By Cristina Schreil
How often does lightning strike? For violinist Sara Caswell, three times. The first two jolts were upon encountering two violins: a Joseph Collingwood that was the first full-size instrument she purchased, and a Stefano Scarampella, which Caswell still plays. The latest instance was less expected for a jazz violinist.
“It had that kind of electric current that I had never experienced before. I played three notes and was like, ‘Oh my god! What is this thing?!’” Caswell says. She’s speaking about the first time she played a Hardanger d’amore. “It was amazing. I felt an instant connection to the instrument.”
The Hardanger d’amore is a recent invention, a spin-off of the ornate Hardanger fiddles of Norwegian folk music. It’s a ten-string instrument, with five bowed strings resting over a set of sympathetic strings—which aren’t played, but resonate, enhancing overtones. The top strings are E, A, D, G, and a viola C string tuned up to a D. The sympathetic strings are tuned to A, G, E, D, and B, a combination producing what Caswell describes as nothing short of electricity.
She primarily uses the instrument with her band 9Horses. A gesture toward the adornments upon traditional Hardangers, Caswell’s Hardanger d’amore has mother-of-pearl inlay designs on the tailpiece, a carved lion-head scroll, and black-ink decorations—called “rosings”—on the body.
Speaking from her home in New York City, Caswell describes how she acquired this “beautiful piece of artwork,” and what it brings to her playing.
“I remember vividly the first three notes that I played and I instantly felt a tonal electricity in my entire body.”
Tell us about your instrument.
It’s a pretty unique instrument. The Hardanger d’amore is the invention of this luthier named Salve Håkedal. He’s based in this small town on the southern tip of Norway. He’s definitely an innovator. He was talking to a lot of clients about things they loved about their instruments and things they wanted to try, or having instruments that would better reflect some of the creative directions that they were going in. He ended up crafting this instrument in [response].
The body of the Hardanger d’amore is a little longer and broader than the violin but the string length is comparable. The spacing is just a little bit wider than the violin so it took a little bit of an adjustment for me to get accustomed to switching back and forth, which is what I traditionally do when I’m in concert, between the violin and the Hardanger.
What gift does this instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
I’ve rarely used this fiddle in more jazz-focused groups as of yet, but I hear it fitting best in those situations where musical intimacy and vulnerability are central. Even though this instrument has tremendous power, its most profound beauty to me is in the subtly of the sustain, the velvet overtones—qualities you can’t hear as well if the musical or instrumental context is too dense. I’m in the process of crafting my next jazz-quartet album and composing a couple pieces with the Hardanger d’amore’s voice in mind.
What do you know about how this instrument has been received?
It’s certainly been gaining quite a lot of popularity over the last few years since people have been seeing and hearing it in concert. They’re still pretty rare. I commissioned Håkedal to make it back in February 2013. At that point there were maybe ten or so in the hands of various musicians in the world. It was still a pretty new instrument. Now I think he’s got a lengthy waiting list.
What drew you to this instrument?
It was pretty wild, actually. I was invited to come out and do a house concert in Seattle back in February 2013. The host of this concert, an instrument collector and amateur musician, brought one into the living room. I saw all these pegs. [Laughs.] I was like, “Oh, this is going to be pretty wild.” And I remember vividly the first three notes that I played and I instantly felt a tonal electricity in my entire body. It was just the richness in tone and the power and the resonance and the sustain of this instrument were unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was something that I felt in every inch of my body.
I sat around the living room for a good couple of hours that night just having fun exploring the sonorities and the qualities of this instrument. I was thinking about it overnight. I was like, “Man . . . do I need another instrument?” [Laughs.] “Do I have room in my apartment in New York for another instrument?” I felt such a connection to this fiddle that the next morning I went down for a coffee and I asked my host, “Can I get the contact information for this luthier?”
What was the commissioning process like?
I emailed him the next morning and he wrote me back right away. He was very open to the idea of designing it specifically to what I wanted, especially aesthetically speaking. If I wanted to have mother-of-pearl inlay on various parts of the body of the instrument, which is pretty traditional with Hardanger fiddles, he was certainly open to that. He also loves to carve lion heads in place of the traditional scroll. It was this great process of going back and forth talking about possibilities and really making this an instrument unique for me. Within a matter of days we talked all those things out. The order was submitted, and in late June there was a big ol’ wooden crate waiting outside my front door in New York City.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
It strikes me as being an old soul. It’s a new instrument—it’s really only three years old—but it’s got that warmth. You just feel, when you’re in it and surrounded by those sonorities and tones, like you have a cloak around you in a beautiful way. It’s that kind of tonal embrace that you love. It has a warmth to it and an age and a wisdom to its sound. I feel like I’m playing music with an old friend.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
The instrument has such a rich resonance because of the sympathetic strings. All those qualities come out to the utmost when it’s in a very live room. A live concert hall is where it really has a chance for its voice to be heard. So, dead rooms, or places that are much more insulated or carpeted, obviously it’s still going to sound beautiful, but it’s just not really going to be able to play off the acoustics of the room for the sound to soar out.
What are its strengths and limitations?
The resonant strings add a lot—it’s like an acoustic amplifier, playing off the overtones. With the body of the instrument being a little longer and broader, there’s a richer, deeper, more sustained tone. I don’t think it’s really built to be an instrument that projects in huge concert halls, as far as a Stradivari or a Guarneri. But, when you’re up close and next to it, that’s where I think you really have a chance to hear how many layers [there are] and that resonance and richness in tone that you can’t necessarily get from a traditional violin.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
That’s a tough one! [Laughs.] This is another thing that goes along with the old-soul aspect of what appeals to me in an instrument. It’s not so much about what’s said. It’s what’s felt. Oftentimes when I’ve felt the most connected to people and felt the most tuned in, it’s not so much what’s communicated, it’s sort of that electricity and that connection that’s felt either by eye contact or a vibe. If we were to sit down and have some tea or some bourbon, I don’t know if we would really say much. There’s an unspoken understanding and an unspoken level of communication that happens. It’s deeper than the spoken word.