Chasing originals

Gerald Trimble: from Kansas City, finding originals through Europe

The fact that Gerald Trimble was born as a rock guitarist in a family of professional swing band players doesn't mean he's not a profound researcher. Research is the muse of his life, and this since his early years when he left university to travel in Ireland and Britain to dive into the roots of the connections between music culture that he felt were strong and evident but still needed to be highlighted. From rock, Gerald already moved to folk, jazz, traditional and early music. Through Celtic music, he arrived at Indian music, where he found his voice thanks to late Acharya Roop Verma, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. He studied vocal music with several other teachers as well. With the guidance of Turkish dance master Bora Özkök, he spent a great deal of time in Turkey and learned to play various Turkish, Persian and Central Asian lutes, including saz, tar and setar. When he found a kemanche, the traditional spike fiddle, he immediately felt comfortable with the underhand technique of bowing.

When he saw the movie “Tous Les Matins du Monde”, the tied frets and bowing style immediately made him think of the eastern instruments he played. As fate would have it, a neighbor man died the next week, leaving several violas da gamba of different sizes, which his widow allowed him to use. 

He had found a new musical calling and devoted his passion to this instrument.

I asked him to tell us how did he find his interest in Violoncello da Spalla, being him a gamba position player.

Paolo Besci's recording of the violoncello piccolo used for the Sixth Suite caught my attention. I had learned to play the quinton and was offered an 18th-century small cello which was sometimes converted to 5 strings. Pursuing this path, I subsequently facilitated the conversion or restoration of a Castagneri, Guersan, anonymous German and Barak Norman. All but the last are now in the hands of other players. The Norman, likely made by Nathaniel Cross for him about 1714, became my favourite. I am grateful to luthiers John Pringle and Andrew Dipper for their excellent work and the chance to gain this much experience with 5 strings.

All these instruments measure from 69-70 cm. While they work pretty well, I always was searching for smaller instruments. This is how I contacted Dmitry Badiarov, who was beginning his work and was extremely encouraging.

Central to my musical vision is the liminal area between cello and viola da gamba. As recent research corroborates, the delineation and classification of these instruments was less standardised before the modern era. It is definitely true, as Christopher Simpson claimed, that violin-shaped bodies are more resonant than classic viol form. It is also very clear that the different sizes of cellos were all bass violins. 

Today, my primary instruments are the five-string Norman/Cross, with frets(which has historical precedent) and a six-string bass violin in six-string viol form, English c.1689, possibly by Edward Lewis. These instruments and the smaller da spalla models offer so many new and versatile creative possibilities, historically informed, yet unexplored. Challenging cello and early music orthodoxy, with corroborative research, they also inspire makers and players alike, with a refreshing lack of standardisation which brings a much needed and fresh musical approach to the music of all eras.

Play any size, in any position, 4, 5 or six strings,  bow underhand or overhand, with or without frets, tuned as you like-but play them! I sure have, and they all work. They all truly are violoncellos, and, like the musicians who play them, each has its own voice, which needs to be heard!

We couldn’t agree more with this total devotion to bring music to life, but how did you step on original da spalla?

Although I play a gamba with underhand bowing, the size and stringing of the violoncello da spalla fit in with my instrument quest. Talking to Dmitry was enlightening, and I was impressed by his friendliness and creativity, respect which continues to this day.

  Before getting the chance to try one of his models, I visited  Rome to collect an instrument from the collection of luthier Claude Lebet. It was a surprise to discover he also owned what was labeled a "child's cello" by Louis Guersan labeled and dated 1751. Knowing that child-size instruments were not common in the baroque era, I told Claude my belief that this was similar to the Badiarov models. The neck had been modernised, and it was fitted with a charming little wooden endpin, but the original scroll with La Fille carved flower was retained. We agreed on a trade for a viole d'amour of mine.

  The instrument, measuring 49 cm, was restored to baroque condition by luthier John Pringle. While the pegbox could accomodate a fifth string, it was decided to leave it in original condition, tempting as it was to convert. This lovely piece was played by me a gamba and proved to be extremely loud and full tuned GDAE or AEAE.

 A  year or so later, in Paris, on the way to a London auction, I was searching for instruments in Rue de Rome. At the well known Le Canu atelier, speaking to Mme. Le Canu, I asked if they had any small early cellos. She produced an instrument from her husband's collection almost identical to the Guersan. Clearly 18th century Vieux Paris work, it bore a label which was also obviously original, but with the etiquette "Petrus Fontanieu", dated 1761. Neither Mme. nor I had any knowledge of such a maker, and there is no historical reference to his existence. Nevertheless, the instrument was definitely of the period and type. She called it a "petite tresor", and it left the shop with me.

   This instrument sat unplayed and unrestored for some years, with a modern neck and pegbox. When Mark Wickersham and I began playing together in my group Jambaroque, he was offered the use of both instruments to complement the modern ones he had begun to experiment with. It was a perfect chance to try a 5 string restoration, again ably done by John Pringle. Mark took to playing it so well that he asked to buy it, and the rest is his story to tell- a journey of discovery with some fascinating history he unearthed about his violoncello, which has led to his becoming an important proponent of the violoncello da spalla. However, these two French instruments were originally named, tuned and played, they both play admirably in their current state.

While I perform mostly on larger original instruments, the adventure of finding these two was delightful and enlightening. They have proven themselves played on the shoulder and the knee, in various tunings, including CGDAE and DGDAD, an accord I developed which has since been demonstrated as historical by recent research. What Mark has accomplished has made the effort even more worthwhile, as he has become a major innovator and player of the instrument, exploring styles far beyond the baroque repertoire.

  The current development of violoncello da spalla is a remarkable creative endeavor that combines historical research and musical creativity. While the debate rages on the specifics of various instruments, there can be no doubt that the baroque era was characterised by unprecedented experimentation, leading to widely diverse instruments, playing techniques and styles. The tyranny of industrial society's demand for standardisation not only stunted this exploration but created a mythology of classification that has obscured the exciting complexity and variety of what came before. No one knows with certainty what exact details of musical life in earlier days, but research supports experimentation. Rigid adherence to modern ideas of historically informed performance, void of imagination and questioning, leads to musicians becoming historical reenactors rather than creative musicians. Balancing the two, emphasising the future, can create a new musical renaissance rooted in the past while looking forward. The violoncello da spalla is one aspect of this emerging artistic movement, and an extremely important one.


News from da Spalla world

Happy Easter, everybody! 

This is a time for church performances. Here in Meltina, due to covid restrictions, masses are held open-air, so with no musicians involved. However, before this decision was taken, we were asked to join the chorus again, as we did last Xmas because they liked the support given by the Violoncello da Spalla to the tenor voices! Hope there will be a chance for Whitsunday! Here a pic from last Xmas!


Updates from our workshop

Quiet times, when you are close to hearing the result of your work, but you cannot but wait that the varnish dries well. I hate when you go and grab your shiny new baby from the luthier, you get home, take it out to show to your dear ones, and the varnish is melted and messed up. I prefer waiting!

Fingerboard and tailpiece too take their time: they put on their oil and go sunbathing. This, to oppose wound strings a strong surface that will not be spoiled in a few hours of playing. 

Meanwhile, Alessandro is cutting the bridge for the Wagner.


Featured video of the week

Greetings from yours truly!