Interview - Volker Beilharz

December 2005: Volker Beilharz (Vol.1 No.7)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 12/11/05

Volker Beilharz Violins offers the full range of services needed by string players from string and accessories, sales to valuations, from repairs to instrument sales. It is, however, in the area of tonal set-up and adjustment that forms the backbone of Volker's business. Before setting up his business Volker successfully completed two years of a degree as a cellist at the Victorian College of the Arts. He went on to complete an Arts degree in History, English Literature and Fine Arts and during this time played cello professionally in a string quartet. Tonight Volker's fiddling wife Nicki has arranged a music session and Volker is playing along on the piano. To conduct the interview he takes me to his workshop situated inside his home in the Melbourne suburb of Lower Templestowe.

Q. What is your first memory of the violin?

This was quite a difficult question.
I remember listening to classical music as long as I can remember. I have always loved classical music. My father was a music teacher, he played cello and piano. He was part of a group of German settlers from what was then Palestine. There was always classical music in the house. There was a huge record collection. I listened to it all the time. So in a way there is no specific memory of the violin. It is not as though I heard it one day and I knew where to go. I certainly love the violin. It is really second only to the human voice in its expressive abilities. Only the human voice can express a bigger range of emotions. A wonderful instrument.

Q. Do violins improve with age?

That is the ten million-dollar question isn't it. But certainly people pay more for them when they're older. There is evidence that as the wood gets older the cellular structure changes. The cell walls become thinner, the wood becomes drier and perhaps more resonant, and perhaps it loses some of its higher, harder frequencies.

Q. So the instrument becomes a bit more mellow maybe?

Maybe. It's a fairly broad generalisation and there is some evidence also that playing them has an effect on them at a cellular level. Violins certainly do improve, they do 'play-in.' I notice with my instruments, it's a brand new instrument and Nicki takes and plays it for two months, it really does play in. It smoothes out and becomes more mature in its sound.

Q. You are an accomplished cellist. Do you play the violin?

Extremely poorly. So I do play them in the workshop but its really just a scale. Its like a try out scale. Like if I have a new instrument and I cut a new bridge and sound-post for it I would play the scale up and down it a few time beforehand, do the work, play it up and down again a few times and maybe do a little bit of adjustment and things. But I have learnt no piece on the violin.

Q. Someone recently told me they felt the cello was too mournful and yet others regard the cello as their favourite instrument. What are your feelings on this?

Lots of people think the cello is an absolutely wonderful instrument. I feel as though the cello has a more narrow range. The violin can be heroic, it can be sad. A cello can be both of those things. But the violin can also be very cheerful or skittish, it has a lightness about it but a cello always seems to be slightly ponderous to me. I have never made a cello, I have made violins and violas. I have a brother who is a violinmaker, Rainer. He has made a lot of cellos. It's quite curious actually, as a child he learnt violin and he makes cellos now and I learnt the cello and I'm making violins.

Musical instruments are such emotional things. One thing you deal with here all the time as an instrument maker is that I am dealing with the physical things. The wood and the broken bits and whatever there is, and yet to the people bringing it in it's their heart or their soul. It's this really emotional thing that something has happened to. There is a funny intersection there.

Q. Do you play music as you work? If so what are some of those recordings?

I actually listen to all sorts of stuff. Like Brian Eno, a whole lot of ambient music. I am very interested in this music. Quite a lot of rock and roll. I am a bit partial to Led Zepplin, certainly Pink Floyd. I am actually quite interested in a lot of modern electronic stuff. I like a lot of that. (eg. Radiohead, Boards of Canada) I listen to a lot of classical as well. I am very interested in new music in classical, There is a very interesting composer called Michael Gordon. He is an American composer and was a founder of a festival called the Bang on the Can''festival but he has written works that use a lot of noise as well as standard instrumentation. I find it very interesting. I grew up in this house-hold that was just soaked in classical music. So now that stuff is really great but I know it really well so I'm interested in new ideas.

Q. What is your favourite musical instrument?

Now this one I really thought a long time about. I really love all sorts of music. In the end I thought, just as fun to listen to and exciting to listen to is probably the electric guitar. I think the electric guitar is like the violin it has the same ability to be exciting and be there out the front and lead from out the front much the same as a violin. I think actually the electric guitar is one of the great contributions. It is a new instrument come into the twentieth century that will be there in another two-hundred years. It's a new sound we haven't had before. There have been some great players, Dave Gilmour, Jimmy Page.

Q. What sort of musical culture were you brought up in?

The house-hold I grew up in had classical music, art which was classical western art, Rembrant and everyone and classical western literature. A house full of the classics. This was the good stuff and and all the other stuff was just 'bad.' I have always been very curious. I think it probably helps with violin making. You have to be a master of quite a few different things. There is the whole history of violins which is fairly academic then there is the acoustic side of it which is quite scientific and there is the craftsmanship side of it which requires quite strong woodworking skills. Then there is the running of a business, making it work. Varnish, the whole area of varnish is on its own. So in a way it really suits me very well. It's good for me and I'm good at it.

Q. What difference is there between setting up a fiddle and a violin?

Well I don't think there is really any difference. Especially having now worked quite a bit with Nicki and she's taking these violins in to play at the sessions and seeing what actually works or not. They are all straight set-up like I use for classical. I think it works the same. With a good set-up the instrument rings and sounds well. That's what you want. You want the instrument to ring and be easy to play and all that. I think for fiddle that the colour of the tone is something different, you have to go to maybe some different strings and maybe a bit of adjustment, but otherwise nothing.