By Nicolas Grizzle | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Tackling a new piece of music can be an adventure, but sometimes the itch to explore cannot be scratched in a satisfying way by just a mental journey. Sometimes you need to get out there. Here are three excursions that may satisfy even the most adventurous string player’s spirit.
Ice Music Festival
If you’ve ever wondered what ice sounds like, or if it can be made into a playable musical instrument, there’s a music festival made just for you. The four-day Ice Music Festival Norway takes place the first week of February each year. Founded and run by by percussionist and ice music pioneer Terje Isungset, this year marked the 18th anniversary of the festival. Everything from the performance venues to the instruments (strings, percussion, horns, and more) are made specifically for the festival each year—completely out of ice.
The bodies of the instruments are made of ice, with other parts like strings, bridge, neck, etc., made of conventional materials. As you may imagine, the more the instruments touch a warm human body, the more they melt. So they are designed to be as stationary as possible while still being playable (the violin from 2020 was mounted from the ceiling of an igloo with a rope and included a thick wooden chin rest).
The music performed at the festival is mostly original compositions. Though the tunes may not be immediately recognizable, it’s exciting to see how players and makers adapt to the challenges of the environment, especially given that it’s all but impossible to rehearse on the instruments themselves for fear they will melt away before performance time. This is truly an ephemeral experience each year.
Some instruments are amplified with a microphone, some have a pickup and are plugged in. Different instruments are featured each year—this year’s festival included an upright ice bass. (There has been a string quartet in the past.)
The event takes place on the frozen Lake Bergsjø, which is about a three-to-four-hour train or bus ride (and 45-minute car ride) from Oslo. Accommodations start at around $100 (USD) per night. If you ever want to go, best to do it soon—the effects of climate change may affect the festival in years to come.
Check their website and social channels around October when the lineup is released for the following year’s festival. Isungset says the festival will take place under the second full moon of 2024, with a plan to expand with more concerts on the main stage and to add an extra venue.
It’s one thing to play a beautiful instrument, but quite another to shake the hand that made that mechanism of musical delight. At maker exhibitions, it’s possible to not only meet several luthiers but to hear and try out many different instruments side by side. It’s a chance to refine your tonal tastes and perhaps find the new instrument of your dreams.
The Metzler Violin Shop’s sixth annual American Maker Exhibition will be held at the Pasadena shop March 21–23. Last year’s event—highlighting violins, violas, and cellos—featured demonstrations by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s associate concertmaster Nathan Cole, violist Teng Li, and cellist Robert deMaine, who will return to demonstrate cellos and bows on March 21 of this year. Viola demonstrations by Che-Yen Chen from UCLA will take place on March 22, and Cristian Fatu will demonstrate violins and bows on March 23.
Around 50 makers are represented in the exhibition, and many attend the event as well. If you find an instrument or bow that speaks to you, you can try it out for up to three days after the event. Even if all you take home is the program, you’ll still end up with a gorgeous guide to the work of some wonderful contemporary instrument makers with stunning photos of each instrument and bow in the exhibition.
Reed Yeboah Fine Violins, along with violinist Yi-Ping Yang, has hosted the Contemporary Violin and Bow Makers Exhibition in New York City since 2009. The annual event takes place in November and includes performances and opportunities to test instruments with your own hands and ears. Last year’s opening concert featured Giora Schmidt on violin, Mihai Marica on cello, and the Tesla Quartet with guest artist Domenic Salerni all demonstrating instruments from contemporary makers.
You’re likely to recognize many names at this large event alongside those of up-and-coming luthiers that are sure to impress as well. The event is quite popular, so even if you don’t end up finding the instrument of your dreams, it’s a good chance to network and meet other players and makers who share your passion for music.
For a more European flavor, the British Violin Making Association hosts its annual Maker’s Day in February, with 40 booths of vendors from around the world gathering in the Kings Cross area of London. At this event, exhibitors must be members of the BVMA and can only sell instruments they have made themselves. There are also a few trade stands selling instrument supplies, and violin making schools offering information for those interested in learning the trade.
Like other maker exhibitions, this one has a performance aspect, with the Kreutzer Quartet holding the position of quartet in residence since 2019. But the event organizers state that this is primarily an event for musicians to meet makers, and for makers to meet their peers.
A Trip to Cremona
Looking for the ultimate strings-related adventure? Head to Cremona, Italy, where you’ll never run out of musical sounds, sights, and history to absorb. For nearly 1,000 years, this city has served as a creative hub of Western music. Cremona was the home of the workshops of some of the world’s greatest instrument makers, including Antonio Stradivari and the Amati and Guarneri families, for which it has earned the nickname “the birthplace of the violin.”
An entire trip could be planned around violins alone. You may want to spend a full day at the Museo del Violino, which opened in 2013, for a detailed exploration of the craft of violin making as well as a collection of hundreds of historical tools and drawings from Stradivari’s own workshop (and some Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri violins). You can also visit some modern-day makers, of which there are about 160 in the city (best to call ahead and schedule a visit). But there’s so much more to Cremona than violins.
There are also many music festivals hosted in the city. The Cremona Musica International Exhibition and Festival (Sept. 22–24, 2023) will boast 215 exhibitors and 130 events, including performances, workshops, presentations, and more. The Monteverdi Festival (June 16–25) features opera, concerts, and even a music cruise. The Stradivari Festival takes place in October; last year’s 10th anniversary event saw violinist Joshua Bell playing a part in the festivities.
The 250-year-old Teatro Ponchielli opera house hosts musical events year-round. It’s like a smaller version of La Scala in Milan, but it doesn’t focus solely on opera—there are orchestral, chamber, and other types of performances, including pop music and dance.
And, of course, don’t forget to experience the incredible architecture, food, and culture of the city while you’re there. There’s a lot to see and hear, but sometimes it’s nice to just sit and breathe in the ambiance of a place. After all, there must be a reason why so much musical history has taken place here—maybe it’s something in the air.