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The Squid's Ear
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Instrumentals
We've asked a number of musicians to write about their instruments of choice, taking a view that is either personal, historical or, in some cases, just unusual. The results are to be found in these pages.


  The Violin (& The Infidel)  


By Jon Rose 2002-12-17

infidel: a person who does not believe in religion or who adheres to a religion other than that of the majority eg. they wanted to secure the holy places from the infidel

origin: late 15th century; from the French infidele or the Latin infidelis, from in = not + fidelis = faithful (from fides =faith, related to fidere = to trust. The word has two distinct origins. 1) It denoted a person of a religion other than one's own, specifically a Muslim (to a Christian), a Christian (to a Muslim), or a Gentile (to a Jew). 2) With the invention of the violin circa 1530 and the confusing transformation of bowed strings from vernacular fidel , via fiddle to violin, viola, viole, violone, and viol (as it happens completely unrelated to the violin), the word fidel became a word of abuse denoting loose living or corrupt dealings as in fiddle your fancy, on the fiddle, fiddling around, or indeed the dismissive term get fiddled. The fiddle has given rise to many misreadings of history, most notably the assertion that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned", clearly impossible as by the first century AD, the instrument had not yet been invented. Other misconceptions abound, for example, that Jewish people always play the fidel on the roof, that Romany (or Gypsy) fiddlers always keep a knife in their left boot, that all famous fiddlers suffer from Paganini's serious complaint of a permanent erection. Today's common usage is obviously underscored by the present dearth of work for the practicing violinist, In fidel we trust, everybody else pay cash.

So what is it about the violin that makes it so untrustworthy? Is it due to the current world situat ion? A question worth asking as the divide between the rich and the poor on this planet continues to widen at an ex ponential rate. The instrument has become an icon of capitalism, that's for sure. Like old oil paintings of the rich and flatuous, old violins are a kind of inflated currency, the guaranteed investment, the item at houses of Southerbys and Christies that makes the auctioneer's wet their pants. I have played a $600,000 Guernarius and, shock horror, it was a good instrument. But it was no better than a $20,000 top of the line fiddle from a good modern maker.

The violin is 70 bits of wood stuck together. I discovered this as a child after I had been studying the instrument for a few months. Now the early days on a violin are not too enjoyable for the player or the listener, be you a Heifitz or a no-hoper. It is a very frustrating time. I felt things weren't going fast enough, so with one blow, I smashed the fiddle over the kitchen table. Now I would like to point out a number of issues at this point. Firstly, this was not a Fluxus performance as 1) I was a kid and 2) this was still in the 1950's. Secondly, it was not my instrument and was actually a piece of crap that belonged to the school. Thirdly, that doesn't matter because a violin, any violin is "of value," right? Fourthly, my father was a regular bricaleur who, as a prisoner of war in Japan, had made a two-string cello out of bits of camp detritus; he calmly spent the evening sticking it back together again (he had actually tried to make a piano for a concert pianist in the camp and had got as far as a sound board and 2 keys working before disaster struck, but that is another story altogether). Fifthly, my violin teacher never noticed.

Indeed genetics must have something to do with the whole violin conundrum. On my mother's side I am partly Afghan, her family name was Kahn, which could have meant me doing hours of practice on the Saranda instead of Satan's instrument itself. People often used to ask me if I was Jewish. "Plays the violin? Must be Jewish," goes the rocket science. So I'm in the minority then, or at least on the opposing team. This all came home to me just recently when I wrote a slightly off-center composition called "The Islamic Violin," it included the detonation of an ordinary violin which I was able to realize at a performance in Paris at the beginning of this year. The story, like most great stories, is based on a true one featuring a street violinist with a foreign name who stored his violin in a bus station left luggage cubicle in Hamilton, Canada. An official of the bus company became suspicious of the violin case and alerted the police, who with due care and subtlety, took it out onto the street and blew it up! "Due to the current world situation," explained the Police as they handed a few bits of wood and string back to the devastated musician. The score of the composition has the following notes on the notes:

(1) The inability of Muslims to recognise a violin manifests itself through the entire Lebanese restaurant industry in Australia. During and after the Lebanese civil war of the 1950's, the 1960's, the 1970's and the 1980's, many families from both Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon emigrated to Australia. A tradition quickly grew whereby Christian Lebanese restaurants would always display the sign of the violin outside their premises (some of these are quite remarkable art pieces of neon, post-digestive, calligraphic Arabic deco). Research has shown that many Muslim Lebanese literally DO NOT SEE the violin, thinking that it may be some kind of indiginous pig or plant life or worse, a Christian plot conceived by the CIA (who run a number of military bases in Australia). One could think that the Muslim restaurants would be running a counter campaign of non recognition posting any number of Islamic bowed instruments in retaliation to this provocatio n, (One considers here the Afghani rebab or dilruba as suitable images to represent all that is fine in Muslim culture) but one would be mistaken. Muslims do not stoop to such low immoral subterfuge, relying instead on the final statement of account which must be paid at that restaurant in the sky.

(2) I should point out that I had actually brought a violin (a 'Tortellini' 1751) with me for the good Sheikh to study but after a cursorary glance and a rap on its historic body with the knuckles of his left hand, he had thrown it to his trusty dog who then proceeced to gnaw on it happily through out the entire interview.

(3) A quote that comes from the pyramid breaking tome 'Yehudi Menuhin serves Capitalism' by the influencial Marxist composer and violinist virtuoso Dr. Johannes Rosenberg. In a classic Rosenberg/Menuhin confrontation, the latter violinist is cornered as he admits to denouncing Ravi Shankar as a poser who pays no attention to speed limits, Stephane Grapelli as having bad intonation, Rumanian Gypsy music as being 'rather dirty stuff one wouldn't want next door in Hampstead,' and himself as having said 'actually classical music IS rather superior, don't you think?'

(4) From the best seller 'How to Blow Up a Violin' by Buttblaster Fuller. It includes a hand-drawn map of an average violin, indicating the weaker, more sensitive zones of spiral vibration where the four charges should be placed with 1/4 strips of gaffe tape (Please note that 'Scotch Tape' will NOT do). Alternative routes for the fuse wires are suggested depending on the reader's level of experience and expertise in dealing with their first violin assignment. Questions of budgetary allowancea re always prevalent in the modern day violin world, so the cheaper alternative has also been tested thoroughly throu gh correspondance courses in 'Final Violin Solutions' made available by The Mother of All Museums Museum, Baghdad. They suggest that four 'Tigre Bison 3' fireworks packed in the base of the violin with simultaneous ignition will blow the devil's instrument to 'Kingdom Come': results obtained with a cheap East German Eduard Tausher model seem to bare out Buttblaster's assertions.

---which may account for the sudden interest in my Web site from a US military search engine - unless there are some contemporary music freaks working at the Pentagon who spend their time searching the Web for weird violin stuff. I'm not kidding, I had over 3,000 hits last month from the defenders of the free.

In April my partner, violinist Hollis Taylor, and I were working on our 'Great Fences of Australia' project near Alice Springs in the middle of Australia. It's a kind of sonic map of the whole continent. We bow the fences, which we consider to be giant string instruments. In fact they are the longest artifacts in the world, the so called 'Dingo Fence' is twice as long as the Great Wall of China. So far we have traveled over 16,000 kilometers in our endeavor. Anyway I phoned up the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap near 'The Alice' and asked if we could make a little recording of their perimeter fence. Well the head dude humored me for some minutes and I thought we had a chance till I mentioned we played the fiddle --- "No." The conversation was immediately terminated. 'Due to the current world situation' he barked.


(c)www.jonroseweb.com

the violin warping website remains
www.jonroseweb.com

for a guide to the weird, the wild and the vern ac ular in Australian music
www.abc.net.au/arts/adlib

Visit the Jon Rose Section at Squidco!




Previous Instrumental Articles:
The Accordion (& the Outsider) - Pauline Oliveros
The Guitar (& Why) - Derek Bailey
The Banjo (& guitarist Johnny PayCheck) - Eugene Chadbourne


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