By Karen Peterson | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Luthier Hans Johannsson knows how to throw a party. For two weeks this fall, October 1–15, as the colors of the aurora borealis light up the dark Arctic skies above Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik will respond with the sounds of violin, viola, cello, and bass rising in celebration of life and music—as envisioned by Johannsson, for 40-plus years a maker of stringed instruments. Describing the event as a “sensory exploration of instrument making,” Johannsson, over the past 18 months, has been in the thick of putting together the exhibits, lectures, recitals, and concerts for the tentatively titled “Echoes of the Ages” extravaganza.
He estimates that at least 60 stringed instruments will be in play and on display—all of them of his design, made from the beginning of his career in 1980 to the present. The players are sharing their instruments for the event on a rotating basis to ensure they can still perform elsewhere, says Johannsson, who adds that no one is donating their time at his event. “Our funding includes payments to the performers.” The money comes from donations by corporations and art institutes as well as the city of Reykjavik.
Quartets playing his instruments will entertain audiences at Reykjavik’s historic Asmundarsalur art gallery, where Icelandic artist Elín Hansdottór is curating displays of the luthier trade, with exhibits on the craft, the tools, and the materials that go into violin making, including the “the alchemy” of varnish. Along with lectures on music tradition and history, Johannsson is offering an immersive introduction to his digital experiments on capturing “impulse responses” from master-quality instruments—achieved by recording the sound of a single tap on the bridge. “All the information on the sound that can be made by a violin can be captured by tapping the bridge. That tap produces all the possible frequencies and amplitude… all the information that comes from the strings, the fingers, and the bow,” says Johannsson. “It is really amazing.” The experiment is also about redesigning the violin for the 21st century. As he writes on his website, “I had for years been dreaming of making instruments that looked more like an Arne Jacobsen chair or a Bang & Olufsen stereo.”
Not one to miss a beat, Johannsson also designed a multi-directional speaker, which is designed to deliver true surround sound. “An instrument radiates sound into space in a very particular way,” says Johannsson. “Bass notes are going in one direction; higher frequency notes in a lot of other directions; crescendo and vibrato also create [directional] changes. It’s all very complex.”
The closing-night event at Harpa Concert Hall, a modern kaleidoscope of glass and steel, features Iceland Symphony Orchestra musicians playing instruments of Johannsson’s making: two members playing double bass, four to six on viola, four to six on cello, and “around 16 violins” performing Richard Strauss’ haunting Metamorphosen for solo strings.
The motivating occasion for all this music making? The short answer for Johannsson is being alive and well and thankful for a life well lived. “I was hunched over at my desk whittling away on a violin and was struck by the idea of what it would be like to listen to all the instruments I’ve made over the years and the development of my work,” says Johannsson in our Zoom conversation. The thought took root for the man who aptly describes himself as being “65, quite fit, and [with] a lot of energy left.”
More to the point, the revelry is Johannsson’s salute to his homeland, an island of volcanoes and glaciers, of “fire and ice.” It is in appreciation of Iceland’s 350,000 residents and the musicians it has produced, whether they play his instruments or not. Johannsson gives a respectful nod to the magic musicality of Iceland’s Björk. “She is inspiring,” he says. “A force of nature.”
Yet as beloved as music may be in Iceland today, and as daring as Icelanders are in style and composition, it wasn’t always so. Discovered by Vikings and settled by Norse and Celtic populations in the 800s, Iceland was not home to many musical instruments, and stringed instruments, in particular, were rare. “Our cultural history is about poetry and chanting,” says Johannsson, the former related to the Prose Edda and Icelandic sagas, also one-eyed Odin, Viking god of poetry and death. Chanting is still very much in the blood, as was shown in Reykjavikers’ response to Iceland’s European Championship soccer victory over the UK in 2016.
A benefit of coming late to the pedagogical canon of who, how, and what to play allowed Iceland’s musicians unburdened freedom to be creative and forward looking, says Johannsson, “to not be afraid of change.” It is a philosophy that Johannsson has embraced since he graduated from the UK’s Newark School of Violin Making 43 years ago.
A maker of classical violins, he says, nonetheless, “I don’t make copies. I don’t pretend to be able to make a del Gesù or an Amati.” Johannsson’s instruments, which he says look “very Cremonese,” are drawn from scratch, with straightedge and ruler. Copying is futile, he says. “None of the old masters made copies. When they left [their studies], they made their own designs.”
Johannsson may not make imitations, but he does carefully study what he draws—all the way down to the skeleton and, by way of a local medical office, with a CT scanner. They let Johannsson borrow it to scan a beloved Guarneri from the 1730s. Like looking at tree rings to determine seasonal and fire impacts on a piece of wood, CT scans can reveal repairs, exact measurements, and wood density. For Johannsson, the scan was more than an adventure in technology. The Guarneri he scanned is in the possession of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and reserved for the first violin. “I was a teenager when I first heard it played,” says Johannsson. “It was my muse.”