Composer Joe Townsend reflects on the inspiration behind The Gypsy Bible
On the eve of starting a course in Traditional and Folk music for the first time in the history of Trinity Laban Conservatoire, I have been putting the finishing touches to the module which is all about performance and some theory of cultural identity, and that there is really no such thing as folk music. It's all made up. Well, that's not quite true either. Its going to be fun. As a taster I was reading back over old blogs and here is a post from when I wrote the music to my show The Gypsy Bible back in 2010. My own stories are true, but the words written by Alistair Middleton are definitely made up
I have always loved the violin. I think that my life really started from the moment that I first saw one in an antique shop. I learnt to play it and practised many hours till I became good enough to make a living playing Jazz tunes and English Folk music on the street and in cafés– I was living in Paris at the time.
I travelled across Europe through Vienna to Hungary and then beyond on the “Black Train” to Transylvania, the land beyond the forest. Not necessarily a place of vampires and fairy tales but a rural culture of people rich in superstition and connected to the soil through work and history in a brooding landscape where people get around on foot and by horse and cart and ancient Mercedes.
I met gypsy musicians who were generous with their musical gifts and exchanged many tunes and learned something of their style of music.
The violin that I played in those days was an old French Vosges fiddle that had seen better days, especially since it had been crushed in a crowd of giant Bavarians at a beer festival and dropped by a French customs officer. Still it made a decent enough sound.
One spring at a fair a gypsy fiddler asked me to show him my fiddle. I handed it to him and he looked it over a bit like a gypsy horse dealer might look over a horse’s teeth to see whether it was any good or not. He picked up my bow and then started to play wild and strange tunes that I had never heard before. Other musicians on 3-string viola and double bass joined in and a young couple danced. And he played for an hour.
This music was not the stuff of a soupy café orchestra for tourists by the castle in Budapest but the music of weddings and funerals – songs of longing and grief, the Doina and dances which are joyful with a serious heart . He was a Lautar, a member of a tribe of musicians that can be traced back to Rajistan through Afghanistan, Turkey, Bulgaria, a long line of musicians stretching back through the ages. Pure Roma.
The music that he played was from a body of tradition drawn from a living testament of music handed down through generations, with time gradually wearing the music into the beautiful melodies that I was listening to.
My own violin had never sounded so good.
When he had finished he handed it back with a shrug as if to say that’s not a bad fiddle.
And then, a strange thing then happened as I started to play.
The whole violin was warm.
The neck had heat.
It was as if it played on its own accord.
With something of its own will.
Or with the memory of the last person who played it.
Something of that violinist, his music and his story had been transferred into my violin and then on to me.
I also collect stories about violins and I want to bring them to life in this production.
There are stories that seem to pop up around the world in different forms.
A girl is murdered by her jealous sister and then made into a violin by a wandering musician, the violin only plays one tune…”Oh the wind and the rain…”
Another girl trades her family and the devil makes them into a violin to woo her lover…
A young man goes to Hell and back for his love playing his fiddle as he travels so she can hear him as moves along…
A violin has a head,
Sides and ribs.
Inside you’ll find a two inch piece of dowel rod.
This is the sound-post that the French call “l’ame”
The best wood for the belly comes from the Tyrolean pine on a south-facing slope cut down in February while the sap is low. The wood must be taken half way between the bark and the heart. One may have to cut down a whole tree to find the just the right piece of wood to make a good belly.
Violin varnish is laid on as a liquid and worked in with the hands or a brush.
It is has many ingredients:
The trees weep,
Catch their tears in a bowl.
They weep Amber
(Caught at ebb-tide in nets)
They weep Arnotto
(The tears of the Indian plum)
They weep Benzoin
(Sumatran tears of red and white)
They weep Cinnabar
The trees sweat,
Catch their sweat in your hands
They sweat Copaiba
They sweat Copal
(Incense from Zanzibar)
They sweat Curcuma.
The trees bleed,
Catch their blood in your mouth.
They bleed Elemi
They bleed Calamus Draco
Wash it in tears – that which is washed in tears will live forever.
Bless it with sweat – that which is blessed with sweat will live forever.
Dress it in blood – that which is dressed in blood will live forever.
Your Violin is varnished.
That which is dressed in blood will live forever