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The Baritone Violin

Another Voice: the Baritone Violin
by Darol Anger

Rehashed from Sept/Oct.'92 STRINGS Magazine

There's a legend about the great violin virtuoso Paganini which describes him, in a jail cell because of gambling debts, progressively breaking the E,A, and D strings of his instrument. Finally left with only the G string, he proceeds to compose his famous showpiece, Air on a G string, in which the violinist must clamber all around the lowest string of a violin doing all sorts of things better left to Paganini. However, this self-imposed limitation may actually appeal to some of us fiddlers who sometimes tire of all those high screechy sounds up next to our face all the time! As in many marriages, an instrument's most salient qualities often metamorphose into those qualities most irritating to the player. The violin's clear soprano and ultra-soprano range can be a source of joy or nerve-shattering neurosis, and has inspired many players to seek the warmer-toned viola as a solace.

For my small physique, the viola was uncomfortable and still didn't reach a low enough pitch. But after hearing a third possibility, tucked away in the inner cuts of hard-to-find record albums and through the violinists' grapevine, I found another satisfying solution which has worked out well both artistically and financially

That solution is my own revival of the Baritone Violin, in this case a normal violin tuned an octave below the standard GDAE. This was apparently a fairly common tuning for both viol-type instruments and under-the-chin models before the violin-viola-violoncello forms were standardized, most say, for the symphonic era. These instruments are now rare and somewhat unwieldy. However, they can be heard here and there, possibly in early-music ensembles of which I am unaware, and on some jazz violin albums by Svend Asmussen and Harry Lookofsky. Also, in the late 1960's, the Barcus-Berry electric violin manufacturers began to market an instrument called the "violectra" which was simply an electric violin with extremely thick strings, tuned an octave low. These strings were manufactured by Thomastic and distributed by Barcus-Berry in the U.S. In an amplified situation this sound was a revelation, and it was used often by Jean-Luc Ponty and other electric violinists. Even Stephane Grappelli recorded with it on a Concord Jazz live recording. The sound was also used by Vassar Clements, who strung up one of his old fiddles with the Violectra strings and used it on a David Grisman recording in 1975. That was my inspiration to try doing the same.

Violinist David volunteered an old factory-made German or Czech Maggini copy which had belonged to his uncle. This instrument was slightly oversize, and had the characteristic Maggini style double purfling, a thick body, mediocre workmanship, and a bad tone, which made it the perfect experiment. When the instument was strung up with the low strings, the clangorous brassy sound was transformed to a clear, penetrating, fascinatingly furry simulacrum of a baritone saxophone.

Obviously this instrument could not compete with a good violin or viola in carrying power in a good-size hall, but for microphone-aided or close chamber work it possesses an unmistakable, kaliedoscopic and attention-getting sound which has improved over the last twenty years and proved extremely useful to me as an alternate voice.

Friends and associates have strung up baritones of their own and have had varying degrees of success. The key factor seems to be not to use a deep or mellow- sounding instrument, but one with a bright, harsh sound which results in extra clarity and penetration of the low register notes emerging from a small sound chamber.

Since Barcus-Berry no longer manufactures the Violectra, these strings are somewhat difficult to find. My sources are listed at the end of the article, and have proved reliable. They are expensive, but last as long as two years in some cases. In emergencies, on tour, I have even used a cello string for the low G, a viola C string for the D, and light gauge violin G and D strings for the A and E. Obviously the cello string has to be cut to fit, and this requires measuring and wrapping the string at the proper spot with thread and a bit of cyanoacrylate glue (Krazy glue, appropriate for an utterly insane project) before the string is cut. Otherwise, the string will explode, unravel, and the staff of Fiddlistics Music will receive threatening letters. The core sizes for a makeshift set like this are not optimal, but they will work, and have gotten me through tours.

Playing the instrument requires a slight change in bow technique: a slightly slower bow with more pressure, to move the extra string mass. I've experimented with viola and even cello bows and found them more inconvenient than useful, but a heavier stick may do well for some. Left-hand adjustments, unlike with viola, are minimal. I consider this to be a key advantage for the working player.

I don't agree here. I acquired a viola bow—just an inexpensive fiberglass one—and I think it makes all the difference in getting the low notes to sound out.

This de facto Baritone Violin is wonderful for quiet musical situations where a mute would be appropriate, or where a loud violin sound is too exposed or distracting. It sounds particularly attractive in a duo with classical guitar, as it doesn't blot out the guitar and makes a voluptuous blend. It's an interesting option for one of the violins in a string quartet, as each player can have their own individual tonal color, and became an essential sound in the Turtle Island String Quartet's repertoire. Try playing one on the Bach unaccompanied sonatas for both violin and cello! Electrified, the instrument can be frightening, especially in its lower reaches. The violinist's visceral fantasies of bone-crushing power are fulfilled.

Examples of the sound of this instrument appear all through the first six recordings of the David Grisman group, my various solo, duet and group albums, and the Turtle Island String Quartet, and Psychograss. For those high squeaky violinists who sometimes yearn for the infrared miasmas of musical outer thought, the newly resurrected baritone violin is a true gift.

Thomastic Superflexible type "Oktavegeige" strings (cat. #2714.1 thru 2714.4) can be ordered through IFSHIN VIOLINS, 2515 University Ave. Berkeley, CA (510) 843-5466. Or through The Violin Shop, 220 Old Hickory Blvd, Nashville, fax (615)662-1518.

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