This ‘fiery and powerful’ violin gives its player a mystical connection to its late maker.
Instrument A five-string violin by John Sullivan, 2006. I use a Thomastik Spirocore Tungsten C; Thomastik Vision Titanium Soloist G, D and A; and a Pirastro Oliv gold E because this setup adds punch on the low-end, brightness in the middle, and smoothness on the high-end.
Condition My Sullivan has a deep-red varnish and a number of scratches, dings, and chips from its various adventures.
Bow 1839 Ludwig Bausch (the elder)
How does it compare to your previous primary violin (and what was that instrument)?
My previous primary violin was a late-1700s Fabricatore violin from Naples, with only four strings. The main difference is, of course, the number of strings, but the violins have very different characters as well. “Carlo” (my four-string) is brighter, with a lot of tonal complexity, and a sort of venerable sweetness to its sound. It’s wonderful, and I still play it. “T-bird” (the five-string) is a little less brash, and while it’s got some complexity to its sound, it is still developing. It’s a louder instrument, which is helpful.
What gifts does this violin bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
It was made with me in mind, and the intention behind the instrument makes playing it a gift. I tend to admire “old-fashioned” players when it comes to classical and jazz violinists, and my playing can sometimes sound that way. The clarity and straightforwardness of T-bird helps me update my sound.
How does this violin inspire you?
The instrument is so versatile. With T-bird, I can slide effortlessly between genres, even in the course of the same song, in a way that feels more right than with any other instrument I’ve played. It has a powerful nature, in an understated sort of way, and this underlying power has inspired me to become a more powerful, brave, and forward violinist. My violin gives voice to emotions I can express in no other way.
What is its history?
My five-string violin was made by the excellent luthier John Sullivan from Portland, Oregon. John found out in 2006 that he had esophageal cancer (a difficult one to treat), and decided to make his first five-string violin at that point. He had been researching the idea for 15 years. He had a piece of Italian spruce that was the best piece of tonewood he’d ever seen. He had been aging it for ten years and decided to use it for this violin, which was kind of his swan song.
The violin is called T-bird for the Thunderbird he and his wife Patty saw shortly after he completed it. They thought of it as their child because Patty helped complete it. It’s survived a few disasters while it’s been in my hands, too. The day before we heard John had passed, while I was on my way to play a benefit for his medical bills, the top seam spontaneously came open. The benefit turned out to be a memorial, and luthier Caitlin Pugh, from Schuback Violins, repaired the top in time for the memorial.
The second disaster befell T-bird when I was five months pregnant. I was carrying the violin to its case and I tripped, falling forward. It was a frightening moment—fall on my belly, and risk hurting my baby, or damage the fiddle? I stopped my fall, but the neck of the violin broke off. Fortunately, it was beautifully repaired by Jeff Smith of Portland, Maine.
The accidents that have befallen it have not changed it dramatically—it sounds more beautiful every day.
Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you? Does John resonate in your performance?
I think about John often when I play it. The sort of mystical connection to John that the violin seems to me to have reminds me that I am bringing a dream of his to life every time I play it. Its resonance, warmth, and complexity of tone remind me of its builder, too. He was a quiet man of deep knowledge. His ability to hear the future instrument in the raw wood was remarkable.
I had wished for a five-string violin for a while, since I returned to playing violin after studying viola performance at Peabody Institute. I wanted a more complete range, particularly for the point of musical explorations I was embarking upon, and an instrument I could sing with. Somehow this got mentioned to John. A month or so before the violin was finished, John sent me pictures and told me he was building it, that he’d like me to try it, and that it was intended for me if I wanted it. I feel as though it was pre-ordained.
It took a while to get used to, but we have developed a relationship that will last for my entire playing life.
What is your instrument’s personality?
The instrument is calm, elegant, and powerful. It’s a chameleon and feels at home playing any kind of music.
What are your violin’s strengths and limitations?
One thing I am sometimes reminded of is that a five-string violin isn’t a substitute for a great viola, no matter how fine it is. But its tone has richness and depth, and I look forward to the ways it will continue to deepen in the future. It has a quicker response time than other five-strings I’ve played, but not quite the alacrity of a four-string. It has a wonderful power and clarity, without too much brightness.
What are your instrument’s likes and dislikes?
It likes 45–60 percent humidity—no more, no less. It likes strings on the brighter side. It doesn’t like to be played outside late at night, so I’ve gotten another five-string for that purpose. It loves to play Bach, Biber, impressionistic music, bebop, Romanian music, old-time, Celtic, and bluegrass.
When and how did you truly learn the soul of your Sullivan?
The instrument is constantly evolving and developing a soul. It’s exciting to be the first owner of an instrument, knowing that the music I play on it shapes its personality. However, I’d say that the first glimpses came after I’d had it for about six months, when I had fully adjusted to the physical differences in playing a five-string and had figured out how to really use it.
At that point I wrote a tune on it for the first time, a tune called “Gipsy Who-ha,” which is in a Romanian style. I’d thought it was a more subdued character till that point, but it has some fire and power beneath its elegant exterior.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
“Put the teacup down and come play a tune!”
Originally published in Strings Magazine