Ian leans over the kitchen table and wants to explain why it is better to make sandwiches on this table rather then play a violin piece by Mozart constructed from it. Ian McWilliams a Canadian from Saskatchewan, a place sparsely populated with people but with an abundance of open sky. He speaks a beautiful German - which jockeys for position with English. Sometimes the one, sometimes times the other has the upper hand. Ian is 34 years old, a farmer's son, a professional cabinet maker, for years now he has leaned toward a more delicate trade. He has left the cabinets behind and now lives in Brandenburg an der Havel, 45 minutes west of Berlin with his wife and son. Where he makes violins, which he sells in Paris, New York, London and Shanghai. You could construct a renowned, exaggerated story out of this, leaning towards pretentiousness. But, Ian's way of speaking is too kind, too reflective for that. He is not very interested in the kind of fame which one might mistake for vanity.
The kitchen table is made out of pine, from IKEA. Ian slides a coffee cup across the wood. "Look at the annual rings. They're wide, which means the wood grew quickly. Much too fast for music. It would sound resinous and dull. This kind of wood doesn't respond to the vibration of the strings, it's not alive." He holds up a board of maple, grown in the mountains of Bosnia. "Take a look!" It is light. The annual rings are narrow. "In the mountains, the wood grows slower, this is the maple used in the head, the back, and the ribs which make up the sides of bowed instruments." The tops are made of Italian spruce which has fine tight growth rings. This happens when the summer- autumn growing stops quickly and spring starts just as quick the following year in the high elevations of the Italian Alps. The space you see between the growth rings is the summer growth. The growth ring is the growth at the beginning and end of the growing season, the finer the ring the less the tree grows into winter.
And does Ian get maple from Canada, his homeland? They even have maple leaves on their flag there. Ian laughs. "Sugar maple!" he says. That will have to do for an answer. Maple syrup makes children happy. But Ian is talking about sophisticated dishes here. Beethoven's 4th Violin Sonata tastes like arugula with lemon. It's powerful. As long as it is not played on sugar maple or on a table from IKEA. But Ian's violins are made of wood from the mountains of Bosnia and the Italian Alps.
He takes five weeks to make a violin. It costs 12,000 euros, a viola is 14,000 euros. It takes him two months to build a cello and they cost 23,000 euros. Just now a cello has become ready, he reaches over for it. Picks up a bow. A stroke. And the sound flies and lands softly. No sand in the gears. The instrument is slender. Its sound has no fat on it anywhere. Ian works with ideal balances. Why does it sound the way it sounds? "That is a great question," he says. "You can't explain it, it's a phenomenon. No violin maker can describe the sound of his instruments with words or explain it in technical terms."
Maybe also, a violin maker simply doesn't want to explain it. It's a trade secret. And a touch of magic.
Ian McWilliams went to England for about a year after he finished school in Canada. He traveled around, worked for five months in Scotland, took five months off. While down in the south of England, he learned about a workshop with a focus on "baroque." It was his first encounter with bowed instruments. When he went back to Canada, he didn't give himself over to his new love right away, but studied cabinet making instead. Then, when he finished learning, he finally realized: it has to be the violin. The viola. The cello. "There are many parallels between cabinet making and violin making, but the sound of the music is what won me over in the end," he says.
Ian flew back to the south of England for three days for an entrance examination in that same West Dean college, whose name already sounded like music to him. There were three places available in the course. Ian got one of them.
The training lasted three years. Cutting, planning, drawing. After that, he went to London and worked there for three years, then later, he went to Montpellier in the south of France. A stronghold for bowed instruments, he spent two years working for Frederic Chaudiere making modern violin,viola and cello. There are thirteen violin makers for 400,000 inhabitants. An insanely high ratio. Finally, Ian went to Berlin, where Almuth lived. They had met one another in West Dean. She is also a violin maker. They've been married for a long time.
After their first child was born, they moved to the old part of Brandenburg an der Havel, to escape the big city. They bought an old house in need of work, which was built in 1680. Until the war, it had been used as the location for a carriage company.
Ian put his hands to work, old school style, using his cabinet making knowledge. He scraped the floors and where a large garage stood earlier, he built his violin maker's workshop in the German half-timbered style.
It smells of wood and glue when you enter the shop. There is a large fan on the ceiling. On the floor, a wood stove. Behind on the wall is a portrait of Paganini. If you ask Ian McWilliams if he likes David Garrett, who portrayed the devil's violinist Paganini in the movies, he asks, "Who is David Garrett?"
McWilliams is not unworldly for not knowing who Garrett is. He doesn't live in an ivory tower. With the top buttons of his shirt open, he could also be a man on rock and roll radio. Even his hairstyle looks the part. It hangs loosely over his forehead, like it was back in the 80's, when rock music gladly returned to the garage. If you will, Ian McWilliams has also returned to the garage, where the company once parked its carriages - a place where his violin shop has grown.
A few weeks ago, Ian was at a trade fair for bowed instruments in Peking. "The Chinese want violins from Italy," he says, "the demand for Stradivari, which were made in Cremona, lives on there like a myth." He shared a stand at the trade fair with two colleagues from Montpellier. "You have to convince the Chinese that instruments from other countries are also of high quality".
When Ian is in China, he tells people he lives in Germany. Because a violin is from the country it is made in not were the violin maker is from. The allegedly refined "serious music" class doesn't come without its prejudices. The Stradivarius is probably the cause of one of the greatest prejudices. Are there really no better instruments than those of the old Italians? You should ask Ian McWilliams.
Old violins are often very good. But not all are of the same quality even amongst the violins surviving of Stradivarius this is one reason why his violins vary in price. " if I hear a violin being played without seeing it, I can't say whether or not it's new," says McWilliams. It would require some research to find the answer. "Even if I hold it my hands with my eyes blindfolded and play it, I do not always know how old it is," he continues. Of course, if he opens his eyes, he knows immediately. "There are still about 500 Stradivari instruments. These violins have cult status. But some of them are no longer being played. In that sense, it's more similar to the art-trade." It is chic to indicate in the concert program that you are playing an instrument from the year 1713. No one announces that theirs was made in 2011. Even when the sound can be just as pure and clear. Ian often gives his instruments to friends who are violin makers in other countries. Most of them are in large cities such as Brussels, Paris, London and Peking. There, they will be sold to customers or through local shops, who have a large base of interested buyers on a scale of which Ian does not have in Brandenburg.
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Source: Märkische Allgemeine 16 August 2014, page IMGESPR1
Document number: 201408163824984