It’s easy to despair about the state of the world today. Everyone is shouting and nobody is listening. The world is as polarised as ever.
But what if there was something that united nearly the entire world? Something that most of the world was familiar with, connected to on an emotional level, and felt was their own; a basic and organic expression of their unique identity and culture. And this something had the ability to express their joys, sorrows, and hopes and was shared and beloved by all kinds of peoples and religious groups traditionally at war with each other. Something shared by Turks and Kurds, Arabs and Israelis, Shia and Sunni, Republicans and Democrats.
What kind of magical thing could this be?
Rabab, keman, goje, fidl, geige, skrip… these are some of the names that have been used for various forms of an ancient musical instrument that can be found all over the world, in every continent, based on a very simple concept: A long, thin piece of animal gut is stretched into a string and tightened over a stick attached to a drum (perhaps the oldest of instruments.) Sound is produced by rubbing a bow (another ancient tool) with animal hair over the stretched gut. The pitch of the sound is manipulated by changing the length of the gut with the fingers of the opposing hand.
Fast forward to Cremona, Italy around 1535, and after literally millions of variations and improvements worldwide, what we now call a violin was created by Andrea Amati. Everyone has essentially been making copies of this instrument ever since and in a phenomenon unmatched by any other musical instrument, has spread across the globe.
It’s essential role in Western classical music may be one of the most well-known traditions, but it is used in nearly every other classical tradition in the world as well. In India, the ancient Carnatic and Hundustani classical music traditions have produced a level of virtuosity on the violin rivalling anything in the West. Indian violinists play seated and cross-legged, with the scroll of the violin pointing down into the player’s right foot.
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The violin is also an important part of the highly developed classical and folk traditions in Iran, the Arab World, as well as Turkey. And don’t forget Greece, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Should I go on?
The combination of relatively small size, range of expression, flexibility of tone color and pitch, have somehow combined to make this brilliantly designed Italian creation, the most widely used and integrated musical instrument throughout the world. Its ability to mimic the human voice, allows it to express the musicality of nearly any language. Without frets, it can produce any kind of pitch, scale, and any kind of ornament. Magical indeed.
And there’s North Africa, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and several Roma (gypsy) styles that zing with virtuosity. Of course in North America, there are several distinct styles- Jazz, Bluegrass, Cajun, Mariachi, Old Time, Afro-Cuban and an emerging rock violin style, happening everywhere.
Everywhere in the world, the sound of the violin is familiar. We all have an idea of how it’s supposed to sound. However, depending on who’s hands it sits, and where in the world it lives, the sounds coming from a violin can be completely different. Yet, its essential quality- the particular blend of harmonics, bow sounds, and expressiveness-on-steroids comes through. It’s uncanny ability to mimic the sound of the human voice and the nuances of any language, is the key to it’s universality.
This whole subject fascinates Daniel Hoffman, and have been on a journey for the last 25 years to learn as much as he can about the way the violin is used in the world. And for many years, had the idea of a documentary series that did just that. Otherwise It’s Just Firewood, the first episode in the Violin Around the World documentary film series, manages to simultaneously create a form of musical extreme sports and be a celebration of how the whole world is connected by way of the this quirky little box.
In Otherwise It’s Just Firewood, Daniel travels to Ireland and have just one week of study with master Irish fiddler James Kelly before performing together on stage. He never studied Irish music. Attempting to achieve the unachievable, forces him to look inside of himself in unexpected ways, and reveals the subtlety and beauty of the Irish fiddle tradition. In addition to daily, intensive lessons, the journey takes Daniel to a host of other musicians, philosophers, dancers, academics, luthiers, and to an ancient Irish burial ground and religious site. Its a story about music, Ireland, identity, and the inner journey.