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The Kryonics play Stroh violins
THE KRYONICS were formed in Berlin (recently turned into a theme park for government bureaucrats and rich Bavarians). Their first appearances included one in the legendary Küche (where they played the closing down concert in May 2000, surely that's a current paradigm of anything to do with hard listening, uncompromising live music). The group plays completely acoustic string improvisations, no amplification whatsoever (except for the physics of the instruments themselves). The result is an incredibly personal and intimate kind of music making - like a chemical reaction - sometimes not dissimilar to that potent green stuff that can leak from the back of an unloved refrigerator - but I digress, or do I?

The name Kryonics comes from the process whereby dead people get their bodies deep frozen in the hope that, in 50 or 100 years time, the technology will exist that can bring them back to life - a notion that no one in the Kryonics has the slightest interest in carrying out! However the black humour and stupidity of such an approach to life and death does appeal to the members of the group who find that just going once through a life time to be more than enough.

The acoustic instrumentation of the group does however move into the more surreal areas as the line up of Violin, Viola, and Double Bass is often augmented with the Stroh Violin (a violin with a megaphone horn instead of the normal sound box), a Tenor Violin (sounding an octave lower than the normal violin), and the brain splitting sound of the 'Japanese' one-string fiddle (also armed with a megaphone horn). This gives the music a special overstrung tension, a dark unsettled feeling and a timbral quality that many composers would love to copyright (but they can't have it, so there).

Another aspect of this trio's music is the way in which they deal with the unfashionable notion of pitch. For many in the electronic porridge generation, pitch relationships are something they don't seem able to hear, let alone use. The Kryonics incorporate pitch as a fundamental part of the sonic picture, giving it as much weight as they do timbral and rhythmic elements. Also they are able to let the fingers do the talkin' giving rise to some quite beyond control, three part counterpoint - sort of late Beethoven string quartet Große Fuge on drugs, except there are only three and not four in the group. (Talking of composers, Frigorific on this CD sounds to me like budget Mahler, there also seems to be quite a few nods in the direction of the Second Viennese School of Punishment). Well of course most journalism goes on about what bit reminds them of whoever, but I refuse to do this - eh, except to say that there's that bit on Shiver me Timbres that sounds like a quote from Bernard Hermann.

Otherwise we're talking about three very individual stylists here with a track record in improvised music stretching over the hills and far away, who are prepared to mix and trade it over any unpaid restaurant bill. The insurance policy on their fingers might have run out but I have it on good authority that the music on this CD was recorded in one session, roughly in the order you hear it and with two microphones - so I guess this is about as close as you're ever going to get to the real thing - so if you want to give 'em a gig, feel safe to do so and remember to keep that fridge door shut properly.

(Rosenberg Museum, Slovakia - 2000)

A clarification of instrumentation:


In 1902, three years after it's invention, a very enthusiastic article about the Stroh Violin appeared in the Strand Magazine by D. Donovan who wrote: "Much has been written about what is termed the "reserve" force of a Joseph Guarnerius. As a matter of fact a Stroh Violin has the reserve power of three Josephs, and is as loud as four ordinary violins. The G string is a dream. It possesses the deep rich quality of a fine cello A, but there is no unevenness in the strings. The harmonics are loud and pure, and what is of great importance is an entire absence of scrape... And it will, I venture to predict, in spite of prejudice, ultimately be recognised not only as a triumph of creative skill, but as worthy of taking its place with those instruments which depend for their effect upon attuned strings"Well he was wrong about most of that.

And no wonder D. Donovan was enthusiastic. Masquerading under the pen name of 'Dick Donovan', he churned out cheap novels, detective stories and travel literature. Under his real name of James Edward Preston Muddock, he was Augustus Stroh's representative, and equally enthusiastic: Introducing the Stroh violin to a London audience, he had this to say:

"The vibrations of the strings are conducted by means of an ordinary violin bridge, which rests upon a rocking lever, to the diaphragm and resonator. The lever supporting the bridge oscillates laterally upon the body of the instrument, the end being attached to a diaphragm of aluminum, by a small connecting link. The diaphragm is held in position between two India rubber cushions by means of a specially designed holder fixed upon the body of the violin by two brackets: attached to this holder is the trumpet or resonator. The body or main support of the instrument is in no way employed for sound purposes: it simply holds the various parts of the violin together, and sustains the enormous pressure of the strings when tuned. The disc or diaphragm is perfectly free to vibrate, the result being that when the strings are set in motion by the bow the bridge and rocking lever vibrate accordingly, and thus every vibration is transmitted to the diaphragm. The diaphragm sets in motion the air contained in the resonator, the resonator augmenting and distributing the same to the surrounding atmosphere. The rich, mellow tones supposed to come only after at least a century's playing of a violin requires no forcing. The slightest contact of the bow will bring them forth and make the player imagine himself a far better performer than he really is."
Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, February 1902, "The Stroh Violin" p.356.

The Telegraph said; "but makers of the ordinary violin need not tremble just yet for their livelihood. When the Stroh has taken its place in our chief orchestras and academies - to the exclusion of its wooden ancestor - then perhaps may the shutters begin to go up. Not before."

Augustus Stroh really wasn't bad on advertising. 1902 was the big year... He organised Prof. J.A. Fleming (of electric light fame) to demonstrate it at the Royal Society (1902) at a Christmas lecture for children 'On Waves and Ripples in Air' which finished off with a demo of a violin "which had no body. Instead, it was provided with a corrugated aluminum disc or diaphragm, which took up the vibrations of the strings and in turn threw into vibration the column of air contained in the trumpet-shaped mouth of the instrument."
The Times

"Through the kindness of a lady, (probably his daughter) who played the instrument, the audience was permitted to hear it and judge of its qualities. The new violin certainly had a beautiful tone, and the music was not of a metallic nature as might be expected, though it did not appear to possess any very superior qualities over an ordinary violin of one of the great makers." London Chronicle

The Stroh has all but disappeared from use in the century that followed its invention. It disappeared along with the age of novelty, and music hall, and the early techniques of mechanical recording, for which it was primarily invented. Up until the 1920's, which saw the advent of electrical recording, all sounds had to be directed at a large horn. Stringed instruments were particularly difficult to record then, their sounds being insufficiently directional.

It was the mechanical and inventive genius John Matthias Augustus Stroh (b Frankfurt,1828; d London, 1914) who came up with the brilliant solution: he replaced the body of the violin with a supporting frame or tube parallel with the fingerboard to which he attached a large flexible diaphragm. The violin bridge sits on a metal rocking lever adapted to turn on knife edges and which is rigidly attached to the tube. This lever, in turn, is connected via a rod to the centre of the diaphragm and transmits to it the vibrations of the bowed or plucked strings. A large trumpet shaped horn, attached to the other (lower) side of the diaphragm housing, augments the sound. It is no coincidence that Stroh had also built the first gramophone to be demonstrated in Britain, for the idea of his new instrument originated from the gramophone's sound-box (he also produced an improved version of Edison's phonograph in 1878). Stroh patented the instrument in 1899, significant improvements being made in 1901 when he patented an aluminium diaphragm for it as well as for phonographs and 'analogous sound producing, recording or transmitting contrivances'.

Patented in 1899, yes, but by February 1879 (twenty years earlier) Stroh was already experimenting with 'a new musical instrument dependent on the vibration of a diaphragm' - or as The Times put it, "a new musical machine which will give sweet sounds by the mechanical vibration of a disc." a proto-type Stroh violin twenty years early? It was to have been presented at the Royal Society as part of a part of a paper 'On the Synthetic Examination of Vowel Sounds.', but was finally not quite ready on the night.

An important feature added soon after its invention was a small horn attached to the larger horn or to the diaphragm housing, so that the violinist himself might hear himself better when playing with louder brass instruments - possibly the first monitors in the history of amplified music. Stroh instruments - horned violas, cellos, mandolins, guitars and the ukulele too - were manufactured in London by his son Charles from 1904 -1942.

Charles played a much smaller part, I think. He was out of it by 1909 and his involvement was as a director of the Russell Hunting Record Company, which went broke by 1909, probably then the Stroh production was taken over by Geo. Evans. Anyway, Charles Stroh was dead by 1923. There is much more to Charles; he's an interesting character - I'm still working on some of the detail.

Although first used for recording purposes, Stroh violins became common in the 1920s and 30s among pier bands and dance orchestras as "a last valiant effort to prevent the saxophone from usurping from the fiddle the position as leader of the general dance" (J. Pilling). They also were in use throughout Europe by street and folk musicians including those in England who play for Morris dancing and who have affectionately nicknamed the Stroh violin the 'pornograph'.


Then there were the one-string fiddles also produced by George Evans & Co (not the Stroh Company). Known also as the 'Japanese fiddle', after a Japanese exhibition in London at the end of the 19th century had aroused curiosity in exotic bowed monochords, and marketed as "without question, the simplest stringed instrument in the world to play ", this horned deviant was popularised by George Chirgwin on the music hall stage. Made-up and dressed as, what today would be banned as politically incorrect, a black-faced minstrel called 'The White Eyed Kaffir', he had two hits with his one-string fiddle: 'The Blind Boy' and 'My Fiddle is my Sweetheart'.

Not quite right. He generally played 'The Blind Boy on the cello, 'My Fiddle' on the violin, and 'She Wore a Wreath of Roses' on the one-stringed fiddle or Howson phonofiddle. Odd that it was Howson's Phonofiddle, not the Stroh Jap fiddle that was used by music-hall artists. I have photos of three soloists, and film clips of Rupert Hazell, and another comedy duo, all playing Howson instruments.

The instrument was played with a fierce vibrato and long glides between notes.

Julian Pilling got it wrong. A.T. Howson made the first one-string fiddle with horn in 1906, and Chirgwin introduced it to the public, playing that immortal tune; 'She Wore A Wreath of Roses.' The Stroh one-string Jap fiddle would not have been produced until after 1910.

Japanese fiddles (without horns) were on the music-hall stage by 1871. This was a possible connection with the arrival the first Japanese acrobats (with musicians) in London in 1867? A week later, they also, were performing in the music halls.

The Japan-British exhibition was in 1910, not at the end of the nineteenth century. The popularity of Japan in England had reached its height by 1905; 'little Japan' had just defeated the Russian bear in the Russo-Japanese War. The music halls were full of songs such as 'General Togo's Barn Dance'. It was down hill all the way after 1910...

The popularity of the one-string fiddle had much more to do with Chirgwin than with the Japan-British Exhibition, or any of the earlier passion for things Japanese in Britain.

The KRYONICS use an original Stroh violin; a Stroh 'Japanese' One-String Fiddle, and a Violinofó or Vioara Cu Goarna, made recently in Romania by peasant folk musicians from the Bihar region of Transylvania (it's called a Highèghe if you are Hungarian). Its sound is not up to the volume of the Stroh but it has a unique grainy quality, closer to the sound of a small transistor radio than a violin. The instruments belong to Aleks Kolkowski. A recently restored violinophone from c. 1920 (a cross between a violin and a sousaphone) has recently been added to the collection.

by ALEKS KOLKOWSKI & JON ROSE who are indebted to these sources:Julian Pilling: 'Fiddles with Horns', The Galpin Society Journal, 1975;Patent Office. 1899 & 1901; Keith Prowse & Co. Ltd. Catalogue. c.1925.

The interjections, corrections, and useful comments have been supplied by Stroh researcher and enthusiast Alison Rabinovici.

Our thanks to her.

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