What's the story?
The NZ Herald describes the viols as "fretted string instruments played with bows and pronounced "viles" — flourished from the Renaissance to the Baroque. They are extremely delicate instruments; you can't just throw them in an aircraft's hold (Phantasm's two larger instruments get their own airline seats). The frets are tied-on pieces of string and the instruments go out of tune the moment you look at them, unless there's a change in humidity, in which case they're out of tune before you can look at them."
We asked Phantasm's players to share the story behind their instruments.
I acquired my anonymous 17th-century treble viol at an auction house in London in 2011. It had been sitting - unplayable - in a private collection in Los Angeles since at least the Second World War, before it was sold. I had to take a chance on that it would sound well. I brought it to the leading restorer of viols in England, John Topham, who took more than a year to ‘revive’ the instrument and the results were immediately pleasing. He also undertook a dendrochronological analysis of the wood of the top of the instrument - the only bit which is analysable - which dated the wood to around 1690. The top showed original F-holes rather than C-holes, which may have derived from a viola (da braccio), which seems to have been placed on top of an even older back and ribs belonging to a treble viol. Their shape, construction and varnish, according to several luthiers, suggest a provenance of the School of Joachim Tielke in Hamburg.
When I was a student and just discovering the viol, the university owned a chest of viols for the students to play consort music on. So I used to do regular consort playing with the lady who came in to take the sessions, and also at her house. Her husband was a lute- and bow-maker. He started up an instrument-making class in the evenings so I thought it would be nice to have my own treble viol (I also ‘baroqued’ an old factory violin I had). It took me a year of classes to complete. It was very absorbing work, and involved an awful lot of planning, as well we doing the interesting stuff like bending the wood (the front of the instrument is made up of 5 strips of wood, all bent over a hot iron to get the curve of the belly), cutting the purfling, and carving the scroll. I managed to cut her nose off, which was a bit of a frightening moment, but I was able to stick it back on with wood glue. The instrument itself is stuck together with glue made from boiled up rabbit skin I think - we used to call it rabbit glue. I barely played it once I became professional cos I was always on tenor or bass, so I’m really happy to finally be using it on a regular basis in Phantasm now.
My tenor viol was built in 1995 by a Swiss maker who lived in London, Dietrich Kessler. It is a copy of a 17th century English instrument and quite large for a tenor viol: the extra string length gives it an unusually powerful and rich tone and I feel very lucky to be able to play on it.
I have three viols which I have been using for Phantasm concerts in the past, so I always have to decide which one to use for each concert. For the next concerts (in NZ) I will use my bass viol after Joachim Tielke, which was made by Pierre Bohr in Milan in 2015. It is beautifully and highly decorated, as is the original one which is in the instrument museum in Hamburg.