Interview - Warren Nolan Fordham

January 2006 : Warren Nolan Fordham (Vol.2 No.1)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 15/12/05

Born in 1958 in Burnie Tasmania, Warren started playing on his grandfather's violin at the age of 10 years. He moved to Melbourne at 15 and performed with the Whitehorse Youth Orchestra. By the time he was 20 after 10 years of lessons, he was playing in a string quartet Warren left school at 15 to begin an apprenticeship making and repairing brass musical instruments. In his spare time he made a violin. He worked as a repairer in several Melbourne music shops before he decided to focus on violins. As a performer Warren says "The nerves got the better of me" and he turned his back on performing to concentrate solely on violin-making.

Warren Forham describes himself as an 'Anti-Fundamentalist' Tim Dub describes him as, "a kindly, gentle man seeking to get by in an age whose values, methods and societal organisation do not suit him." I interviewed him at his workbench while he was sculpting a violin belly. Each violin top is tuned to specific notes as it is being fashioned. This is highly skilled, detailed work. The craftsman must have a good musical ear and works as a sculptor does, by removing the unnecessary to reveal the artform inside the raw product. Warren calls this 'plate-tuning' or tuning the sounding board at the carving stage.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?

When I visited my grandparents which was nearly every weekend as a small child. I would drag out, from under a chest of drawers, my grandfather's violin. It was in a wooden case and I was so fascinated I would look at it for hours. My grandfather was too ill to play it for me so I never got to hear it.

Q. What happened to the violin?

Well I got it when I was eleven. It was repaired for me at that stage but since then I have fully restored it. I actually sold it the other day.

Q. You use Australian timbers in your instruments. Can these compare with traditional European woods?

I strongly believe that Australian timber is in every way superior to the small range of European woods. I have been using and researching Australian timbers for over thirty years. It is about fifty percent more stable, more resonant, colours are great. But the fact that it is more resonant and responsive is the reason why I use it.

Q. What about the top? Isn't spruce the ultimate sounding board material?

No. King Billy (Australian native pine) Nearly every violin I make has a King Billy top but there are other timbers. If I use European timbers I wouldn't use the traditional violin making spruce. I'd use stuff like Baltic pine, hoop pine or Canadian spruce. That's the only spruce I would use.

Q. Do you still play the violin?

Keep my hand in? Yes. I just keep playing. These days I am mainly interested in Baroque. Going through the Bach partitas and sonatas just as a matter of interest. As technical exercises. I think you should do that every day.

I haven't done any concerts for a long time. I have got to learn the double bass. Occassionally if I am really drunk at some ceili I'll stand up and play something.

Q. Do you make bows?

Yes. Mainly Baroque bows although modern bows are easy. The imports have killed that. They are beautifully made. The Chinese bows are really great. You can't compete with that. Unless someone wants a really special thing that's made out of Australian timber well that's fine.

Q. I met a fellow in Tasmania this year who hadn't had his bow re-haired for thirty years. Yet it seemed like it was in excellent condition.

That's appalling. The hair goes bald. Just like a tyre needs a
re-tread. Professional players usually get them re-haired every three months.

Q. How many hours a week do you devote to violin making?

Well that was an interesting question. My entire mind and being is obsessed with it. So every awake hour is the situation there. It has been my whole life, I have known nothing else except for time off when I go gambling so that's it. Gambling and
violin-making, that's it. I had several paths I could have gone on but nerves got the better of me. Stage fright and international travel, its upsetting. I hate planes. So I crossed that off the list and just became a part time player. Hobbies are a career as well with goldsmithing and silversmithing, sculpture and pyrography and art (poker-work) Tattooing was an interest of mine a few years ago. I am an artist, a pencil artist, and I design all my own instruments because I have got a very artistic eye and a photographic memory.

I was a blacksmith as well. I had to give up more recently the metal work, permanently, life is too short, we haven't got long to go and that's it, finished. I have to specialise in the violins.

Q. What other projects are you working on at the moment?

My main purpose is to do research and development of acoustics and plate tuning to greater perfect the various forms of instruments.

Q. How would you describe 'wolf' notes?

Warren Nolan FordhamA shuddering note that does not focus on the one note but oscillates between two notes, either side of the one that is supposed to be playing. You can move those around and the research involved there is totally time consuming and interesting. I have only had a slight wolf note in a violin once, very early on. Cellos are prone to wolf notes.

Q. What is your favourite instrument?

Basses. Bottesini's (1821-1889) music for double basses. Fantastic. Magnificent instrument the bass because of its huge compass and voluptuous sound.