4 September 2023
From Strings to Soundscapes: The Evolution of a Violinist's Sonic Identity
© Oli Sansom
I was sitting in the back seat of our family car, my stomach was in knots as we twisted and turned our way along the Great Ocean Road. I was about nine or ten and prone to car sickness. The only remedy was "Hot Canary" by Pixie Jenkins - an Australian country fiddle player - played over and over until I felt better. It was one of the first pieces of music I taught myself by ear, alongside learning the Suzuki Method of traditional classical music.
That long, winding Great Ocean Road is a good metaphor for my musical career, which spans two decades of taking the scenic route. I've had many stopovers along the way venturing into the spaces between classical, jazz, and musical theatre.
It was my Mum's creativity and abstract way of thinking that encouraged me to look at the violin from different angles. Her medium was visual art and graphic design, mine would be music. Listening to and being influenced by an array of contemporary violinists inspired my own style of violin playing, and my own artistic voice.
When I was still in primary school, my family and I went to different live concerts featuring violinists. The most memorable was at the Geelong Celtic Festival. I saw Irish violinist Martin Hayes perform live with his long-time collaborator, guitarist Dennis Cahill. At one point, the duo played a twenty minute medley of Irish tunes. I remember being struck by the foot-tapping rhythm of it. I had never seen or heard a violinist locked in to a groove and this inspired me beyond words. Mum enrolled me in Celtic violin lessons and I began learning several traditional tunes by ear, oftentimes playing at exceptionally quick tempos.
By the time I was in high school I had discovered jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. The first piece of music to tug at my heart strings was his version of "Killing Me Softly" performed live at a concert at Dallas Brooks Hall in 1975. Mum had found it on vinyl at a record store and I remember sitting there listening to this beautiful piece of music, immediately trying to replicate Grappelli's treatment of the melody. The way he applied vibrato to a natural harmonic, and his wistful interpretation of the melody was influential. My sister Meg had just started learning to play the double bass. Part of her learning included jazz bass lines and joining the school stage bands. This kind of opportunity wasn't extended to violinists, so I had to find my own way in to that world. Meg and I would learn jazz standards together, walk down to the local pizza restaurant and play background music to their diners. It was one of our first jobs and a great way for me to develop my improvisation skills. With years of Irish fiddle tunes under my belt, I could apply my love of rhythm and groove to this new world of jazz that I was discovering.
Throughout my high school years, I was doing my classical AMEB grades, playing manouche jazz gigs at house auctions and cafes, and I was learning from jazz violinist Nigel MacLean. I was also playing in a school ensemble called Latin Strings. This is when I fell in love with the music of Astor Piazzolla, and in particular, Argentine violinist Fernando Suárez Paz. Piazzolla's compositions were extremely sophisticated while also being full of passion and grit. As well as being heavily notated and technically challenging, there were moments of improvisation and freedom. This was my dream music to play. The way that Paz would hit and tap and scratch his instrument, as well as using romantic slides and sul ponticello to create interesting textures was eye-opening and became an integral part of my developing voice and contemporary violin pedagogy.
Although I was listening to jazz, Irish, Argentinian tango and classical music throughout my formative years, I also grew up on a healthy dose of pop music. The Corrs, Spice Girls and dance music featured heavily in my life as a young person. This inspired me to write my own songs. I formed bands and began to play gigs at The Espy in St Kilda. By this stage I was jamming with drummers and loud guitarists. The acoustic violin was limiting. An integral part of developing my sound was influenced by my very first semi-acoustic instrument made by Australian luthier Paul Davies (Spur Violins). Mum had saved up for a year to buy me a violin that I could plug into an amp to be heard over loud instruments. This was the beginning of my journey into the world of electric guitar effects pedals.
Unlike guitarists who have a plethora of role models and teachers, violinists are often alone in their pursuit of amplification and electronic effects. Mostly, violin teachers are discouraging of that sort of experimentation. So I ventured off on my own. I remember getting on stage at The Espy one night, plugging my semi-acoustic violin into my new bright orange turbo distortion pedal and blasting the audience with way too much feedback that I couldn't control. It took me twelve months to dare to use it again. My experience was slow and full of mistakes and frustration, but it meant that I was thorough.
During my years studying jazz and improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts, I learnt more about combining the violin with electronics from listening to violinists such as Jean Luc Ponty, Miri-Ben Ari and Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR). One year, DBR came to perform in Australia and I was lucky enough to attend one of his workshops with fellow Melbourne jazz violinist Tamil Rogeon. DBR was performing with a DJ improvising loops and riffs influenced by hip hop music and using electronic effects. Playing with DBR and having him challenge my way of playing blew my mind. Playing music with other improvising contemporary violinists opened my eyes to ways of incorporating improvisation and jazz with popular music.
My approach to contemporary violin playing started to evolve into something more distinct. I used glissandi, double stops and chopping, sul ponticello, natural and artificial harmonics and extended techniques of tapping, hitting, knocking and striking the belly and fingerboard of my violin. I was using electric guitar effects pedals such as delay, reverbs, overdrive and fuzz as well as composing songs and pieces on a loop station. I was creating something unique and innovative.
Fortunately, my unconventional skill set had equipped me for what lay ahead. I got a call to perform in the Malthouse production of Woyzeck featuring Tim Rogers with music by violinist Warren Ellis and singer Nick Cave. I had never worked in theatre before, and so this experience opened many doors. During that time I was playing eight shows a week of distorted, overdriven grooves with beautiful, single line violin melodies in a theatre; I was whisked off to play a spontaneous gig at Golden Plains with You Am I; and I was playing Thursday nights at The Rainbow Hotel with cacophonous cabaret band Martin Martini and the Bone Palace Orchestra. This is a great snapshot of what my musical career is even to this day.
In a country that suffers from cultural cringe, that celebrates music from the past more than its present and that spends more money seeing tribute shows than original music, being an original and independent artist is tough going. If I had chosen one path - perhaps the life of a jazz violinist - I would be struggling creatively and financially. It has been the opportunity to play violin across a myriad musical genres that has helped me thrive. Just this year I have played Celtic-influenced music on acoustic violin for hit musical Come From Away, I have played indie-pop-folk violin with artists such as Jess Hitchcock and Clare Bowditch, and I have composed and performed music on five-string electric violin with live looping for a new independent theatre production. In amongst that I have also written, performed, co-produced and co-recorded my own electronic dance music-inspired solo album called An Inaccurate History of Electronic Dance Music. It is a lot to expect of an artist. But it is increasingly non-negotiable as streaming platforms devalue music.
I have seen people's interaction with recorded music change over time to more of a background activity. So I am curious as to whether I can do more to enhance the live experience by working with developing technology. This month I will be exploring quadraphonic sound whereby audience and performer are immersed in music coming from four separate speakers (instead of two). Music and sound is an important part of cinematic and gaming experiences, oftentimes in surround sound. I am interested to test this on my audience in a live music concert.
This is just another stop off at a look out along that Great Ocean Road; the scenic route of my musical life. Where I am headed I can't know for sure, but there is so much to see along the way.
© Australian Music Centre (2023) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Winner of Best Musician at the 2022 Music Victoria Awards, contemporary violinist, artist, and songwriter, Xani Kolac makes distinct, improvised music for live performance and theatre, venturing into the spaces between pop, jazz, electronic and folk.
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