Violinist Lizzy Welsh talks before her rehearsal for the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. By Romy Ash.

Exploratory musician Lizzy Welsh

“I love my violin so much. The relationship with it is sometimes alarmingly human-like. It’s sort of like this precious child that I have to protect but, then, my violin reminds me of a grumpy old man,” says Lizzy Welsh as she cracks open her instrument case. From beneath a purple cloth threaded with gold, she removes a violin.

“We think it was made in the 1770s, in or around Florence, but it is unlabelled, which is good, because I couldn’t have afforded it if it was labelled. If it was more certain what it was, it would have been much more expensive,” she says.

Welsh holds the violin out to me, showing me where it has been altered, the lines like scars that reveal how it’s changed over the past couple of hundred years. 

“It looks a bit like an old man, don’t you think?” she says, cocking her head and laughing. “All wrinkled, cracked. And some days I feel like we’re getting along really well and other days I feel like we’re cranky with each other. These instruments have a presence. It sounds a little bit off with the fairies to say something like that, but they have so much history. This instrument has been loved by so many people, over such a long time.”

This isn’t Welsh’s only instrument. She’s a musician whose areas of speciality are early music and new music. She plays early music – music from about 1600 to 1800 – on a baroque violin, and she plays new music on her modern violin – the old-man violin she has in front of us now. But she explains what she’s most interested in is commissioning pieces in the style she usually plays on the modern violin, but to be performed on the baroque violin – an instrument “with a totally different sound world”.

She explains this sound world: “The main difference is that the strings they used in the Baroque era were made out of gut. They feel much more organic, they feel kind of like leather – and they sound more organic. A steel string sounds more bright, clear, immediate, but a gut string you have to coax the sound out of it, and it’s a much more mellow and complex sound. A steel string sounds much more electronic in comparison.”

The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, in the first weekend of September and of which she is an associate, gives her a chance to program music of this sort, as well as perform it. The festival exposes Australian audiences to a range of unheard, new music. “We call it exploratory music. This sort of music is often called experimental music, but I like the idea of ‘exploratory music’ because it’s much more inviting to an audience,” she says.

Welsh wears her violin case as a backpack as we walk together to a studio where she’s rehearsing. Down a Collingwood back alley wet with puddles from last night’s deluge, she stops at a door and knocks. Inside is a studio made of mudbricks and warm wood. We head into the control room.

She says, “I can show you some of the preparations I like to do, bits and bobs, they’re really fun. I have this little box of tricks that I keep in my case, and it’s got little things for picking at the strings and it’s got Blu Tack and paperclips and mutes…” She pulls an old red tobacco tin out, and inside there’s a strange collection of small items, a bit like what you’d find at the bottom of a desk drawer.

“Blu Tack’s my favourite sound. It sounds like you’ve put the violin under water,” she says. “We’re using Blu Tack in one of the performances pieces at [Bendigo] this year, a piece by an Iranian composer, Anahita Abbasi, and it’s just so beautiful.”

She places a little ball of Blu Tack on the string, pressing it down slightly, and then she plucks the string. “Isn’t that great?” she says and runs the bow slowly over the Blu Tack-ed string. It makes this long scratchy sound she describes as like the sound of an aeroplane. She plays it again, and I can hear it, the faraway engine coming closer and then down to land.

On a typical day she has her violin in her hand upwards of six hours. “I would usually start off doing some bowing exercises – it’s probably very loud for you –” The sound of the violin fills the room and it is loud. She has an aura of intense concentration as she looks down her arm at the violin.

“And then I do scales.” She plays a note, travelling from low to the highest pitch. “And that goes on and on – and then I usually try and play some J. S. Bach every day. He wrote these extraordinary pieces for solo violin in the 1740s, I think. They’re just really excellent and they’re good for warming me up, and they’re good for warming up my grandpa violin as well.”

She plays Bach and her body leans into the music. She pauses and plays something else, a series of notes that are high and harsh. They sound wild but somehow contained at the same time. It’s from a piece called “Dead Ocean” she’s had commissioned for the festival. She doesn’t press the strings down fully – describing it as arpeggiated harmonics.

She shows me the sound of quarter tones: “I’m playing in between the notes of the piano. They sound out of tune, but they’re actually in tune. When I practise scales, I practise three-quarter-tone scales because in new music we don’t just play tones and semitones anymore. A lot of violinists might not know that their instrument can do these things. That’s the part of exploratory music that’s most interesting. There are almost limitless things that you can do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "Strings theory".

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