By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The American violinist, violist, and hardanger fiddler Liz Knowles tours solo and plays with the String Sisters, Open the Door for Three, and the Martin Hayes Quartet (with the latter she was supposed to have had a quick run of gigs in the Midwest and at the Savannah Celtic Fest before COVID-19 intervened).
Indeed, the pandemic has upended a few plans for Knowles: the String Sisters were to make their U.S. debut at the Dublin (Ohio) Irish Festival and return to the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She
was also going to debut a new trio with singer Eamon O’Leary and singer/bodhran player Cathy Jordan on her home turf in Portland, Maine.
Knowles has taught at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, the Swannanoa Gathering, the O’Flaherty Irish Weekend, and at many other Irish-music events across the U.S. and Ireland. She was in the middle of a “great” semester teaching a few individual students and an Irish ensemble class at the New England Conservatory. She finds herself hunkering down at home in Portland, where she spoke to me about her instruments on the phone.
How are you handling the down time?
I have just decided to keep working on what matters to me: bits of music, discovering tunes, practicing, composing, finishing a teaching book I have been working on for what feels like half a century. And other projects that always seem to take a backseat to making a living: bits of art, drawing, painting, a literary book, and some wide open, untethered thinking. Check back with me in a month or two. I might be in a totally different place.
Please tell me about your instruments.
I carry two instruments these days and use them both regularly. One is a violin made by Peter Seman in Skokie, Illinois. The second instrument I use is a viola d’amore, made in 2011, also called a 5+5 or hardanger d’amore, made by Salve Håkedal.
I am amused that I have ended up with two very new fiddles after years of thinking that my goal was to invest in really nice old instruments. But when the sound is right, you have to go for it.
How did you know they were the right fit?
I was growing out of my grandmother’s violin, which she had bought out of a Sears catalog, and wanted an old violin or at least the nicest I could afford. Another musician I knew had just bought one of Peter’s instruments and after trying it, I began to consider looking into a new instrument myself. I took one of Peter’s home and instantly fell in love with it. It had me at “hello.”
And the hardanger?
I didn’t see, hear, or play a hardanger in person until I joined the String Sisters, and then I met Salve Håkedal at a gig in Norway. He designed a new model collaboratively with Dan Trueman, the American fiddler and Princeton professor. After hearing it, the hardanger sound but with a fifth string, and realizing its ability to be tuned comfortably in A440, I knew this was going to be a good fit for me, my style of playing, and the things I wanted to further explore in my playing.
What gifts do your instruments bring to your playing that can’t be found in other instruments?
My violin has a beautiful, well-balanced sound with a lovely darkness because it is still opening up, being a new fiddle; it is being molded around how I play and what I play, mostly Irish music with a good practice regimen of Bach, Telemann, and anything else I fancy. And it takes to it all. It has a huge dynamic range and I feel I haven’t reached the end of its potential yet.
The hardanger’s compelling sound is due in part to its most distinct physical feature, its five sympathetic understrings, which give it an eerie, reverberant quality that seems to send out and carry sound for what feels like miles more than a regular fiddle. The fifth string, the sympathetic strings, the ability to tune the strings into any tonal configuration, and the variety of available hardanger-specific strings in steel and gut means that it can be modified to create either a Norwegian or an early-music sound, and nearly everything in between.
Together they have opened my mind and hands in terms of sound and technique that are unique to each instrument and its repertoire.
Do they perform better in certain situations?
They both love big reverberant rooms or acoustic halls. Their owner does too.
How does each adjust to different genres?
The violin and the hardanger adjust easily whether I am playing Bach or reels and jigs, but they adjust in different ways. The hardanger can’t be driven, per se. I wouldn’t play it at a dance, but that is just me. I could not drive the bow enough for my tastes. On the other hand, for harmonic expression and innovation, there is a lot that the hardanger presents in terms of chording and overtones that the violin just does not have. Having that extra fifth string expands the whole world of improvisational possibilities in terms of sound and harmonic range. It’s not to say the hardanger is better than the violin. Just different.
What are the greatest strengths of each?
The violin has a wide variety of tonal qualities, stability, a warm and solid sound, and as it ages it gets better and better.
When the hardanger is in tune and I am in tune, it rings until tomorrow and I never want to stop playing. If “we” are out of tune, however, it will stop ringing and all the happiness in the world goes away. I still feel I am getting to know it, and it getting to know me; it is a new and different experience, which is creating an “ongoingness” that is so gratifying.
I haven’t asked the violin to do anything that it couldn’t do—yet. But the hardanger requires a lot of tuning. Weather, wind, your breath, they all affect the instrument. And there are ten strings. When I first got the instrument and did nothing but tune it, my husband, an uilleann piper who is well-versed in tuning a complicated and multi-faceted instrument, said, “Now you get it.” Marriage lessons 101.
Liz Knowles’ Gear
Bow I have four very different bows that are always in rotation.
Strings I have used D’Addario Helicore strings for years. They require the least amount of tuning when first put on and I do love this quality.
Case I use a double case made by Riboni in Cremona. They are expensive but worth every penny. Great quality and design, excellent customer service, and personal attention. I love this case.
Rosin Jade or Pirastro Goldflex
Additional DPA microphone