group was that whoever wanted to go on the trip should be taken along, even if they couldn’t afford the trip. I couldn’t. Working as a beginning teacher in those days I routinely finished the month with less than thirty dollars in my bank accounts. I am eternally grateful that the society helped me buy my ticket so I could go along that summer. But I worried a little about bringing a concertina to those places of rigid tradition in Scandinavian dance.

It didn’t help when a Swedish concertina enthusiast I met in Stockholm marveled at my boldness. “They’ll kill you,” he quietly predicted.

Luckily I had done my research. Or, rather, I had done some artificing. If ever I were challenged about the authenticity of playing a squeezebox for Swedish traditional dancing, I would flash the button shown above. You can plainly see that this Viking era dragon is playing a squeezebox, perhaps even a concertina! I worked for hours to perfect the drawing that I later made into the button.

I need not have worried. Not only did I survive unscathed, but the Swedish concertina enthusiasts had me over for spaghetti (or some other traditional Swedish meal) and we had a good time. One big fellow tore the sweatshirt off his back and gave it to me. It had a rendering of a tattered horse’s head (of the English Morris Dance variety) and the words Eken Morris Dancers. Eken was apparently an old name for Stockholm. I still wear that shirt on cool evenings and I still smile about that evening when a bunch of unrooted folk enthusiasts shared some time and tales together.

Later during the trip I happened to find a poster of a painting of a May Day celebration. The painting, by a famous Swedish artist, dated from around 1880. The procession was packed with dancers in their traditional drakt, hauling a huge May Day tree to the site of their dance. At the head of the procession was a young dancer providing the music. He was playing a concertina.

A Little Music for the New Year

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

The late, beloved Goku, inspiration for my tune, Spotted Cat.

I’ve spent the past few days reworking some of the music I’ve written over the past thirty years as a concertina and whistle player. Some tunes were also composed on the fiddle. The way the folk process works, some of these contain hints of melodies from other tunes. While I’ve copyrighted all of them, I’m putting the tunes out here for anyone to use, especially as they were written to be danced to.

To hear these tunes, you should download Easy ABC, a free music composition program available online. Copy my music, including the header, and paste it into the window labeled ABC Code. Then click on the play arrow to hear the tune. Print the music, play the music, mess with it. It’s for having fun with.

The first tune is one of the oldest, a jig written on the concertina in the early 1980s.  Because it’s a concertina tune, it presents a certain challenge on the fiddle. Continue reading

Remember This

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle "Remember Us."

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle “Remember Us.”

My family has long had a close relationship to the making of music. If you go back far enough in my mother’s family, we were probably connected to the German composer of operas and organ music, Johann Georg Kühnhausen, whose Matthäus-Passion (Saint Matthew’s Passion) is still occasionally performed. But for the most part, we played much more informally.

My father and several of his buddies toured around Eastern Washington in the 1930s and 1940s, playing dances in little towns like Othello and White Bluffs as the Five Jives. Two of his brothers were members of a long-lasting semi-professional band that formed under Steve Laughery in Moses Lake and which continued to tour the west after Laughery died in a landslide. The memory of these bands survive in some of the artifacts we still possess, some sheet music inscribed with “Five Jives” and a couple of vinyl albums from the Many Sounds of Nine, my uncles’ band. I have written before about the old violin my father used to play, passed on to him from one of my mother’s uncles. I use it to play dance music in a couple of contra-dance bands in Northwestern Washington now.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name "Elton" is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name “Elton” is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

Last month I found a very interesting instrument, seemingly meant for me. It had a peculiar back story and it fit a special niche in a musician’s repertoire. For there will always be a time when you want to create the most annoying sound you can musically make. In this case, with a banjo ukulele. Continue reading

Making Music

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

A few months back my wife expressed an envy for a violin stand so that she didn’t have to unpack her instrument to practice. She thought she’d be more likely to play if the instrument was standing by, ready. It took only a couple of weeks for the stand to topple over, spilling the violin and bow on the floor. The fingerboard popped off. I later found a better-designed stand that grips the neck of the instrument automatically. If she wants another one, I’m ready with an idea.

As a rank amateur when it comes to fine instruments, I refused to try to set the fingerboard back in place. I suggested our old friend Dave Nerad might do a better job. The violin sat for a long time before she finally agreed to let me take it to Dave.

In the meantime I thought Patti deserved something less risky to play around on, and since we’d been talking about electric violins, it suddenly occurred to me that the first major project out of my new wood shop ought to be a gift for her.

A couple of years back I purchased an electronic book about designing and building an electric violin. With Christmas coming up, I decided to see what I could do about building an electric violin, my first attempt at building something from scratch.

The component search began simultaneously with the designing process. I went online with a list of items to buy: nut, fingerboard (being short on time I didn’t envision being able to carve a fingerboard or neck, so I intended to buy those parts), the end pin, tailpiece with its various related parts, the strings and so forth. The most important component would be the bridge, since it would include the pickup that would determine the quality of the sound.

I opted for a good Yamaha design, knowing that I would have a bit of re-wiring to do. The pickup was designed to be used on an acoustic violin rather than a purpose-built electric. I also wanted to figure out whether or not to use an on-board pre-amp to boost the signal from the weak piezo bridge pickup. I found an onboard pre-amp mounted in a jack, which would solve two mysteries at once. But the jack was bigger than I would have hoped, so it changed the design I had already  created, requiring me to abandon the left-hand cutout on the lower bout.

To design the body I first sought face-on images of fine violins. I selected an x-ray image of a Stradivarius to work with. I overlaid graph paper on a printout of the image and cut the fiddle back to its minimum requirements. I knew a violinist needs the sensory block of the body to help place their left hand on the high end of the scale, so that curve had to be maintained. Bridge distance was a constant, and so was body width where I would be mounting the chin rest and end pin. Continue reading

To Belfast

In 1985 I combined the Mount Saint Helens eruption with a self portrait playing my English Concertina to create a postcard image I called Concertina Blowout.

I arrived in Glasgow by train late in the day, bound for Belfast where I was expected. I remember thinking that this could be the last peaceful day I would have in a long time, the last day when I could do what I liked, go wherever I might choose, without consideration of any dangerous political ramifications. The scene outside my rainy window matched my mood. Desolation. The train clattered through filthy industrial parks, littered fields, broken down Victorian factory buildings and shabby streets.

It was 1981, and outside Belfast, in Long Kesh Prison Bobby Sands was approaching his sixtieth day on hunger strike. If he were to die there would undoubtedly be fire and shootings, bombs and riots in the streets of Belfast. I’d done enough research to understand The Troubles in Northern Ireland from a dissociated, rather academic viewpoint. It looked like I would soon have firsthand experience of the realities of the IRA struggle against the Thatcher government.

It was easy to be gloomy in Glasgow, after having spent a month prowling the more upscale streets of Edinburgh. Between stints with a wire brush, cleaning gutters and painting for my hosts, I had earnestly searched the tourist precincts and alleyways for my dream instrument, an English concertina. It was a search doomed to failure. I came to recognize that even if I were to find Continue reading

A Visitor

It was a glorious morning, the type of day that reminds me of why I so love living here. For so long the weather has continued to act like Winter: fog cloaking the hills, rain flowing down our driveway like a babbling brook. And it seems only days  ago that the last of the snow disappeared from the slopes of Anderson Mountain. Continue reading

An Echo of Their Tunes

If I can find the time, one of the things I like to do every evening is practice the fiddle. I’m not good, but I’m getting better. There’s definitely a calming effect from it, like a walk on a mountain trail. I follow a trace left by someone else, but I never see things exactly the way they did. Sometimes I only find cacophony, and other times the effect is ethereal. It’s something that a psychologist could probably analyze with dramatic and devastating results, but I try not to consider the implications of this habit. It is, at least, constructive and it keeps me from being a complete consumer.

While music has had a continuous influence in my own life, I believe it to have had influences throughout the generations since we became Jewish and before. (If you haven’t read my previous posts, you may not understand that comment: the BRCA gene is passed on through some Jewish family lines. Until my close relative was diagnosed with it, my family had no clue that we shared this Jewish heritage. Now we suspect that the gene was introduced through my great-grandmother, Amelie Von Marquet Kuhnhausen.)

The proud owner of a new piano, purchased from a piano wagon out of Portland, Oregon. Photographs of her wedding to Karl (Charles) Kuhnhausen grace the top of the piano. This piano sits in my music room.

The proud owner of a new piano, purchased from a piano wagon out of Portland, Oregon. Photographs of her wedding to Karl (Charles) Kuhnhausen grace the top of the piano. This piano sits in my music room.

In my music room sits an old piano, which joined our family before 1906 (I have a photograph of the Jewish great-grandmother sitting proudly before it, published on a custom postcard which once carried a postmark of that year). The piano doesn’t get much play now. My daughter had been taking lessons on it before she died, and her music sat on the piano for months before I finally cleared it off into the piano bag she used to carry it to town. Now that music stands by the abandoned piano, both of them artifacts of people who have completed their turns on earth. Continue reading