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Violin maker the soul behind the sound

Update: August, 17/2010 - 16:14
Well received: Luthier Phan Thanh Tien shows his craftsmanship at the 2010 Korea Music international fair in Incheon City. The fair attracted more than 150 exhibitors. — VNS Photos
At classical concerts, audiences see the people who make the sounds, but few meet people who make the instruments. Duc Ngoc talks with artisan luthier Phan Thanh Tien.

Tien, one of the country's few professional violin-makers, believes that every violin contains a soul, a mysterious life hidden within it.

He and his colleagues, he says, could not perform their job without a deep passion for music, a fine ear and a meticulous nature.

"I'm a violinist first," says Tien, a graduate of Ha Noi Music Conservatory.

"After I became involved in making violins, I understood how my passion, knowledge and experience in music enhanced my skills."

The violin, which has four strings tuned in perfect fifths, is the smallest and highest-pitched member of the violin family of string instruments, which includes the viola and cello, and occasionally the double bass.

Tien says violinists and collectors prefer the instruments made by Italian families such as Gasparo da Salo and Giovanni Paolo Maggini from the 16th to the 18th century.

"Looking at a violin by Maggini, you don't dare touch it or ask its price. It's a precious object. I love trying to become a fine violin-maker, even if the instrument is considered a lesser one than those," he says.

Tien says many of his fellow luthiers are the nameless artists who bring a soul to the instruments before the performers ever make a sound.

A music teacher at the Ha Noi Music Conserv-atory, Tien moved to Dong Nai Province in 1983 and began teaching violin at the Dong Nai Culture and Art School.

The school was the only one in Dong Nai at that time that offered a symphony orchestra for students. Tien was the orchestra's director and conductor.

Then in 1993, he started work for the HCM City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra and Opera.

Perfect pitch: Violinist and luthier Phan Thanh Tien plays a viola pomposa he crafted himself.
Six years later, he left the orchestra and decided to spend time making violins.

"I asked myself why violins made by luthiers in Australia, Italy and Japan cost several thousands US dollars, and the instruments made in Viet Nam sold only for tens of US dollars. I faced difficult challenges and sometimes I wanted to give up my job," the 55-year-old says.

But what kept his dream alive was his belief that the Vietnamese people could make costly violins which create a quality sound.

Before opening his shop Tien's Violin on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, District 3 in 1994, he spent years studying with specialist Duong Van Khai.

Since then, his shop has offered violins, strings and bows, attracting customers from the city and neighbouring provinces.

"The parts of a violin are usually made from different types of wood, and the sounds depend on specific acoustic characteristics of the instrument's construction," says Tien, adding that not all electric violins are made of wood.

The violin is used in a wide variety of musical genres, including baroque, classical, jazz, folk, pop, punk and rock. Today, many non-Western music cultures also use it in their performances.

The violinist produces sound by drawing a bow across one or more strings, which can be stopped by the fingers to produce a full range of pitches.

"A good violin maker should be a lover of music. He can feel what a violin wants to be," says Tien, adding that when he works with a violin his "blood and soul" are more sensitively tuned.

On a music programme aired by Viet Nam Television's VTV9 in 2007, Tien first introduced a viola pomposa by playing Nguyet Cam (Moon-shaped Guitar), a song by composer Cung Tien.

He had spent five years making the instrument.

A viola pomposa is a bowed string instrument with five strings produced first by the Hofmann family in Leipzig under the instructions of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1727.

Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, one of his famous six suites for unaccompanied cello, was possibly written for a viola pomposa. The suite, which includes a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, gavotte and gigue, is known for its tonality that evokes joy and triumph.

The instrument was used until 1770 and then went into disfavour.

In 2002, viola player and composer Nguyen Quy Lam, a Vietnamese-American, visited HCM City and ordered a viola pomposa from Tien.

"I knew my work would not be easy," Tien recalls.

Before completing his work, Tien laboured long hours, conducting extensive research on the viola.

Tien's instrument includes alto and tenor sounds so that when the musician is playing it produces a repartee of two voices.

Tien says his viola pomposa has "the heart and passion of the maker".

In 2007, he displayed his two violas at the China Music Fair in Shanghai's Pudong District.

The event attracted leading musical instrument manufacturers such as Steinway, Bosendofet, Gibson and Yamaha.

His CD featuring music played on the viola was also offered to visitors.

"I received some orders to buy the viola but I refused because the instrument's copyright was not completed."

In 2008, Tien was recognised as the country's first viola maker by the Viet Nam Guinness Book of Records.

He has travelled widely within Viet Nam and abroad, introducing and performing on his instruments.

He recently returned home after showing his instruments at the Korea Music 2010 international music fair in Incheon City in June. The fair attracted more than 150 exhibitors.

"I enjoy working with violins because I can imagine a world of music where love, peace, dreams and hopes can become reality, where beautiful sounds can evoke the soul of the musicians and their audiences."

"The response from my local and foreign customers has been encouraging." — VNS

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