An Eternal Quest for the Perfect Instrument Mary Lea
The Voice of the Violin
In the children’s story, “The Voice of the Wood,” Claude Clement tells of a violinmaker who crafts his instruments while gazing at a beautiful tree. He is inspired by the symphony of birds singing in the tree. His quest is to match the beauty of that sound. When the tree finally dies, he makes a violin from its wood. The instrument is magical, its voice unsurpassed in beauty.
Each violinmaker shares in this quest to coax a beautiful sound from wood. After hundreds of years of the craft, and with all our modern scientific knowledge, there is still an inexplicable element to how a craftsman translates his skills into creating a beautiful sounding instrument. Moreover, the mark of a mature luthier is consistency. How does a violinmaker create from many different pieces of wood musical instruments whose voices have a consistent tone and timbre? This is the mystery of the violin.
It is rare to hear a whole family of instruments made by the same craftsman playing together. Childsplay offers this opportunity. The group’s special sound lies not only in the skill of the individual musicians but in the familial timbre of the instruments they play---a quality similar to the vocal blending of singers from the same family.
Every craftsman draws inspiration from a personal story Mine has to do with my early years living in foster homes, and a dream I had in my 30s, after having finished my violinmaking training and having opened up my own shop. This is my
dream: I am trying to enter a country in Europe. Border guards tell me that I must stop at the customs house. Once inside, I am led through a series of rooms until I come to one that is totally dark except for a single light shining on a table. The guard points to a violin lying on the table and motions for me to pick it up. I do as I’m asked, and when I turn the violin over, I see, inlaid in its back, an image of a small boy crying.
It is often said that when played soulfully the violin, of all musical instruments, sounds the most like the human voice. Through my dream, I came to realize that by crafting violins I had learned to give voice to a part of myself for which I had no language, no voice. The early music of Childsplay was strictly fiddle music without vocals. Blending voice and violin on this recording represents a maturation of the music of Childsplay, and perhaps reflects my own developing capacity for expression.
Among the many cherished and unexpected gifts I’ve received from violinmaking have been the friendships I’ve made with the amazing musicians who come into my shop. Each musician has his or her own story, a story which infuses each instrument I make and helps shape its voice. Together theses voices create the unique sound of Childsplay, with its breadth of stylistic repertoire and its strong familial bonds. It is my joy and privilege to be a part of this musical family.
It was ten years ago when I acquired my instrument beautifully crafted by Bob Childs. I first met Bob while teaching a fiddle class in Boston in which he was a student. When he discovered that I needed another violin, he offered to make me one and that is when it all began.
At the time I did not realize that with the birth of this instrument I would also become part of a family of musicians united by one voice, the Childs family of violins known as Childsplay. While Bob’s instruments are all unique as are the musicians that play them, they all possess the same familial quality—the warm tone of Bob’s own voice that is heard in all of his instruments.
However, Bob’s gift does not end there. With Bob’s guidance, his instruments continue on to forge bonds that create music all on their own. Bob has a wonderful ability to bring people together
who have never met. Some of my most meaningful musical friendships have been formed through Bob—the musicians on my CD, the engineer, and my best friend to name a few.
Bob continues to weave connections between the violins he creates and the voices they produce. This family of instruments and musicians called Childsplay comes together for a reunion once a year. It is a weeklong musical event culminating in performances, tours, and recordings such as this one! It is a unique musical experience leaving a lasting impression.
As you listen to our voices on this CD, I hope you are left with the same lasting impression.
Until next time…..
Childsplay is about community. It’s about the art that is created when people from all different musical and social backgrounds come together and spend time getting to know each other. We perform well together not because we’ve spent hours fine tuning every note … but because someone in the group made us laugh earlier in the day … because we have eaten meals together … because we’ve gotten in huge, intense
conversations about conspiracy theories … because we spent all last night making up ridiculous songs on the bus from Maine back to Lexington. Bob Childs and his fiddles bring us together and give us this opportunity to retreat into another world. For a few days every year all these different musical personalities unite and become one, CRAZY-LY joyful voice.
A Dog Among Dogs
If you are just making the acquaintance of Childsplay, a word about the group might interest you. We're fiddle players, we love playing dance music, long walks on the beach, and romantic—er, forget that last part—and we come from different towns and cities throughout the United States and Europe. We have all fallen under the influence of Bob Childs, violinmaker, fiddler, and buddy. With as many stories as there are fiddlers in the group, we have each come to own one of Bob's instruments. Is that a curious premise for forming a group? It is apparently enough of a premise for us because we do get together. These get togethers happen about once a year. Each player steps out of his or her day-to-day travails, travels to some place with enough social dancing to keep us busy for the better part of a week, and we have a blast. William Stieg wrote a story wherein Caleb is transformed into a dog and discovers "the joy of being a dog among dogs." That is my joy in being part of Childsplay.
We have such terrific experiences in the traditional music and dance world, I wish
I could bottle some of them to savor. In a way, this recording does just that. It is a very dear memento from three days together in the studio, following a weekend of playing for dancers in Cape May, N.J., and Washington, D.C. It is that, in the form of very engaging and enjoyable music.
By the time we sat ourselves down to record, we felt the electricity of great possibilities. I believe we sensed that focus and openness were the keys to bringing the best possibilities into being. This sort of anticipation and creation is what I love about making music with other people. And in this rare instance, we caught the musical results on digital tape and have something for other people and ourselves to enjoy.
If our paths ever cross, I would appreciate learning where you were the first time you heard Matt's solo on "Tourner à Trois" and what it conjured up for you—probably a grin. In the words of the great doctor, "this is fun, and fun is good."
Liner Notes, The Great Waltz
From the recording booth and through the window to the studio, the unfolding of The Great Waltz often appeared like a great travelogue or epic on the big screen. The players brought jazz and traditional sounds, Celtic, Swedish, French-Canadian, and Classical. As producer I wondered how we could bring all this diversity into a single, focused artistic statement. It turned out to be an easy task for a couple of reasons.
First was the level of musicianship. Each player brought creativity, enthusiasm, and great spirit with them, not to mention artistry and experience speaking his or her own particular musical language. It was an honor to work with everyone on this recording.
Second, the instrumental voices you hear on this recording are all from the same family. By this I don't just mean violin family, I mean the same FAMILY. Bob Childs regards his lovely instruments as if they were his own children. He's almost paternalistic towards them. And all these instruments really do have voices that make them sound like siblings.
To me, music represents the essence of human expression without the encumbrance of spoken language. It is freedom. It is communication before anything else. The coming together of this eclectic group of wonderful musicians proves just that. I sincerely hope you enjoy listening to The Great Waltz, and even dancing to it.
Liner Notes, The Great Waltz
Do You Play the Fiddle?
Edgar Lee Masters, in Spoon River Anthology, wrote of the Fiddler Jones:
"The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life."
Fiddlers are a trifle different from other people. Musicians, it seems, have always been on the periphery of their worlds. But among themselves they are very much like each other and recognize their commonality. A fiddler knows the concentration and effort it took to attain any degree of control over the instrument and the music and will remember the nearly endless hours spent striving to grow beyond the initial dreadful hair-raising, teeth-grinding, neighbor- alienating scratches and squeals. A fiddler will recall the practicing to produce, finally, the ethereally sweet songs that emerge from the very heart of each player; the vibrations often do seem to come from the earth itself, up through the feet, the trunk, the arms, the fiddle, and out into the world...this is where fiddling mystique originates in the casual listener.
Consider the truly astonishing use of
a fiddler's brain—the electrochemical storage shed for thousands of musical notes arranged in a proper sequence to comprise hundreds of tunes to be called
forth in a micro-instant and produced
through the combined elements of horsehair and muscle, fingertips and wood, wire and varnish.
To a fiddler, nothing resounds sweeter on the
ear than the sound of a solo fiddle... unless it is the sound of two fiddles. And then nothing sounds sweeter than the sound of two fiddles...unless it is the sound of three fiddles. And on, and on.
It is a distinctive place to be on this earth—to be a fiddler amongst other fiddlers. And there is no more special place to be than surrounded by the fiddles and fiddlers known as Childsplay.
This recording is the product of two intense days at the isolated and verdant Sage Arts studios near Arlington, Washington. The always collaborative inventiveness of Childsplay has never been richer than during these sessions. Childsplay is more than a band. Childsplay synthesizes the varied musical tastes of a flurry of fiddlers, and from the earth and from the heart, Childsplay becomes a "tuned voice."
We believe the wordless enchantment we felt as we recorded this music will be heard in this recording. We were glad to be there. May you be glad to be here.
Liner Notes, Twelve-Gated City
The seeds of this recording lie in a comment made by Michael Weller, a Philadelphia violinmaker I used to work for. He was playing on a series of instruments that I had completed in his shop, and then, a recently finished violin in his hand, he turned to me and remarked, "There is no mistaking that this violin sounds like you made it." At that moment I understood the goal of every violinmaker: to see yourself reflected in the sound of your instruments.
Building the violin itself is only one aspect of the joy of the craft, however; I love hearing how each musician imprints the instrument with his or her art. This has led me to develop a personal connection
with all the people who play my instruments and deepens my appreciation for the music created on those various violins and violas. My skills, my friendships, and my own musical background afford me the privilege of participating in the richness of traditional as well as classical forms of music.
When we hear the voices of a family singing together, we recognize resonance in the familial harmony. After playing music together in concerts, contra dances, and the making of this recording, the members of Childsplay felt that sympathetic resonance, both in the voices of our instruments and with each other.
Liner Notes, Twelve-Gated City
In the spring of 2001, I was honored to have been invited by Bob Childs to be musical director for the upcoming Childsplay concerts.
During rehearsals, I discovered a highly functioning musical democracy, where creative ideas could be tried, accepted, or rejected, with minimal friction.
The musicians' natural strengths and personalities shape the character of the group's sound.
Community spirit and the cooperation of players and singers local, nationwide, and international makes for the good music and fun you'll hear on this CD. I'm proud to be associated with Childsplay.
Line Notes, Childsplay Live
Weary murmurings hummed from around the edges of Mark Simos' living room as clusters of musicians contemplated our final task for the afternoon. In a few hours, we twenty-four fiddlers would begin our evening concert by proceeding from the back of the theatre to the stage, playing a tune that had not yet been chosen. After two full days of rehearsing, learning new tunes, and creating and memorizing arrangements, our collective energy had lulled and the job of agreeing upon a processional melody seemed to have us stumped.
Slowly, the quiet, scattered conversations subsided as our attention was drawn to the center of the room. Lars Moberg had risen and planted himself there, beating his foot to the rhythm of the Swedish polska that he fiddled out with sure, clear bowstrokes. We listened. One by one we began to play along, a few notes here or a phrase there, until every fiddle in the room was singing out Lars' tune. Still playing, Lars moved through the circle of musicians and walked out the back door. We followed, playing our fiddles and marching through the garden, up and down steps and stone walkways, under trees and around shrubs, circling the house several times before we retired,
laughing and chattering, to Mark's living room. We had our processional tune. It had been chosen, agreed upon, and rehearsed without any of us having uttered a word.
This story, a favorite reminiscence of mine from my first experience as a new member of Childsplay in December of 1999, illustrates well the collaborative spirit and lighthearted spontaneity that is generated whenever we gather. There is a sort of magic in the way we respect and listen to one another. Each musician in Childsplay is honored for his or her unique gifts, and while we are drawn together, learning from each other and blending our music to a common purpose, we are also invited to shine as individuals.
I have never been satisfied with any single explanation I have come up with for what makes Childsplay the enchanting phenomenon that it is. The musical talent, goodness, and humor of its members must surely have something to do with it. But I am certain that one of the most meaningful causes of its unique charm is that at its heart, Childsplay is a reflection of Bob Childs himself. His soft-spoken kindness and his love of music and friendship set the tone for all of our endeavors. And the inspiration we draw from playing the beautiful instuments he creates moves us to play from our hearts. Whatever the cause of the magic that is Childsplay, I hope that in this recording we have succeeded in sharing a taste of that magic with you.
Liner Notes, Heaven and Earth
Like anything really worth doing, Childsplay is not, as the name suggests, easy or simple. Take, for instance, organizing a series of concerts of thirty or so geographically dispersed musicians and planning to record the concerts for production of a live performance album. Consider the challenges: identifying, distributing, arranging, and preparing new material; tracking down rehearsal space and organizing rehearsal sessions; developing and distributing publicity materials via newspapers, radio shows, and mailings; coordinating travel, housing, meals, and finances; solving practical performance problems such as how to set up an average size stage to fit thirty people and how to accommodate the many small and large musical configurations that come and go during the course of the concert; and enlisting and directing ticket and CD sellers, stage managers, ushers, sound personnel, and recording engineers. Not to mention finding a space where band members and friends can have a spirited late night party after the show!
How can all this and more possibly get done on the modest budget of a folk music ensemble? Good question! The answer is Bob Childs. In addition to being the artist and craftsman who creates the instruments, Bob is also the visionary, artistic director, producer, promoter, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, and bursar. He has mastered
the intricacies of negotiation, mediation, and delegation. Bob orchestrates the Childsplay community of musicians and their friends and families; he marshals the forces at hand, and the work gets done. The result is not just a concert or a recording but a Happening. You might ask, "How does Bob do it?" You might also ask, "Why does he do it?" More excellent questions.
Like anything truly worth doing, working with Childsplay includes a full range and depth of experience for all involved. I have performed with Childsplay for about fifteen years at dance events, concerts, recording sessions, and an unexpected wedding (discovering our concert was double-booked in the same space as the wedding ceremony, we hastily combined the two). Many of these events represented a real disruption of normal life. We used up scarce vacaton time, endured long car rides and even longer rehearsals, and slept in too-soft beds or on too-hard floors or on foam mattresses on the floor of a recording studio (after a 16-hour day of recording). You could easily ask, "Why do any of them do it?" I can say for myself that despite the difficulties and complexities, a Childsplay gathering has never failed to move me and inspire a deep sense of awe at the joy, love, creativity, and fun unleashed when people are working from their hearts.
Liner Notes, Childsplay Live
Heaven and Earth
A week on the road and in the studio together, and I am struck by the breadth and passion of this band. Still—what is Childsplay? A community of musicians, a fraternity of fiddles, a moveable party of all-night jamming and home-cooked potlucks.
A safe harbor to explore one's musical dreams. A group of friends who have set out to make music of the highest order, set out to say something huge and profound and heart-stopping about music, about community, about life and death... heaven and earth...
Liner Notes, Heaven and Earth
When I First Knocked on Bob's Door
It was 15 years ago now, a cold day in April, when I first knocked on Bob's door. I was working out of Miami for Swedish TV for two years and had first heard about this violinmaker from New England from fiddlers I had met in Sweden. Thinking back these many years later one might say it was a mix of coincidence and determination that took me to that fiddle workshop on that chilly day. With my family securely stowed away at a nearby hotel, I could not wait to try out the violins. A couple hours later a tentative deal was struck. I would buy an American fiddle. And I could become a member of a most magnificent band. But of the band I knew nothing then.
Lars, would you come over to Seattle in November?
We have some dance gigs and will play some concerts at a folk music festival, and after that we will do a recording.
What was he talking about, concerts, recording? I had moved back to Sweden, and when Bob's letter reached me, I started to realize that the fiddle from Cambridge might take me places I had not been before.
Over the years it has continued like that. I have been back to play music with Childsplay, from Seattle to Boston, as well as small towns that people in Sweden have never heard of: places like Cape May, New Jersey, or Brattleboro, Vermont. But of course my natural musical habitat is here, in Dararna, Sweden. So no one was happier than me when Childsplay was invited to play at the Falun Folkmusik Festival in my hometown in the summer of 2001. Every time I had gone off to America to play with the group it was
difficult to explain the experience. Now people would be able to see and hear for themselves.
It isn't that we don't have big fiddle groups in this country. We have them all over, and it is a strong part of our tradition. And I like it. But still Childsplay is a completely different ballgame. When you play with Childsplay, it is like fireworks, more dynamics. There are solo parts, small group stuff, and then the whole band, and it is all pretty much arranged, whereas in Swedish spelmanslag it's more or less everybody together from start to finish.
The Dalarna audience, great appreciators of fiddle music for hundreds of years, loved our mix of Irish/American music and tunes written by members of the band. The members of Childsplay mingled and made friends with Swedish fiddlers. And suddenly the Swedish contingent of Childsplay had grown bigger then ever before and this great musical connection continues to this day to span the Atlantic Ocean!
It is strange how close it feels when I sit here in Falun, Sweden, writing these words. Very easy to relive good times. Like last fall during the two weeks of rehearsals and concerts, when this CD was recorded at the last stop. The after concert party in Brattleboro, the singing on the bus ride down from Portland, the party at the O'Donovan's house. Great fun and great friends. And I know they will be there next time I leave Sweden with my fiddle case and travel west. Strange to think that all of this would not have happened if I hadn't knocked on that door that spring day in Cambridge.
Liner Notes, Heaven and Earth
An Eternal Quest for the Perfect Instrument
Most string players, I venture to say, find themselves on an eternal quest for the "perfect" instrument. Even when content, they may not be able to resist the urge to try someone else's violin or bow to see if there is a quality
that has been eluding them. Such was the case one evening when I joined my friend, Ruthie Dornfeld, who was listening to a violin that her friend, Bob Childs, had just completed. The sound of the instrument immediately caught my attention, and Bob and I started talking about this fiddle and his work. Predictably, I asked to try the violin and within minutes of playing realized that my French violin had just been eclipsed. The fiddle was not for sale, however. Bob, with what I now realize as an almost invisible, yet canny salesmanship sense and quiet confidence in his workmanship, said he would make a violin for me with the qualities I was seeking. A violin to my specifications, to my desires! What a concept!
The violin that Bob fashioned for me was his first sale, as it turned out, the first of many. Like any good craftsman, he wanted to see his creation at its optimal performance ability. He did all the "tune-ups," repairs, and polishes that kept things ticking smoothly. He would always make the time to ready my violin (and later, viola) for recordings or performances.
Time went on, and a group of kindred spirits clustered around Bob's workshop. I began to see that there was more than a "business" operating here. Bob seemed propelled by a deep sense of commitment to both his creations and their owners, as if wanting to be their pastor in helping them fulfill their musical odysseys. This role came home to me at a house concert held at Ruthie and Bob's residence in Cambridge in 1988.
By then there were quite a number of local fiddlers who had bought violins from Bob, and the concert celebrated this growing community. Bob played the first number, and I played the next, as the first person to have bought an instrument from him. As he introduced each performer, Bob wove together our stories and our connections to each other and to him. As the evening unfolded, and everyone played something, however polished, technically expert, or not, I felt a glow of happiness to hear these personal and inspiring offerings. I also came away from that evening seeing more clearly than before our ties to each other —as vision for the group as well as the sweet sound of a violin family all created by the same artist and reflected
through the individual voices of its players. This offering is our fourth recording and is a statement of where we are today in our grand and wonderful journey together.