It is rare on meetings with Harry Vatiliotis that a joke of some kind is not told. Most could not be published here, but a recent pithy piece of wit went like this: What does an agnostic, dyslectic, insomniac worry about at night? The answer: Is there a Dog? For some reason, this had me in stitches. Then again, it captured much of the character of Australia’s great violin maker. Harry (Charambalos Andreas) Vatiliotis is a born rebel and enjoys extracting large amounts of urine from religious, political, and cultural elites—and the classical music world of violins and violinists is full of those.
I’ve known Harry since 1976 when I first arrived on these shores and needed a violin bow re-haired.
Harry migrated to Australia in 1952. Despite having left school at twelve years old, he learnt English in six months and got a job as a machinist at the NSW Railways workshops at Eveleigh (now ironically rebranded as the art centre Carriageworks). A natural craftsman of tools and instruments, he was persuaded by a workmate to show some of his creations to violin luthier Arthur Smith, who immediately took Harry on as apprentice. As the story goes, Harry was asked to work on some initial aspects of violin making. A week later, he turns up with a finished instrument ready to go.
Over 800 string instruments later, and at the age of 85, Harry is still producing, although due to a few health issues not at the speed of his previous output. In that grand sum of sonic creations, there are also 76 cellos and violas, as well as 8 double basses. Plus there are extra instruments that don’t fit into the straight jacket of the classical music canon, such as the two tenor violins that he made for me (one a Hardanger-like instrument with four sympathetic strings through the bridge), instruments that test the physical limits and acoustics of violin technology. Several steps to the the left of that are a number of experimental bicycle-powered instruments that he and I (with the substantial contribution of friend Paul Bryant) conjured up for a project named Pursuit. Paul’s profession is dentistry, and whenever I mention this tidbit publicly before a performance of Pursuit, it normally raises a laugh. (The symbiotic relationship of experimental music and dentistry has yet to become a suitable subject for academic research.) A number of our apparitions have been tested on Harry’s street where he has lived for over 60 years. As the bicycle-powered kitchen sink passed by one elderly neighbour’s house, the startled resident ran into the street shouting No, no – not possible – no!’
So, how good are Harry’s violins? The short answer is very good indeed. And he sells them at prices that almost any student or young professional can afford. On the open market and going by sound alone, they are worth five times what Harry charges. Of course, that won’t interest those whose job it is to see that expensive Italian violins continue to inflate the market as antiques. Since 1974, the experts in the field have repeatedly conducted blindfold tests, but top modern instruments win out every time.
This is from an ‘Ockham’s Razor’ broadcast on ABC-RN back in 2007:
As any honest violin dealer will tell you (and there are a few), the sound of a violin can be priced in a range from $50 (bad but playable), to $5,000 (good-sounding), to $50,000 (extremely good tone and projection), to $100,000 (overpriced). The rest is snotty-nosed hubris. As has been proven on a number of occasions, most notably by the BBC in 1974, a well-made, top modern violin can sound just as good if not better than the prized Golden Age models. In a recording studio and behind a screen, the violins of Isaac Stern, Charles Beare, and Pinchas Zukerman were played back to them. The instruments were a Strad, a Guarneri del Gesù, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (a modern instrument less than a year old). None of the esteemed violin experts had a clue which violin was which. Furthermore, most of them couldn’t even tell which was their own instrument.
In 2003, the Texas A & M University biochemist and violin maker Nagyvary set up a blind test duel between one of his recently finished instruments and a Strad. On Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in D, 57 music experts picked the Strad, 129 were not sure, and 290 got it wrong (in the sense that they picked the modern instrument over the ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ Strad).
Every few years since then an attempt is made to ‘get it right’.
Harry has had some fun with this nonsense and occasionally has ‘repaired’ a priceless antique violin and lent it to an unsuspecting violinist for their favourable reception …only for the violinist to discover that it is a modern instrument delightfully fabricated in musty garb and made by Harry himself. I hasten to add that Harry has never tried to launch such a fake onto the market for financial gain – entertainment only. Harry’s wife Maria observes these dubious activities with a certain resignation of ‘Oh, Harry!’ and a look which roughly translates as ‘boys will be boys’.
There used to be a secondhand music shop on Park Street just over from The Sydney Town Hall. Browsing there one day, I came across a really good sounding viola with bow and bought it immediately for a bargain $60. I rushed over to Harry to show him my discovery. He took one look at it and said it was stolen property and worth several thousand dollars. He had just received notification of the theft. So, I contacted the owner, the police were called, the case solved, viola returned to Conservatorium student. Harry is not a dealer. He is a maker. Sometimes makers become dealers too, and that can create problems of the more unsavoury kind. Harry’s hands in this respect are clean as a whistle. He has created what he calls ‘a niche’ in violin cosmology where he is trusted and admired for his skill, honesty, and humanity.
Around 1985, I made a radiophonic piece for ABC radio called Anatomy of the Violin. In it I interviewed Harry while he sat at his work desk manipulating the magic of those seventy pieces of wood that constitute a violin. Watching Harry measuring, cutting, shaping, sanding, gluing, and clamping with the acute eye of an eagle, the hand coordination of a Heifetz, and the ear of historical knowledge as he tests the front and back plates for the revealed tones, I felt I was observing an artist at work rather than an artisan. In non-Western music, the processes of initial instrument creation and sonic re-creation are often held in common. For example, in the building of the Gamelan, the instrument maker not only creates the sound but decides on the actual pitches of each gong, too. Hence, each gamelan has its own unique musical components. In the same way that no one yet fully understands the differing cognitive processes that go with the playing of each category of instrument (whether it be Idiophone, Aerophone, Membranophone, or Chordophone), so with the skills of instrument making. A luthier is the creator of ‘the sound’ as much as the instrumentalist. (Unfortunately, the brilliant work of Carleen Hutchins in developing an octet of violin instruments demonstrates the lack of interest from classical musicians in exploring extended acoustic possibilities – there are only three sets of these amazing instruments still operative).
Harry works within the tradition, using woods that have been sourced for generations (maple for back plate and spruce for front plate). In that sense, and only that sense, his approach to violin making maintains the tradition. It is also a smart move: the rank and file violinist in search of an instrument demands that the parameters are set and adhered to. If Harry wants to do something ‘creative’ (his words not mine), he will remove himself from those constraints and go off-message.
On one occasion, I was having trouble accessing the more inaccessible parts of my Nineteen-String Violoncello (yes, nineteen strings, back and front). My bows were too long and thin. With a sideways glance, Harry stepped out into his backyard, found a piece of apple tree branch, brought it to his work bench and in a few minutes had fashioned a short stubby bow. Utilising a wad of used bow hair, the result conjured up the beginnings of bow technology itself, the most suitable weapon for the job of exciting strings through and below the bridge on my hacked cello (and the bow, my Dear Reader, is a weapon).
Romano Crivici is an excellent violinist, composer, and pianist. He shares with me a love of Harry and his work. Through his years in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and running his Elektra String Quartet, he has purchased several Vatiliotis violins. Romano and director Carla Thackrah are currently producing a film in honour and celebrating the life and work of Harry. You can follow the progress of this movie here.
It is a deeply moving tribute and full of the violin maker’s wit, self-deprecation, the love of the love of his life Maria, political remarks, wry philosophical observations, and a running commentary (he is an atheist) on the meaning of existence (if you’re currently in need of one).
Jon Rose was born in Rochester, UK and is an Australian citizen. His primary life's work is The Relative Violin. This is the development of a total artform based around the one instrument – it includes innovation in the fields of new instrument design, environmental performance, new instrumental techniques, radiophonic works, and the development of inter-active electronics.
He is featured regularly in the main festivals of New Music, Jazz, performance and Sound Art such as Ars Elektronica, Festival D’Automne, Maerzmusik, Dokumenta, North Sea Jazz Fest, New Music America, the Vienna Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival, Moers Festival, The Melbourne Festival, The Sydney Festival, etc.
Jon Rose has appeared on over 100 albums and CD's; he has worked with many of the innovators and mavericks in contemporary music such as Kronos String Quartet, Derek Bailey, Alvin Curran, Otomo Yoshihide, Ilan Volkov, Christian Marclay, or John Zorn.
In 2012 Jon was honoured with The Music Board of The Australia Council's senior prize – the Don Banks Award for a life-time's achievement and contribution to Australian music. His book about the state of music today "Music of Place: Reclaiming a Practice" was published by Currency House Press (2013). Jon Rose curates his own violin museum of over a 1,000 artefacts - The Rosenberg Museum.