By Cristina Schreil | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
Twenty-five years ago, François Danger saw a film that changed everything for him. Titled Tous les matins du Monde, or All the Mornings of the World, it’s a drama set during the reign of King Louis XIV. The movie follows a violist da gamba riddled with grief after his wife’s passing. Danger, who passed away last September, was long fascinated with viols and had a longtime dream to be a violin maker, despite objections from his parents, who believed it was not a proper job. This film—and its score by viol master Jordi Savall—came to him at the right time, and something stuck.
“I was fascinated by this instrument and depressed by a job that I detested,” Danger recalled during an interview last fall. “Then my wife, seeing me so down, just told me, ‘You like to work with wood, you play cello, you like the viol. So why don’t you become a viol maker?’”
At age 40, Danger “took [his] destiny in hand.” It was a unique path, Danger explained, describing his training, which brought in marquetry and antique furniture restoration. When he met luthier Bruno Dreux, based in Orleans, France, it was a turning point in his craft. “He gave me the know-how and exceptional secrets to make instruments with a beautiful resonance, rich in harmonics, easy to play, well-adjusted, with a nice varnish,” Danger remembered. Under Dreux’s eye, Danger made his first Baroque viola and then applied the lessons to craft his first viol.
Eventually, Danger began making instruments in his home workshop in the southwest of France. He also played viol. “I love this instrument,” Danger said, before describing the variety in shapes and decorations. “With Baroque instruments, you are free to create designs as per your ideas.”
Danger’s creative ideas led him in an interesting new direction: electric viols. He had two versions: one electro-acoustic called an Altra Gamba and one electric, the Altra-e.
At first, it’s a curious thing to imagine this instrument—one that Baroque players would expect to conjure tone and color from years past, yet tricked out with modern characteristics. In 2003, Danger got the idea upon listening to a CD by gambist Paolo Pandolfo. It was around the same time he was brainstorming ideas for new models. Pandolfo’s music inspired Danger to dream up cutting-edge possibilities for viol: “A new viol for today’s music, and playable with all instruments.”
Making it playable with all instruments has a lot to do with power. Danger began to study available amplification systems that could meet modern gamba players’ needs. And those needs, it turns out, are closely tied to musical endeavors that extend beyond Baroque repertoire. “Musicians want to keep the specific sound of the viol but need this electro-acoustic or electric viol to play with electric guitars, keyboards, saxophones, horns, etc.,” Danger said, “to play world music, rock, metal.”
Danger was dissatisfied with kits, so he connected with electric violin maker Olivier Pont, who makes his own piezoelectric mics. Pont began making special piezoelectric mics for Danger’s viols as well.
Viol player Hille Perl owns one of Danger’s Altra Gamba models. “It feels wonderful,” she wrote. She added that she can play thinner strings; she uses overspun silk strings, which makes it very flexible. “And of course the main charm is that you can use lots of effects to change the sound, and can create room and dynamic with the electrification.”
Originally, Perl wanted to be able to compete dynamically with the electric guitars in a rock band that she plays in occasionally for fun. She used to play with a microphone that produced irritating feedback issues and still couldn’t get her viol to be loud enough. “Once I had the viol I fell so much in love with it that I played around with all kinds of music: rock, pop, jazz, world music, early music, avant-garde compositions,” Perl said. “In a way once I stepped across the border, all directions seemed worth accessing and also possible.”