Romy Ash meets ex­ploratory mu­si­cian Lizzy Welsh

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“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.”

ROMY ASH is a nov­el­ist. Her first book, Floun­der­ing, was short­listed for the Miles Franklin award.

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