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Old 06-29-2013, 02:01 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Central Asian Origins of the Violin

The double bass is a fairly recent instrument but it has a long history of antecedents going back to Africa and Central Asia where the original stringed instruments were hunters’ and warriors’ bows being plucked during ceremonies. To make them louder, the bows were rested on tortoise shells or large gourds (although they often used their mouths as chambers as many tribesmen still do). Eventually, the bows were permanently attached to the shell or gourd. Of course, this bow was no use in hunting or warfare and so became a strictly ceremonial bow to be brought out and played only during the ceremonies and hence a reverence was attached to this ceremonial bow and the first stringed instrument was born.



Eventually, the ceremonial musical bow acquired extra strings and larger resonance chambers. The bows were first plucked with the fingers but then running another bow against it string-to-string at right angles to get a sustained tone rather than just a quick one became the forerunner of the viols and violins although does not appear to have happened in Africa but on the Asian continent. Even today, we call the implement that we draw across the strings a bow—because that is what it once was. Even the pouch attached to the bass tailpiece that one places the bow in when not in use is called a quiver.



Bowstrings were made from sheep intestines in Central Asia while the strings of the double bass were also originally made from sheep intestines and called “gut strings.” Further evidence of the connection between stringed instruments and hunting bows is that the “ribbon” of the violin bow is made from the hairs of a stallion’s tail. This indicates that bows were originally made by tribes that had access to horses of some kind. Central Asians were tremendous horsemen. In Africa, there are a number of native horses other than the zebra that came from the Arabs and the Barbs. Also the rosin used on the bow hairs to make them grip the string is also used on the Central Asian hunter’s bowstrings to preserve them and is mixed with beeswax and worked into the bow itself as a preservative just as rosin is mixed with drying oil and solvent and used to varnish the bodies of violins to preserve them.

The oldest bowed instrument is believed to have originated about 6000 years ago in Sri Lanka during the Hela civilization under the rule of King Ravan (there is a lot of debate today as to whether the island of Sri Lanka was meant or a region of western India). Named after Ravan, the instrument is now known as the ravanahatha or ravanahatta. The -hatha (-hatta) suffix means something that is played with the hands. The resonance chamber was made from a coconut shell or gourd with a diaphragm of animal skin upon which is mounted a bridge. The tubular neck or dandi is made from bamboo. There are a number of metal sympathetic strings (up to 13) that are unbowed that pass up the dandi tube under the bridge and vibrate whenever the main string is played. There are two primary strings—one steel reference string and one bowed string made from horsehair which passes over the bridge (the reference string does not). The horsehair string is the only playable string. The bow is also horsehair.



Bowed instruments enjoyed a burst of popularity about the 10th century in Central Asia into China along the Silk Road and the first bowed instrument of Central Asia may have been invented by the Kazakhs and called a kylkobyz. Whether any of the Central Asian bowed instruments were inspired by the ravanahatta is not known but, by 1000 CE, bowed instruments were found from North Africa to all the way to the Korean peninsula. Below, a kylkobyz (the word "kyl" means "horse's tail"):



The nomads of Central Asia strung their bows with sheep gut—one of the reasons they herded sheep—and the earliest violins were strung with sheep gut also (hence the term “gut strings”). To smooth the gut strings down, they rubbed them vigorously with braids of horsehair. In fact, among violinists and double bassists, gut strings are still often preferred to metal ones. So the connections are still there. Who was the first nomad to pluck a bow and who was the first to rub to bows against each other at right angles is, of course, unknown but eventually the one bow retained its shape while the other, having a gourd or coconut shell attached to it for amplification, became the instrument body.

Mongolian musician plays morin khuur of which the strings are made from horsehair—one string from a stallion’s tail (130 hairs) and the other a mare (105 hairs) and can be tuned fourths or fifths apart. The name “morin khuur” means “fiddle with a horse’s head” and is the official national instrument of Mongolia.



A closeup of the headstock of a morin khuur (below). If this does not drive home the connection of horses to bowed instruments, what does?



The kemenche or Arabic violin has silk strings played with a horsehair bow. The strings are usually metal today. It is sometimes called a “spiked fiddle” because of the spike protruding from the bottom of the resonance chamber (usually a gourd or coconut shell covered with goat or fish skin for a diaphragm). This instrument is found in variations from Europe (cello and double bass), across Asia and into Japan (the kokyu) and Indonesia (the rebab). The strings were likely originally horsehair but contact with the Chinese caused the Arabs to switch over to the more durable silk strings.

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Old 06-29-2013, 02:02 PM   #2 (permalink)
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The er-hu of China. “Er-hu” means “two-stringed barbarian instrument” indicating that the Chinese inherited it from Central Asian nomads. The two strings were originally made of silk but are now metal and tuned fifths apart. The bow is made from horsehair and interlocks with the strings and cannot be separated from them. The diaphragm is made from python skin upon which is mounted a bridge. Korean fiddles are similar to the Chinese.



The talharpa was popular in Scandinavia but now played mainly by the Swedish population of Estonia. Played with a horsehair bow, the talharpa may have had horsehair strings at one time as the instrument is also called a tegelharpa where “tegel” means “tail hairs.”



The jouhikko of Finland (below) has horsehair strings and is played with a horsehair bow. The jouhikko looks very similar to the talharpa and both instruments obviously have the same genesis. The middle string is a drone.





The kantele (above) is another zither from Finland although it is not bowed. In the Finnish creation epic called Kalevela, the first kantele was made from the jawbone of a giant pike fish by the sage/hero Väinämöinen. The strings were provided by the tail hairs of a stallion belonging to a spirit-being called Hiisi. Modern kanteles can have up to 40 metal strings. In Scandinavia there are tribes as the Lapps, a.k.a. Saami, who inhabit Lapland, a region they call Sápmi in far northern Scandinavia (which includes northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula) and who herd wild Basjkir horses from the Urals (as well as sheep and reindeer) and make a fermented beverage called koumiss from mare’s milk same as the Central Asian nomads (and which is widely available in markets throughout Mongolia). There is little doubt that the Scandinavians inherited these instruments from such nomads.



The Saami (pictured above) are varying combinations or Mongolian, Turkish, Rus and Scandinavian bloods and vary widely in physical appearance and phenotype.

From Wales, the crwth (pronounced "croot") is a six-string bowed harp played with a horsehair bow (below). It differs from the talharpa and jouhikko in that the crwth has a fingerboard. The instrument appears to be very similar to an instrument found in Egyptian art dating back to 1900 BCE although the Egyptians used a long plectrum rather than a horsehair bow. This instrument likely came to Europe through the Arabs or Moors. Its genesis may not have come from Central Asia as the convention of bow-use appears to have been a later development.



In Africa, the fingerboards retained the curve of the bow and became the earliest harps but in Central Asia the bow and gourd became a single piece of wood and the bow was straightened into a fingerboard so it could be fingered to change the pitch of the strings. Below, An African lute that still retains the shape of the hunter's bow and is the antecedent of the harp.



Eric Halfpenny also notes that the bridge of the violin and viol instruments in the various Central Asian tongues mean "horse" and even resemble a horse in abstract:



Nor can we neglect the importance of bees. The Central Asian nomads as well as the Turks and Rus were avid beekeepers and used the wax to make rosin which is necessary to put on the bow hairs so that they will grip the string but they also worked it into the wood of their instruments to preserve them. The stringed instruments they played often sound very bee-like in quality as the string warbles in tone.

So let us "bow" to our Central Asian ancestors and thank them for the bowed instruments without which the world's musical vocabulary would be very poor indeed. And let us also thank the horse, tree, sheep and bee for providing us the materials and even the sounds we first sought to emulate with these instruments.
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Old 06-29-2013, 04:58 PM   #3 (permalink)
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This reminds me of The Red Violin movie...



Plot

The film frames the history of the "Red Violin" around a Canadian auction in 1997, where the violin is at the center of multiple bids by interested parties, and a tarot card reading in 1681, where a violinmaker's wife has her future read for herself and her unborn child (and, by extension, that of the violin).
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Old 06-29-2013, 07:56 PM   #4 (permalink)
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The movie was loosely based on a novel written by John Hersey, himself an orchestral violinist, called Antonietta. In this story, Antonio Stradivari builds a violin for a beautiful widow that he intends to marry named Antonia and names it after her in the diminutive. Then we follow it as it passes from one owner to the next. Mozart encounters it in France, Berlioz later becomes captivated by it. Stravinsky after that and so on.

In The Red Violin (which I have on DVD), it isn't strongly hinted at but Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson's character) is Niccolo Bussotti reincarnated. He is entranced by the violin but can't really say why but he keeps getting strange flashes of memory although he is not sure what they mean but he acts on them as when his young assistant (who is actually a co-writer of the screenplay) starts to do a sonic test on the violin and Morritz suddenly gets a flash of Niccolo's wife gasping in pain as she goes into her miscarriage and yells at the assistant to stop it.

Also Morritz and Niccolo have the same character--very knowledgeable in their fields but also somewhat arrogant, abrasive men. If you do something to tick them off--and that could be anything really--they'll just go off on you. And they are both rather bossy and brusque with people. Then Morritz actually steals the violin and tells his daughter over the phone that he is bringing her a present--he presents the violin to his child which, as Niccolo, he was unable to do because of the miscarriage. All these centuries later, he is finally going to get it right. Somehow, Morritz, knows the violin is his and he MUST have it. That's not suggested in the movie and so Morritz's actions seem rather weird.

I am disappointed that there was no sequel. At some point, Mr. Russelsky, who thinks he bought it at the auction, is going to realize he was swindled and he is going to figure out who did it. That Chinese man at the auction is the young boy now grown up and at one point he told his wife to stop bidding and she asks, "Are you sure?" That tells me that he knows it wasn't the real Red Violin. Now all the parties who were in on the bidding--the Pope Society, the monks, the Chinese couple, Russelsky, etc.--all realize the real Red Violin is still out there and now all bets are off. Each is determined to get it this time.

It could make a fantastic movie if it's done right. I'm surprised it never happened.
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Old 07-02-2013, 11:52 PM   #5 (permalink)
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^It was way sad; I almost can't stand to watch it... Good thing it's not a true story.

[...]The kantele (above) is another zither from Finland although it is not bowed. In the Finnish creation epic called Kalevela, the first kantele was made from the jawbone of a giant pike fish by the sage/hero Väinämöinen. The strings were provided by the tail hairs of a stallion belonging to a spirit-being called Hiisi.[...]
What year did they make these?..
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Old 07-03-2013, 10:02 AM   #6 (permalink)
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I don't know. A few centuries, at least, I would guess,

If you want to see a really sad movie that also has some connection to stringed instruments--cello in this case--check out a Japanese movie called "Okuribito" or "Departures." Superb acting and it will make you cry. Had me blinking back tears and I'm Mr. Macho Silent Type.
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Old 07-03-2013, 04:31 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CrazyVegn View Post
You are definitely a gentleman and underrated member here.
...what?
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Old 07-03-2013, 04:46 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TheBig3 View Post
...what?
Quote:
Originally Posted by Lord Larehip View Post
I don't know. A few centuries, at least, I would guess,

If you want to see a really sad movie that also has some connection to stringed instruments--cello in this case--check out a Japanese movie called "Okuribito" or "Departures." Superb acting and it will make you cry. Had me blinking back tears and I'm Mr. Macho Silent Type.
This is not typical, IMO, TheBig3. What do you think?
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Old 07-03-2013, 08:23 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Vegn you are on drugs me thinks. At OP great thread. Didnt read all of it but most. Will finish later.
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Old 07-04-2013, 02:04 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Vegn you are on drugs me thinks. At OP great thread. Didnt read all of it but most. Will finish later.
Fvck now I cant stop laughing at myself and this thread, LOL omfg
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