Iceland is an unlikely place to find an instrument manufacturer. A census done in the late 1830s found that there were almost no musical instruments in the entire country.
The first pianos and large church organs arrived only towards the 1840s. And yet the country has shown itself recently to be full of instrument-making zeal, at a popular as well as artisan level, as demonstrated by the many do-it-yourself instruments used by bands in the Icelandic indie music scene.
Hans Jóhannsson is a representative of the high art of violin-making, but his personal interests are remarkably wide and varied.
A fan of heavy metal music since his youth, his Facebook page shows him astride a motorcycle speeding along on his way somewhere. He easily straddles the worlds of science and art, belonging to a select group of violin-makers & scientists studying how to improve the modern violin, and is collaborating with international art phenomenon Ólafur Eliasson to create a new violin for the 21st century. I spoke to him on a sunny day last October in his wood-paneled workshop across from the big Bónus grocery store on Ingolfsstræti in downtown Reykjavík, amid bubbling pots of glue and the skeletal wooden forms of his works in progress.
During our conversation he was continually picking up and adjusting some of the violins he was working on, playing short scale passages and little bits of melody. So I asked him first of all about the relationship between making a violin and playing one.
Does a good violin-maker have to be a good violinist? I think it helps. I have colleagues that don’t play at all, but I think their work takes longer because they have to constantly be consulting with musicians. But I’ll never become a good violinist myself because I just spend too much time making violins rather than playing them.
How does one become a violin-maker? Up till 50 to 80 years ago there was the apprenticeship system, but nowadays you get your formal training in a school environment. I went to England for mine. From 1977-1980 I was in the Newark School of Violin-Making in Nottinghamshire.
They actually have schools specifically to teach violin-making? Yes, but there aren’t very many of them, only 4 or 5 high-level schools in the world, so they’re not in every community. It’s not a very common thing to learn. And once you’ve acquired the skill, where do the components come from? The wood is extremely difficult to find.
Most of it is spruce, from the Balkan peninsula and the southern Alps, although I’m very keen at the moment on using Canadian spruce because it’s so light, especially Engelmann spruce. There are some beautiful varieties that grow in British Columbia.
Being really light means that it responds well to sound waves? Anything light is easier to get to move and it takes less energy to transform the motion of the violinist into sound. You mentioned your “colleagues.” Do you mean fellow Icelanders, or are you the only violin-maker in the country?No, there are two or three others here in Iceland, but I am the only one, I think, who makes violins full-time.
There’s a need here for restoration and repairs, but I don’t really do much of that. I’ve always been quite stubborn and I refuse a lot of work, although, I do re-hair bows. It’s kind of a nice job to do in the morning with your cup of tea. How many different instruments do you make? I make violins, violas, cellos & double basses.
Double basses I make with a colleague in Holland. We have made maybe one bass a year for about the last 20 odd years. But mostly I make violins and cellos. And then I’m doing some experimental work, which is really fun. I’m doing a project with the artist Ólafur Eliasson in Berlin and an architect in Oslo, Andreas Eggertsen. We are developing a 21st-century violin, which is basically just a violin, but it’s based on the aesthetics and the trends of contemporary design.
Is that the future of violin-making? You’ll always have the classics. The wonderful achievements of the Italian violin-makers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Stradivarius & Guarneri, are still with us, but I’ve never understood why there is no contemporary design movement. I mean, why didn’t we have an Art Nouveau violin, or a Bauhaus violin in those days? I continue to make mostly traditional instruments and that’s my clientele, but I also have this side project that’s really exciting, which I am very much involved with these days. I prefer to do it, though, through the world of art and architecture worlds.
Classical musicians are notoriously … Conservative? Yes, conservative. How much are you an artisan and how much are you a scientist? I know that I will never be a scientist because I don’t have the time to train myself in the maths and the engineering, but I belong to a group of violin-makers that has a dialogue with researchers. There’s a very interesting group that’s actually working together on certain problems of violin-making, and …
Do they have an official name? It’s all centered around a group that meets at Oberlin, Ohio every year. It’s called the Oberlin Acoustics Group, and there are some extremely fine scientists in that group, people who are particularly interested in the problems of violin tone. And so it’s extremely interesting for us as violin-makers, learning to re-shape the way we imagine things to be working in our heads. But, having said that, the finest violin-making still comes from an empirical way of learning how to do things. Science still hasn’t found the answers.
There’s a violin of yours in the hands of María Huld from the Amiina string quartet, but she plays an electronic stringed instrument, as well. And the jazz-rock fusion band Agent Fresco has a stand-up bass that’s just like a big plastic toothpick with strings and electronic gear on it. What do you think of these new-fangled electronic stringed instruments? Well, I think it’s very interesting for people to explore that avenue, because with an electronic signal you can do almost anything. You can manipulate it in any way you want, but I still think that the complexity of an acoustic instrument is far beyond the complexity of these electric instruments.
So how many instruments do you produce a year? Around 8 to 10. And are your clients from Iceland only, or international? Mostly from abroad: Europe, from Luxembourg where I lived for many years, and then from the US, as well. And what does a good violin cost? My violins are around 30,000 US dollars. Excuse me, the glue is boiling over … (we go over to a pot on the table near the window, where a small pot of glue is bubbling over a little gas flame)
So you know how to make different types of glues. Yeah, but it’s actually just one type of glue. The best glue there is. It’s gelatine glue, just made from skins. The Egyptians used something similar. I’ve just come from there, actually, from Egypt, and I went, of course, to visit all the tombs. They made some incredible furniture, the Egyptians, glued together with this stuff. And it still works.
The gelatine swells up and then you melt it, then when it dries it shrinks again so it sort of pulls things together. It’s an extremely strong and good glue. And the good thing about it also, for instrument-making, is that you can always get it apart, without damaging anything. If you would use normal white Elmer’s glue, it doesn’t stay. You can’t use this traditional glue after someone has used white glue. So it’s a real no-no to repair violins with white glue. And unfortunately many of them have been by people who didn’t know what they were doing. One final question.
Your son is in the heavy metal band Swords of Chaos, and you are a heavy metal fan yourself, I understand. Has your son expressed any interest in your trade, or have you tried to lure him into your profession? I have never tried to lure my children into what I am interested in. But he is studying composition, so he is interested in anything that has to do with sound. He has no plans to become an instrument maker, although he has made his own electric bass and a couple of other instruments, as well. So it does run in the family. Maybe, yes, because we’re interested in the same things, really.
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You can learn more about Hans Jóhannsson on his website at http://www.centrum.is/hansi/ and about the Oberlin Acoustics Group at http://www.oberlinacoustics.net/