Interview - Volker Beilharz
December 2005: Volker Beilharz (Vol.1 No.7)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 12/11/05
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
Q. What is your first memory of the violin?
This was quite a difficult question.
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
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?
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
Q. You are an accomplished cellist. Do you play the violin?
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?
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?
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
Q. What is your favourite musical instrument?
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?
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?
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.