Tag Archives: Fiddle

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

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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

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

The Horse and Me

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

“FIDDLE, n. An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.”
Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914) American journalist and short-story writer: The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

My father’s claim to fame is that an incident in his life made it into a book, Sagebrush Homesteads, by Laura Tice Lage. In this passage, Lage describes how my grandfather was working in his hay field when he spotted a pesky wabbit. At that time, rabbits were destroying crops so completely that many farmers near Crab Creek were being ruined. Grandpa Oscar was prepared, though. He snatched up his twelve gauge shotgun and fired at the bunny. The book doesn’t say if he hit the thing, or not. The most dramatic result of that shot was that Oscar’s horse was spooked. It galloped away, towing the wagon along with it…and my child father in the wagon.

My father always detested horses.

I’m wondering if that trait isn’t hereditary. Not that I detest horses, but that horses seem to have a thing about me! I first noticed that problem when I was a teenager. Years before, I had blithely told my mother who it was that I someday hoped to marry. Let’s call her Julie. As a teenager, I would never have revealed such a secret, but the feeling remained. Julie was still the woman I most wanted to impress. She was my age, so I knew her well, since all the children in that end of Adams County attended the same schools. I had been, for a time, her brother’s best friend–had even spent some sleepovers at her house. So when I ran across this beautiful, statuesque blond at the local fair, I considered it a matchless opportunity to impress her. But Julie was on horseback, and as I stood close by, chatting her up (as the Northern Irish lads would have described it), Julie’s horse decided to dispose of the suitor: it took a deliberate step in my direction, and it landed on my foot. Have you ever had eight hundred pounds dropped on your toes? My courtship ended suddenly and dramatically.

Continue reading

Narcolepsy and the Haunted Concertina

Some may call it odd, but I prefer to think of my skill at playing the English Concertina as merely quirky. This is an unusual instrument, to be sure, but it certainly fulfills my need to be unique…most of the time. And who was to know that the instrument was so well suited to me?

The English Concertina has an ancient history and a noble, scientific modern descent. It was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone, whose accomplishments in the field of electricity continue to influence electronics to this day. Have you ever heard of the Wheatstone Bridge? Not unless you are an electrician or a concertina player. I am the latter.

Let nobody disparage the influence of music in your life. For many, music is a sedentary or second-hand pursuit. For me, as well as for most musicians, it plays a crucial role in my state of being, and it has directed the course of my living.

When I returned from Ireland in 1982, I brought home my first English concertina. It was the product of one night’s lodging at the Youth Hostel in Glasgow. Continue reading