let's talk about the instrument.
This viola. In its raw form.
It's quite something. It's brilliant. Bold. Powerful. It sizzles like a hot skillet; it gets up and runs for miles. And would you believe it only turns three this year?
It's a sweet roasted chestnut type of brown. A deep mahogany, like an old grandfather clock type of brown that drapes the essence of time over its red and golden notes. It's got ebony fittings - pegs, tailpiece, chinrest and such, like little black accents to compliment the outfit. A portrait of the beautiful dark side.
The scroll up top is reminiscent of the old Goffrillers from the early 17s. Nothing too showy, just enough. And the rest of the wood? From Central Europe somewhere, like Yugoslavia or something, maybe. From spruce and maple trees of a different time in a different place that breathed different air. It's a wide flame, not the pretty narrow kind that looks like tiger stripes. And that back. A two-piece - it looks like it has its own story to tell. It's always been my favorite part. It's not obvious, but look past the layer of upwardly slanted flames and you'll start to see the blotchy variations of greater and lesser depth in the varnish, almost like it was massaged in. Almost like there's a deeper meaning, a mystery somewhere. Tell me more about you.
It's funny, the juxtaposition, because its face is plain Jane. It's clean, relatively. It had very little birthmarks and acne scars when it first came to me. It's skin was evenly bronzed and contoured in just the right places. The f-holes curve outward at the bottom like a coy smile. They may have been Gaspar-inspired, but I'm not too sure. They don't seem quite that long. There are numerous influences throughout, but then again, I don’t think it’s definitively one style. It’s not a Gaspar, or a Strad, or a Tertis model whatever. It’s its own thing. And what a character it is.
I’ve explored numerous string combinations with this one - it’s got a few quirks, you know? But right now I’m using synthetic core for most of the strings, except for the A string, which is steel. I just find that it responds the best with each little thing that each string has to offer.
The C string is a Dominant perlon. What is perlon? I dunno, sounds cool. Some type of synthetic stuff in the middle. It’s wound with silver though, and I think that’s what makes me attracted to the colors of the sound that it can offer. I’ve tried C strings where it just sounded like someone offered you a block of noise with nothing to say. Where’s the language? With Dominant, I can hear the little oohs and aahs and EEEs and ohs and other vowel sounds that I know the viola wants to verbalize. And I think that compliments the already fuerte low low register. It’s always been strong. And I like the fact that it doesn’t try to sound like a cello. There are so many violas out there that try to go deeper, and richer, like a heavy plate of meat and potatoes, and eggnog during the holidays, but the end result is just...tubby. How can you expect to take flight with so much weight? And why would one try to be something they’re not anyway?
The G and D strings are D’Addario Kaplan Amo. I actually came across these strings in a seminar at Juilliard when D’Addario paid a nice little visit and offered free sets of strings to those who were willing to try them on their instruments. And I was curious and I was looking for something a little warmer, a little more Mmmmm in the middle, you know? Surprisingly, I keep coming back to these two, well, because it sounds like they've messed around for a long time until they got the warmth down without sacrificing projection. I guess I've mostly thought D'Addario was into guitar strings, so I didn't bother with them before. It would have been like going to Sam Ash or Guitar Center to have someone check up on your Stradivarius - out of place, right? But I've been pleasantly surprised. Plus they're based on Long Island ;) The G and D work well with the bouts and curves on this one, and they get into the crevices and corners when you just want a little more. It's a 42cm with a fat arse; it's got some more to love. Even that one spot on the G string, right around the note F#.
Yes, string players, y'all know the struggle. The wolf. Many violins have it in a similar spot (C#), but for violas, this may be a thing with the 42s. Or so I've heard. I've also heard it gets worse as you increase in size. But hey, on this one, it's just a trait. Just a little beast that growls if you step on its toes.
The A string. One of the many reasons why I was drawn to this instrument. It just soars. I've never heard really any viola that penetrates as intensely in this region as this one. It eats concerto playing for breakfast. That being said, it does get a little fussy when you need to play softly on that string because the default is AHHHHHHHHHH! It's a little shouty. And through my own learning and getting to know its temperament, I've found that sometimes you need to coax, be gentle, touch it softly, like the smooth skin of the love of your life in the summertime. And so to get some of that quality, I've opted for D'Addario Helicore. It's generally a softer string in volume, but still allows for plenty of spin, and is kind of a key to unlock a toolbox of something more intimate. Under the covers intimate. Who knows, the golden fine tuner gives the key its color.
The viola was made in 2016 by Jon van Kouwenhoven.
So how did we get to this point? Well, before this, I was without my own instrument - I was borrowing violas through my Alma mater and then borrowing some more from a well known luthier and, well, that deadline was approaching rapidly and shit, I was between a rock and a hard place. The universe must have known.
So Jon contacts me through Facebook saying I have a viola that you might like to try - I think it would fit you and your playing really well. Immediately I thought, I mean sure, but I’m broke, so...pass? And try and borrow some more?
But I knew of the guy. I knew of him through word of mouth, through inner circle, and I knew he was good, too. My girlfriend bought a viola from him back in 2012. Kim K has two of his creations. Bashmet has one. So does Kremer. And Braunstein. And Geringas. Rostropovich had one as well. So with a little persuasion, I decided, you know what, let’s try it out. Let’s see what you got.
And so we arranged a time, and on some April afternoon, Jon and I met in person, face to face, in Boston. I remember it very well. He only had one viola, in a Bam case on his back, and no tools. Not traditional, I guess. But he did drive himself from Hartford, so I was sure to make it a pleasant visit. And so we find a room, and open up the Bam case, and there’s the cherry chestnut brown. I could tell the varnish hadn’t completely settled in yet. Hot off the press, I guess.
Tune it up, try it out.
This A string is insane. How?
It was eager. Eager to be played, eager to be heard. And it sounded like me. Something like my own speaking voice, if you know what that sounds like. There was something fresh. Distinct. I felt potential. It did need a little work, though. Haha, he tried to get more depth out of the C string by adjusting the soundpost with someone’s old business card. Ahh, quite unpredictable. But I wanted it. It gave me that 30-second YES feeling. It wasn’t perfect yet, but that could be fixed later.
So he told me the value. And again I was like, I have zero dollars. $0.00. Zilch. But I considered a whole bunch of options this time because in my mind now, it was worth it. So he took it back to his shop to adjust it, and a few weeks later, I contacted him again saying I was still really interested in that viola. In between, I went and tried a bunch of instruments at a bunch of shops with no budget to see what was out there, what the possibilities were. I was still fixated on that one.
And in the end, on a sunny afternoon in the second week of May, just before my graduation at NEC, I made a partnership. And a friend. See, with Jon, it was never just a luthier-to-instrumentalist transaction. He genuinely cared about the artist behind the wood, the person who would eventually give this thing its soul. He seems drawn to sentiment, to what makes you tick, to the journey of you and what makes you you and how you got here and what life means to you and how you love. And it makes me think, well, this viola isn’t just a product. It’s not something created just to stay afloat in this ever-changing world. It’s art, it’s expression, and it’s meant to be strung up and played with every ounce of meaning that your heart can muster.
I remember what the first few days felt like. It really was something worth holding onto - so much so that I kept it a secret from teachers, colleagues, friends. It was my jewel, you know? I didn’t want any outside judgment about price, reputation, modern vs. antique bullshit, because what does that matter, anyway? A voice is a voice. But somehow judgment taints the fireworks that tickle your heart, and so I didn’t tell anyone until I was ready.
And now, I’ve lived with this viola for nearly three years. And I don’t regret any second of it. Of course, it’s just the beginning, and I am continuing to turn every corner until I know the blueprint like the back of my hand.
It’s got its fair share of nicks and dings and scratches. There were places in the Schnittke and Druckman concerti where I wasn’t so nice. Joan Tower got me worked up as well.
The varnish isn’t so pristine anymore in some places, and in others, it’s completely worn off. No, it hasn’t been antiqued to look older than it is; that’s just what happens when you play a lot and wear button-down shirts, I guess.
Sometimes it gets a little grouchy. It doesn’t like the cold. It doesn’t like dry climates either. There was a recent time when I was playing during a soundcheck to get a feel of the space I was in, and the hall was so dry that it felt like it wanted to hide in a little corner somewhere. And sometimes, it just says, not today. Not right now. Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow. Just give me a little time. I’ll be back before you know it. It’s a living, breathing thing.
But on good days, which are most days, it's a love affair. A “let's get lost together” love affair. It's my flight partner. We've been to numerous cities and several countries together. It lives in a Bam case of its own and wears a headwrap to bed.
It feels like a modern-day Paolo Antonio Testore. It isn't the most embellished, ornate instrument in the world, but it's got soul, honey. It wasn't meant to be just a pretty face. By the way, have you seen some of Testore's scrolls? They're like literal boxes - he just stopped carving. His instruments seem to be specifically for function without giving a damn about appearance. The JVK is similar to me in that it feels organic. Earthy. Like a mineral mined from the depths of this planet with sweat, tears, and labor, and then fashioned into a gem. That’s how I like it. No frills, nothing sugar-coated or tarted up, just authenticity.
But above all, it’s my voice. I don’t know, it’s just kinda intuitive, you know? It fits like a glove. And I know what it wants to do naturally and where the sweet spots are and where it’s a little uncomfortable and how it handles like a Ferrari in the corners. I love when I push past its breaking point just a little and it doesn’t bite back but growls under its breath. I love its coy smile. And its worn varnish. And its nicks and scratches. It tells a story of the game. Of being on stage and being vulnerable and hanging by a thread and not having anything but your voice.
So Jon, thank you. Thank you for giving me my voice. And thank you for what will continue to be an incredible journey.