Knowledge Exchange Violin 2023

Posted on January 30th, 2023 by

Knowledge Exchange Violin 2023 

Continuing the project  – Knowledge Exchange Violin 2022

Supported by Research England/Royal Academy of Music London

Peter Sheppard Skaerved playing the ‘Pierre Rode’ Stradivari, Ashmolean Museum Oxfor 27 1 2023

Oxford, Stradivari, New York, Farnham (29 1 23)

On Friday 27th January, I returned to my ‘Knowledge Exchange Violin’ project, which occupied much of my attention for the second half of 2022 (Links to Part 1, Part 2). I spent the day with filmmaker Malene Skaerved, Cameraman Immo Horn and Sound Engineer Adaq Khan at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, filming on the astonishing decorated violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1722. Here is a LoFi glimpse of the work, duetting with Immo Horn, and playing Michael Alec Rose’s ‘Rode Trip’ which was written for this violin, and for this project.

Here are Michael’s thoughts on this wonderful piece, and it’s powerful link to Beethoven:

When Peter Sheppard Skærved first mentioned to me that he was collaborating with the Ashmolean to record a program of music at the museum on Pierre Rode’s magnificent violin, I was delighted.  When he went on to say that he wanted me to compose something for the project, my delight turned into panic, the panic into lyrical trance, the lyrical trance into the music you are going to hear.
Knowing that Beethoven composed his last sonata for piano and violin—the Opus 96 in G Major—for Pierre Rode’s instrument was what sent me into this altered state.  I have loved this sonata for so long.  I can’t begin to calculate how many times its opening melody has threaded its way into my daydreaming, how deeply the entire piece has inspired my own compositional outlook, how steadily and serenely the Rode sonata has helped me through various troubles over the years.
How could I possibly show my gratitude for all that?
There is a way, and it’s the only way, for it is exactly the way Beethoven showed his gratitude: by envisioning the many roads which various persons must travel in order for any music to become possible in the first place.  Beethoven’s compositional imagination is constantly motivated by wayward journeys, unforeseen detours, unpredictable arrivals.  My violin piece for the Ashmolean is called Rode Trip for more than one good reason.  I only wish I could be with you today, and with Pierre, and Ludwig, and Peter, and the ingenious curators of the Ashmolean.
Michael Alec Rose


Filming in the Cast Rooms of the Ashmolean Museum, 27 1 23

My exploration of historic instruments in collections of both sides of the Atlantic is a central plank of this project. Every violin and viola, and bow, is unique, teaches me more and inspires me more.

On Friday, I can’t deny that there was, is, an especial excitement to be recording at the Ashmolean, for at least two reasons. In many ways, this is the museum where it all starts. This is Britain’s first public museum.[3] Its first building was erected in 1678–1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677. Elias Ashmole had, if truth be told, extorted the collection of gardeners, travellers, and collectors John Tradescant the Elder and his son, John Tradescant the Younger. At that time, this ‘cabinet of curiosties’ included ancient coins, a library, engravings, geological specimens, and zoological specimens—including a Dodo. There’s an especial charge in the fact that this collection, and this place, which really defined what a museum would be, was founded at the same moment that the instruments I am exploring, from the Amati Family and Stradivari, were reaching a high point.

And the second excitement is precisely that – instruments. For string players and violin makers, the Ashmolean is holy ground. In 1939 the first instrument to be presented to the museum as the first instalment of the ‘Hill Gift’, twenty great instruments, was followed in 1940 , on the death of Alfred Hill, by the 1716 Stradivarius ‘Le Messie’ (The Messiah), generally agreed to be the most important, and immaculate

David Boyden’s 1969 catalogue of the ‘Hill Gift’ in the Ashmolean Museum, and the exhibition book of the 2014 major Stradivarius Exhibit at the museum

example of his work. In 1946 this was followed by the inlaid ‘Cipriani Potter’ Strad and instruments by the Amatis. This is the most significant collection of important 16th, 17th and 18th century stringed instruments, and most importantly, the instruments are never played. Like many violinists, I grew up dreaming of this place, and these instruments, and devoured the Hill’s 1902 ‘Antonio Stradivari-His life and Work’.

So there is an especial thrill, not only to be filming in this place, but to be playing a violin from the collection, or rather, housed in the collection, the astonishing 1722 Stradivari owned by Pierre Rode. This violin is on loan from the Segelmann Foundation, and can be played, and I am the first person to have the opportunity to film in depth with the instrument. There is a lot more that I will say about this, in the coming days. Suffice to say, for now, that I made a careful choice of what to play. In addition to the wonderful piece which Michael Alec Rose wrote for the violin, I chose works from the Stradivari’s era (Torelli, Vilsmayr, Telemann), by Tartini (written after Stradivari’s death) and by composers associated with Paris where Rode, and his teacher Viotti, were very much responsible for bringing the instruments of Stradivari (in converted form) into the public eye (Rousseau, Viotti, Rode, Baillot, Kreutzer).

In the meantime, the first edits have begun to arrive from New York, of the films that I made for the Metropolitan Museum on  five of the instruments there, as part of the Autumn run of Knowledge Exchange Violin projects. Here is a podcast from that project – in conversation with curator Bradley Strauchen and composer Michael Alec Rose.

Still from the film of Peter playing the 1683 ‘Gould’ Stradivari ( in baroque set up) at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, Autumn 2022

The highly elaborate decorative scheme of the ‘Rode’ Stradivari raises a host of aesthetic questions and also reaches out to the natural world that is such an important element of ‘Knowledge Exchange Violin’. For the ribs and scroll of this violin are painted with curling tendrils and fronds of plants which morph into clearly carnivorous, toothed heads, which wind around eagles, dolphins and two hunting dogs. The natural beauty of the wood of this violin, which has a glorious one-piece back, is of course, set in the classical, essentially Ionic form, and then, the ornamentation, of a teeming forest, undergrowth, and sea life, returns it to the nature from which it came. There can be no question that this has  a real impact on any player lucky enough to hold it, and play it. And I will have much to say about the sound of this wonderful violin in due course.

The highly ornamented scroll of the ‘Rode Stradivari’ 27 1 23



To step away from Stradivari for a moment: work is continuing on editing the film which I made with the writer Laurence Rose, at RSPB Farnham Heath, on the 9th November.

Here is just an extract from that project: Viotti’s ‘Ranz des Vaches’, played on the Luca Alessandrini ‘Spider Silk’ Violin, and Laurence Rose’s ‘Pine Tree Counterpoint’.

Watch this space!

First listen to the 1722 Strad!! 3 2 23

Michael Alec Rose‘s cycle of pieces for my ‘Knowledge Exchange Violin’ project is a joy, and a growing one at that! Here’s the piece he wrote for the Pierre Rode ‘Strad’, recorded last week at the Ashmolean museum. Spot the reference at the end

Week beginning Sunday February 5th. Projects develop and gather

Playing in James Turrell – ‘Skyspace’ (Tremenheere, Cornwall 8 2 23) Photo: Jim Aitchison

Whilst editing and postproduction gathers steam on the film and recording projects, on Tuesday 7th February, I began a journey to another project under the wing of Knowledge Exchange Violin, both literally and figuratively. Cornwall has always been part of my life: my father was evacuated there, with his sisters and mother, during WWII, and I spent every summer as a child on the Lizard Peninsula. In more recent years, I became closely involved with Tate St Ives, giving many concerts and co-curating a number of festivals at the gallery, primarily inspired by the collaboration between the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the composer Priaulx Rainier – whose music I have played for the whole of my professional career. And now I have family there; my cousin lives just a few steps from the  1872 statue of the local hero Humphrey Davy, in Penzance. So when I got off the wonderful sleeper train from Paddington, at 730 on Wednesday morning, I sauntered up the high street for breakfast at her house, saluting Davy along the way – the young wannabe artist and poet, who came up with an invention, the Davy Lamp,

Sir Humphrey Davy, with his safety lamp and the missing button on his frockcoat ( not his waistcoat- he’s wearing an overcoat). Paid for (paid for by subscription of the working men of the town).

which would save lives. Richard Holmes, in his wonderful ‘Age of Wonder’ notes:

‘I was told on several occasions that the large stone statue erected to Davy, dominating Market Jew Street, showed his frock-coat with a missing button “because Lady Davy was a bad wife and would never sew it back on.”‘ (Richard Holmes ‘Age of Wonder’ Page 401)

After breakfast, I met up with my long-time collaborator, the Cornwall-based composer Jim Aitchison, to begin a day of exploration and inspiration. Just outside Penzance, on a southwest-facing hill overlooking St Michael’s Mount, spectacularly placed in the bay can be found Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. We had come to meet one of the founders of this extraordinary place, Neil Armstrong, and as the foci of the visit, to spend time in two installations at Tremenheere by the American James Turrell, who will need no introduction.

Turrell has been on my mind since I was first introduced to one of his works ‘Side Look’, when it was first installed in the Lenbachaus, Munich. It was a photographer friend, Manu Theobald, who took me to see it, appropriately enough, as Turrell’s work is all about the human experience of light. This made a profound impression, and I think that I must say, the impact was heightened, because it was shared. The things that Theobald said to me, as our eyes came to grips with the visual depth of the piece, are etched onto my memory, like a photographic plate. So it proved at Tremenheere, that again the encounter with Turrell’s work would be shared, with Aitchison, and Armstrong, and all the more impactful for that.

Looking south from the tracks of Brunel’s lost preumatic railway, Dawlish, Devon. 430 am, February 8th 2023


On the wonderful new sleeper train down, the famous sea-wall passage between the rivers Exe and Teign took place before dawn. However, one of the benefits of a sleeper train, is that you can look out of your complete darkened cabin, watch the stars wheel by, and this case the just visible Atlantic swell and the red Devonian sand of Dawlish Warren. This is at the edge of visual perception, but my digital camera was able to grab more, and the resulting image, which is more of Davy’s era than Turrell’s is not a million miles from the effect of his restricted-light pieces.

Where Tremenheere proves to fit beautifully into some of the ideas and questions which Knowledge Exchange violin assays, is in the area of the intersect between art and nature, which is analogue to humankind and the landscape. Perhaps there is no part of the United Kingdom, where I have more of a sense of an ancient landscape which continues to be the outcome of human intervention. In 2015, when I was preparing for my exhibition at the Nicosia Pharos Art Gallery, I found my thoughts and pencil drawn to West Cornwall. The Cornish for dwelling is ‘bod’, one of the many European words which relate to cattles – the ancient greek for ox is ‘????’, and it does not take much to see why this links to the modern Scandinavian verb ‘to dwell/live’: ‘at bo’. There is perhaps no area in the UK which was more densely populated in pre-history: the

‘bo’: Danish, ‘live’ (linked to old Norse, ‘Bua’-dwelling …. ‘bod’: Cornish, ‘Dwelling, early toponym from ‘bos’, ‘to be’. 1 12 14

landscape between Tremenheere and Lands End densely packed with archaeological sites, even though it is a tiny corner of land, the prehistorical detail is still not completely mapped, and every square foot of land, even the moorland of the hills between Penzance and St Ives, has been worked, changed, turned over by aeons of humanity.

This was on my mind as Neil Armstrong the MD who is the genius behind Tremenheere, walked us into and around his extraordinary creation, filled with masterpieces by some of the great conceptual land artists, such as Richard Long, Peter Randall Page. David Nash,  and local Cornish artists. As we walked up the hillside, he outlined the history of the land, from the 1200s, when it had been farmed by the Benedictine monks of St Michael’s Mount ( owned by the abbey of Mont St Michel, Normandie, since 1066), up till the 19th century, when it was owned by the barrister, MP, and social reformer, Seymour Tremenheere (1804–1893). I had a clear impression that there is a direct link between Neil Armstrong’s belief in art and gardening to foster healing and well being and Tremenheere’s tireless work to improve the conditions of bleach worker,

The subtropical gardens of Tremenheere, as projected by Penzance artist Billy Wynter’s camera oscura 8 2 23

and lace workers, ending the employment of children in mines, and fighting for the rights of women agricultural labourers.

Like many southwest facing hillsides and landscapes on this cost of Cornwall. Tremenheere has its own particular micro-climate, which enables a variety of sub-tropical plants and trees to flourish in the Gardens. Armstrong spends much of the year travelling, sourcing seeds and cuttings with which he has populated the gardens, along with the Ash, Beech and Pine trees which speak to Tremenheere’s history. The resulting landscapes, are, to say the least exotic, and at one moment, as we walked the grounds, we fell into a conversation about Henri Rousseau’s imaginary jungle landscapes (albeit, without tigers). Neil is very proud of the team of volunteers and workers who care for and husband the land, and have enabled him to reshape it, not only to provide extraordinary natural mises-en-scènes, but constructing what he refers to as ‘plinths and vistas’ to counterpoint the sculpture and installations that populate the grounds.

As we worked our way around the collection and the gardens, spiralling and talking our way towards the two Turrell pieces, the theme of nature revisited and adjusted by humans remained my mind. Billy Wynter’s camera oscura (one of four this artist has installed in Cornwall), not only offered a view on the gardens in complete depth of field but in a manner, and a point of view, which I felt that that the landscape artists of the French baroque, Lorrain and … , and their successors, Vernet and Fragonard would recognise. A few months back, walking the heathland at Farnham, writer Laurence Rose noted that the art of the past tended to offer a point of view of the natural world only available to the privileged. A camera oscura, like it or not, looking down, makes this, perhaps, uncomfortably tangible. I found that William Cowper was in my mind – he certainly acknowledged the problem, writing about Alexander Selkirk (the original Robinson Crusoe):

I am monarch of all I survey; /My right there is none to dispute; /From the centre all round to the sea /I am lord of the fowl and the brute. /O Solitude! Where are the charms /That sages have seen in thy face? (The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk)

More to follow, but, first of all, here is some of the preparatory material by Jim Aitchison, that set up the day’s work!

Tuesday 14th February

Work continues apace on editing the film of the Rode Stradivari at the Ashmolean Museum. Here is an outtake – talking about 18th century decoration and ornamentation.

Tuesday March 21st – 24th Ithaca, NY

Ithaca Falls/Winter Persistent 19 3 23

Very excited to be in the USA again for three weeks ‘Knowledge Exchange Violin’. The explorations begin in Upstate New York, next to Cayuga Lake, where I am working with my wonderful collaborator and friend, Evis Sammoutis.Yesterday was the first day of spring, but it felt like winter, and the ice formations on the falls around the lake are still astonishing.

Work on the New York wing of the project is progressing at pace, and the films that I made for the Metropolitan Museum are about to be posted on the Museum Website. Here is one of them: Michael Alec Rose talking about his wonderful piece for the 1660 Stainer viola there.

Evis Sammoutis in conversation with composer Rosalind Sanders . Ithaca College 20 3 23

Evis and I have been encouraging the young composers at Ithaca College to write work inspired by Birdsong. Of course, there is a very good reason for this: of course we are surrounded by clouds of Sapsuckers, Grackles, Chickadees, Orange-Shouldered Blackbirds and raptors at every turn here! But, more than that, Ithaca is also home to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the world’s premiere research institution into avian life. So this is another chance to bridge the unnecessary gap between the worlds of the arts and the sciences. The students here used the Lab’s resources to inspire their work.

Over the course of the week, I have worked in great depth with eleven young composers at the college, going into depth into their explorations of notation, and the relationship between the pieces they are writing, and the inspirations/materials which underpin their work.

Of course, it has been absolutely impossible to be in this beautiful part of the world without feeling the impact of the nature which surrounds us, and I have to say that my work here has been directly affected by the flora, fauna, geology and weather which seems all-enveloping. If I walk out of my hotel and turn left down the hill, I am in Buttermilk Falls State Park. There’s an amazing sense of ‘waiting’ in these woods. The last snow of the year was falling as arrived, six days ago, and has melted. So the river is full of melt and it

Flight paths in the woods
Buttermilk Falls, NY 22 3 23

feels as if everything is gravid, ready to burst forth. And the trees are full of bird song and flight.

On Wednesday night, I gave a recital of 14 works for violin alone in the main concert hall here. As well as the works by Ithaca composers, I played pieces by my dear friends Gloria Coates, Roger Redgate and Haflði Halgrìmsson – their scores had formed an important part of my conversations with the young composers over the past few days.

The next day, after follow-up/post-performance sessions with the artists, I presented a salon evening on collaboration and Knowledge Exchange Violin. Evis and I talked about our long-term exploration of Cypriot medieval culture, which is the bedrock of his ‘Nicosia Etudes/Concerto’ project, I presented the film Malene Skærved and I have made for RSPB Farnham, with Laurence Rose,  and I spoke about Michael Alec Rose’s extraordinary  instrument-inspired works for this project.

Poster for my performance at Ithaca College (designed by Rosalind Sanders-composer)

One of the joys of the past week, has been the inspired work of young composers at Ithaca College. It’s such pleasure to work tiwth them, and the brilliant Jorge Villavicencio Grossmann and Evis Sammoutis. Here’s just one example of creativity of these emerging composers – David Miller – one of the group of six who wrote new works responding to birdlife. Here’s his ‘Musician Wren’, live at Ford Hall at Ithaca College

The crossing of the Bedesten. Formerly the church of st Nicholas, Nicosia. 30 6 17

Friday 24th March – Nicosia Etudes

One of the aims of Knowledge Exchange violin, is to build on, enhance, and bring to fruition projects which have been  a long time in the making. One of my most treasured and (for me) inspiring adventures has been a collaboration with composer Evis Sammoutis inspired by the history, music and architecture of lost Medieval Cyprus. We have spent considerable amounts of time exploring the layering of history that is to be found on the island, and in the surviving echoes of the three hundred-odd years that the island was effectively French (Guy de Lusignan was established as monarch after the 2nd Crusade).

One of the various outcomes of our explorations is a series of Nicosia Etudes, which are now finding their way into the environment of a concerto. So it was wonderful to be able to turn to this project for my last day in Ithaca. Evis and I spent a happy day digging into the technical details of the first 10 etudes, looking for solutions/renderings for some of Evis’ extraordinary aural and conceptual imaginations. The cycle of pieces and the concerto now has a clear form – by the end of the day, there was a real sense that, far as we are from old Nicosia, the work is finding its way.

Evis Sammoutis – Sketch for polyrhythmic pizzicato etude. 24 3 23

Weekend 27-28th March Ithaca-Maryland

The road south – somewhere on the road, upstate NY, en route to DC 26-27 March 2023

A vital part of my work ( for me, though, I am sure, not for anyone else) is the sense of ‘where I am’, my place in landscape, moving over earth, water or air. Whenever I can in the USA, I try to travel by train, bus or boat, not to fly-over. So, as I finished the workshop with Evis Sammoutis above, with his extraordinary music very much in my head, I got on the overnight bust to travel from Ithaca to DC. So much

Early morning coffee under Daniel Burnham’s masterpiece. A triumphal demonstration of the relevance and usefulness of the classical! 6 am 25th March 2023

thinking gets done on such a drive, as the dusk draws in, and we are in the dark, and then of course, I was at the astonishing classical Union Station in DC, Burnham’s great homage to the Arch of Constantine, after conversations with fellow passengers, the mini-dramas of a long journey shared, ready for the great coffee I know that I can drink under the great barrel vault of the station vestibule.

On the drive down, I worked on the collaborations with three great artists which will be the focus of my work at the National Gallery in DC. These are Barbar Hepworth, Mark Rothko and Pablo Picasso. It is a simplistic thing to say, but in each case, my relationships, over time, with each of these artists, and their work, are different. In every case, however, I have spent considerable time, over the years, drawing their work, and I think that needs to be a central plank of my work with their pieces on this visit.

Is 20 years since I first started working seriously with Hepworth’s work in the UK, having been fascinated since I was a child – the fascination continues. Here is a drawing I have been working on, as I think out the project here in DC.

Barbara Hepworth’s work is particularly close to my heart. It was while playing the violin  in the garden of her Trewyn Studio in St Ives, that I started to get a clearer idea of how my own life as a musician and as an artist might make sense. This advanced a process which had begun when Eve Molesworth had walked me up to Donatello’s last work, the pulpits of S. Lorenzo in Florence, and ordered me to desribe them to her. There seemed to be a balance between Eve’s perception, that I could never be a full musician until I had incorporated my ‘seeing’ side, and Hepworth’s effortless incorporation of implicitly musical processes into her sculptures. So I sat with a violin in her conservatory, in her workshop, and something seeped through.

A lot of this, of course, stemmed from my own feeling for the Cornish landscape. My father was evacuated to St Ives during the War, and we had spent all of our childhood holidays on Cornish beaches. Until they were all broken, we ate out of Bernard Leach soup bowls at home. Hepworth’s sense of wonder at Cornwall was something which I recognised:

 ‘I had by this time become bewitched by the Atlantic beach. The form I call Porthmeor is the ebb and flow of the Atlantic.’

Preparation for working with a Barbara Hepworth strung sculpture at the end of the week. 26 3 23 Virginia

Barbara Hepworth di not invent strung sculptures; If you are in the National Gallery of Art DC and go to West Building Garden Court, you will find a French 17th Century sculpture by Pierre Legros (Pierre Legros I (1629 – 1714)Cherubs Playing with a Lyre 1672-1673) . This is from the height of 17th century carving, of voluptuous excess in marble, of the extraordinary meeting of all the arts in the 7 decades of Luis XIV, ‘Le Roi Soleil’. Two putti, cherubs, are playing with a ‘Lyre’, specifically a Cithara, the instrument favoured by Sappho,  favoured by the God of Music and the Arts, Apollo.  And that sculpted instrument has pegs, strings and a sound box – designed so that when water burst through and around it, it would ring, it would hum. But, any sculpted instruments, all the way back to the Apolloi Citheradoi of Phidias and Praxiteles, were not made as acoustic bodies, not  made to ring. Solid marble or alabaster won’t do that.

But Hepworth’s piece is a different proposition: it has so much in common with the French baroque model. But it was not designed to be strummed, bowed, plucked or played by jets of water. It remains silence – but there is a power there,

My alter ego: Late 16th century Italian Lira player (ANON) – or Orpheus charming the beasts NGA 6 7 22

a potential. Think about a string instrument, any string instrument ( guitar, harp, viola, banjo…)  – it could even be the 400 year old violin I am holding here. I am willing to bet that the majority of us (whether we are musicians or not) will have held an instrument in our hand. Some of us will have spent hours, days, months or years with one, as I do. Whatever the case, something interesting happens when we meet in instrument, that, for whatever reason, is going to remain silent (it might be hanging in a museum). Equally, we will see an instrument depicted, in a painting, in the hands of a musician, or hanging on the wall – some of you might be thinking of William Michael Harnett’s famous trompe l’oeil  painting in the West building ‘The Old Violin’ (1886). When we meet an instrument like this, what ‘rings in the imagination?’ I suspect that it is different for everyone … it might be the possibility of sound. It might be a tactile, haptic thing: we imagine the feel of the instrument in our hands, vibrating. But what is ringing, vibrating? Is it a deafening silence?

William Michael Harnett -The Old Violin, 1886

Perhaps Hepworth was evoking was, is the exiting possibility of sound, that something might happen. For what she has made has so many aspects of an actual musical instrument. And I can say, from encounters with another one of her strung sculptures in a private collection, where I was allowed to touch it, that yes, this piece really does have musical qualities. If you strum it, it will ring – there will be a chord, and there will be resonance and colour. [NB Sammoutis Resonance].

So the simple question is, what does this piece do to you? How do you see it? How do you hear it? How do you move around it?

Looking at Hepworth, I am reminded of a recent encounter with a musical object: What happens when we go into an empty room in a building not our home and we find an instrument. It might be a piano – open or shut, or it might be a harp. I spend a few nights in a beautiful Victorian house in Stillwater Minnesota recently, where a rickety Erard harp stood within touching distance of my bed. This was an oddly disquieting experience, and perhaps not unlike standing here. Certainly at one point, something in the room, or the house – it might have been a draught, or the building settling (a ghost) made the strings vibrate. Perhaps it was, is, a musical record, an imprint of its past, of a long-lost performance or performer. It was enough, to send a shiver up my spine; it does, just to think about it. What does it mean for you?

Today, people find Hepworth’s work a little difficult. It is very refined, pure even. It can even seem a little colourlessm, but to me, it seems classical.  Hepworth herself  was fascinated with music, in particular with the composer Bach. She wrote:

 “In Bach,” she wrote, “the visual sense is always delighted, because every movement is beautiful.  All the bows make lovely rhythmic movements, a lovely vision.”

There is a tendency to forget how radical the very idea of a a female Sculptor was, and it is not for nothing that she and Rainier, equally uncompromising in her language and intentions, made a mysterious artistic partnership:

 ‘In 1969 the first ever ‘Ladies Night’ was held at the Royal Academy of Arts’. The Evening Standard opined that, for the invitees, this marked ‘the final seal of success’. Those invited included, Barbara Hepworth, Violet Bonham-Carter, Edith Evans, Elisabeth Lutyens, and Rebecca West.’

In her ‘visual autobiography’ Hepworth honoured the community which she had become part of, and vital to:

 ‘Here I pay tribute to Bernard Leach and Janet Leach who gave so much to the ever increasing contact of East and West. Patrick Heron and Brian Wynter and their families were living at Zennor. Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell and many others had their studios in the town. So had Priaulx Rainier who, in the early fifties, done so much with Michael Tippett to create the St Ives Festival./ We all felt the fast growing understanding of art around the world and the international language which had been created-we may have lived at Land’s End but we were in close contact with the whole world./Looking out from our studios on the Atlantic beach we became more deeply rooted in Europe; but straining at the same time to fly like a bird over 3000 miles of water towards America and the East to unite our philosophy, religion and aesthetic language.’

The collaboration between two great artists – composer Priaulx Rainier and sculptor Hepworth, is a mysterious and powerful one.

I find it interesting that critics at the time, even of the most enlightened stripe, could not see that Rainier and Hepworth were truly collaborating. They clearly understood that they were mutually sympathetic, that they had communication, but insisted on a hierarchy within the salon, seen from whichever side they were writing. Here is one example, from the pen of the otherwise very perceptive John Amis in 1953:

 ‘The first festival of music and the arts of St. Ives was held on 6-14 June. Like Aldeburgh, St. Ives is a small fishing town with a composer living on the spot, acting as prime mover and musical pace- and taste-maker. The composer at St. Ives is Priaulx Rainier whose taste in music is for the very old and the very new.’

But, for me, it is in the scraps of conversation with Rainier that we have on record that I see the partnership, the interchange, which I recognise and aspire to.

Hepworth to Rainier: “I am thinking about music as being the life of forms.”

Hepworth; “The sound of a mallet or a hammer is music to my eyes, when either is done rhythmically”

A day’s Workshop at the Library of Congress 28 3 23

Louis Simon’s 1930 Internal Revenue Service building 27 3 23

One of the joys of Washington DC is the chance to experience multiple perspectives – here’s the corner of Louis Simon’s 1930 Internal Revenue Service building, just after I arrived back here for a week of discovery, beginning with an evening of American landscape painters at the Smithsonian with Michael Alec Rose. Michael is central to the Knowledge Exchange Violin project, and he wrote this after the end of our day of exploration at the Library of Congress.

‘”Knowledge” and “Exchange”—these are the terms on which my two pieces for the Library of Congress engage with two magnificent violins in its collection.   Being in the Whittall Pavilion today with Peter and Carol Lynn brought everything I had imagined into the sphere of embodied reality, redoubled by the astonishing variance between the instruments’ timbres.  The Library is the place where many of the best things human beings have done are given an ultimate and accessible home.  That is exactly what my music hopes to be: a permanent and open address to—and for—this visionary collaboration.’ Composer Michael Alec Rose 28 3 23

Two great violins: ‘Brookings’ Nicolo Amati (1654) & ‘Ward’ Stradivari (1700) at the Library of Congress 28 3 23

Every musician regards the collection of musical instruments, and the history of the performances at the Library as being ‘holy ground’. I first played a concert there in 2006, and since have given concerts, lectures, made films and worked with all the great Cremonese instruments in the collection. It’s really one of my spiritual homes. The very first time that I played at the Library, it was celebrating a great composer, the much-missed Elliott Schwartz, and today was the first time that I have had the opportunity to work at length and in detail with a composer in the space.

The focus of the day were two violins – a Stradivari and and Amati: one in ‘modern’ setup the other in newly renewed ‘baroque’ setup. I have been close to the conversion of the ‘new’ baroque Amati, and one of the wonders of the process was the discovery that the instrument retained it’s wonderful character when the work was finished.

Composer Michael Alec Rose, Curator Carol Lynn Ward Bamford, two great violins and wonderful new works. Whittall Pavilionn, Library of Congress 28 3 23

Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, Curator of the Musical Instruments Collection, has been a great influence on my work over the past decade. She was a vital part of today’s process, as we spent four intense hours playing, listening, exploring the two instruments using works by Telemann, Marini, Bach, Bassano, de Machy, Tartini. Nielsen, Vilsmayr, and detailed, detailed work on Michael’s wonderful new pieces for the instruments and the library.

Before we started work on the new pieces, Michael and Carol Lynn responded to my work on the two very different violins. It’s vital to me to have Carol Lynn in the room, as she brings her perspective as a flute-player to bear on the exploration of timbre, colour, shape, and, yes, breath, which is fundamental to digging deep into the violins.

Michael pointed out something fundamental about the divergence between the instruments – that the Amati emodies, contains the registers, voices, in a single, spacious sonic environment,  woven together, with the most extraordinary darkness, and depth to the sound the feeling of the sound. By contrast, the Stradivari presents each voice contrapuntally, in relief and clarity. They speak to different ages, one looking back to the age of polyphony, the other to the age of fugue, if one can refer to the early 1700s thus.


Here’s a glimpse of the work on one of Michael’s new works, ‘The eclipse of Hipparchus’ as the violin and new piece found their ways to each other, teaching us, the whole time.

29th March – National Gallery of Art. Recording and talking

This morning, I met up with the team at the National Gallery of Art to continue my work there. Michael Alec Rose joined me and we spent time in the West Building, with the wonderful ‘St Antony and St Paul’ by the mysterious early Renaissance artist, known as the ‘Master of the Osservanza’. This painting seems to date from the 1430s and refers to an episode in the life of St Anthony, as told by St Jerome. In his ‘Life of Paul the Hermit; which was written in Syria some time in the 370’s, Jerome reported that St Anthony  decided to cross the the desert to visit St Paul of Thebes, (he had dreamt that Paul was a better desert dweller than he, and wanted his advice). On the tail he ran into a centaur and a satyr – which Jerome asserts lived in the desert/ St Antony asked the Satyr; ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am a corpse’. Lost in the desert at midday, St Anthony said:

‘My God will show me the fellow-servant whom he promised me.’ Then he beheld a creature of mingled shape, called by the poets Hippocentaur. He asked him, making the sign of salvation on his head:’ Where in these parts lives a servant of god?’

The centaur gnashed an unintelligible reply through bristling lips,, but pointed the way – before flying across the desert and

With Recording Engineer John Conway and composer Michael Alec Rose, with the painting ‘St Paul and St Anthony’, on which Rose’s piece ‘Saint Tour’ is based. NGA, DC 29 3 23



I first played Michael’s piece with the painting in October, but this was the first chance the composer had to meet it and here his piece, ‘Saint Tour’,  in situ. So we were delighted to have the chance to work with the sound engineer, John Conway, to record a podcast exploring the painting and to include my performance of the piece.  Sitting talking in front of the painting offered up so many ideas: we explored the shape of the path that the saint is walking, the idea of friendship, the fact that the story ends, with a hug, an embrace, and that the shape of that hug in the painting, mirrors, echoes the hill higher up the board, and that hill, as any hill in Christian myth, might refer to Calvary.

Michael and I are both fascinated by the effortless insertion of a pagan, legendary creature, into a story of the early church. We also had a conversation about whether flying centaurs, hippogryphs, make hoof beats when they fly? … in Michaels piece, they do!

After the morning recording, time in the East Building, with the spaces and artworks that I am exploring in my events on Saturday. Here is my

Thinking my way into Rothko at the National Gallery of Art, 29 3 23

first response to the room of works by Mark Rothko. Music seems to be emerging from the encounter with the pieces in the room, but I am not sure that it is going be heard. I have a very good idea of what I would like to play in this room with these astonishing eight paintings. For sure, there will be music by two living American composers, Gloria Coates and Michael Hersch. But I am leaning towards some more unexpected counterpoints – Messiaen’s 1950’s notations of birdsong, Peter Sculpthorpe’s 1975 ‘Alone’.

In some ways, the response to the works by Picasso and Hepworth, which are both in the same space, needs to be more complex. There is an underlying link, of course, of music. But Picasso’s Harlequin with Guitar seems to be throwing  the kitchen sink at Watteau. My ears full of Marais and  de Machy,  but also the sounds of the lost generation, also in Paris in the early 1920s Antheil, Pound and Virgil Thomson.

30th March

The exploration work for Saturday has continued unabated today, and I have been using yet more drawing to find my way into the pictures. As you might notice, my drawings are surrounded with text, and often music: put simply, the time that it is necessary in order to make a rudimentary response to say, Picasso’s wonderful post-cubist painting allows my mind to wonder to possible links and ideas – such as, on the right, the link between Picasso’s guitarist and the classical ‘Apollo Citharedes’ type sculptures, or the fact the the finials on the green-upholstered armchair, are Ionic capitals.

The most obvious thing to point out, is that the Picasso depicts a musician, an archetype. Hepworth’s sculpture is the notions of the ‘original’ instrument, and the body as instrument, strung in the way we might expect in one of Bosch’s more torturous pieces. And many people would say that the Rothko’s are music. He would be pleased to hear that. He said:

‘I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level and poignancy of music.’

And today, the sound files from yesterday’s recording came over: here is the resulting podcast:


1st April – East Building National Gallery of Arts

And then it all came together. Up till this point, I have been dancing around one of the central themes of Knowledge Exchange violin: what is the relationship, the overlap between music and the visual arts.

Where I stand. Getting ready to give my second talk/concert in room 415 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1 4 23

April 1st is one of the busiest days in the National Gallery, and the museum was full of families, with lots of activities and artmaking for young people in the East Building. My work focussed in two rooms. In the morning, I gave two presentations in two places in room 415. The first of

A pair of sketches I did to prepare for working with the strung Hepworth Sculpture at the NGA, Washington DC 31 3 23

these was with a wonderful strung sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, whose work has been important to me for many years (and very much because of my deep links with Tate St Ives). I used an unfinished piece by her close-collaborating composer, Priaulx Rainier, to work my way into the ideas, and even the sound of this little sculpture. This was made while the composer listened to Hepworth and her assistants, Jon Wells and Dennis Mitchell, at work in a studio in Saint Ives.

So many exciting questions, with, at the heart of them,  the idea of essence of the string instrument as a body – and the myths of Apollo and Orpheus. Then I moved over to the other side of the same room, to work with the 1924 Picasso picture of Harlequin with a guitar. In some ways, the exciting thing, is that Picasso throwing the kitchen sink at Watteau. So I played de Machy, and then music from the ‘lost generation’ of American composer around Gertrude Stein and Piccass in Paris in the 20s – Antheil, Pound and Virgil Thomson.

In the afternoon I spent y 2 hours playing in the room full of Mark Rothko paintings at the top of the Tower of the East Building.

Talking about Mark Rothko and Music 1 4 23 National Gallery of Art Washington DC 1 4 23

I played Evis Sammoutis Michael Hersch Mihailo Trandafilovski Halgrimsson , Bach Locatelli Peter Sculthorpe Widmann … and told stories of Rothko visiting the Newlyn group of artists, and doing the washing up. Compared to the relative  ‘cool’ of working with the Hepworth and Picasso in the morning, this was a very intense, emotional experience.  Some of the music moved listeners to tears: this does not happen very often in gallery performances. One listener sent me an appreciation of the day:

‘Not surprisingly a day spent attending Peter Sheppard Skaerved’s Art and Music in Conversation was a complete delight from beginning to end. The talk and music focused on three artists, Barbara Hepworth, Picasso, and Rothko at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Between wonderful anecdotes about artists and composers we were treated to superb music on a rare Amati violin from the 1600s. There were compositions from ancient tunes to 21st century pieces all played with exquisite style. The music was chosen to enrich our understanding of the artworks. For those fortunate enough to attend it was a truly magical day.’ Jessica Sawyer 1 4 23

Here is a glimpe of what I was doing at the National Gallery of Art Washington DC. I began one of my interventions with the Hepworth strung sculpture, with Sadie Harrison’s exquisite ‘…same strand…’, one of a series of pieces she wrote in dialogue with my drawings (this one made when I was 21, on the beach in Denmark). The first phrase is missing ( I caught people a little by suprise when I started), but I can sing it for you.

April 3rd New York City – Day one back at the Metropolitan Museum

Today was a day of consolidation, conversation and planning. It was wonderful to meet up with my wonderful collaborator, Bradley Strauchen Scherer at the Metropolitan Museum. The first order of business is to sign-off on the Knowledge Exchange Violin films that I have made with the museum for the website. Five instruments, nearly twenty pieces of music, and almost as many tunings. This will all go live on the MetMuseum website at the end of this week. And there it will stay! Films on instruments by Stradivari, Amati, Grancino, Stainer – and the anonymous small violin. Works from 1588 to 1738, and a wonderful new piece by Michael Alec Rose.

Close up of a fantastic 17th century neck on a (probably German) Pochette Metropolitan Museum 3rd April 2023

As a talking point, we spend the day with an amazing group of small violins – pochettes – of which the Metropolitan has a wonderful collection, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Famously, these instruments had, by the end of the 18th century, become the favoured instruments of dancing masters, and Thomas Jefferson – their slim shape made them ideal for travelling, as they could be slipped into the pocket of a greatcoat. The instrument above, which we are in the process of identifying, bears a visible date from the 1600s, and as can be seen, is a wonderful example of an unadjusted baroque violin neck.

A whole range of ideas and issues flow from these small instruments. First of all, there clearly comes a point, when the miniaturisation (very early on) is so extreme, that it would be impossible to think about playing on these fiddles. They become symbols of musical instruments, rather than instruments themselves. This is not a million miles away from what Picasso and Braque were doing, when then included the shapes of instruments in their cubist paintings and collagess at the beginning of the 20th century. In some ways, it is easier for us to identify

Decoration from the natural world. Back of a 19th century pochette. Metropolitan Museum 3 4 23

what they were doing, making these non-functioning violins, than when the luthiers of the 18th and 19th century scaled and slimmed down these violin-shaped objects. We have to ask: what do they mean? as much as we ask: what are they for? I am not sure, yet, of the answer.

The next question, linked to this, is the question of ornamentation. As with the ‘Rode’ Stradivari, which we filmed earlier this year, the relationship between the form of an instrument and how the maker, or perhaps owner, elaborates it, is a complicated one. I think that it is fair to say, that the smaller an instrument is, the more likely that its decoration will become more of a dominant feature. In the case of the instruments that we were looking at today, these are divided into two areas-the elaboration of the body and the decoration or, actual replacement of the scroll of the instrument with an actual head.

The decoration of the body, the box, or often, with pochettes, boat-shaped body of the violin, also tends in two directions – the geometric and the naturalistic. It’s worth mentioning that whatever embellishments are to be found on the front of an instrument will not necessarily have any relationship to the back.  One might be surprised to find, for example that the front of the fiddle to the right, where the back is a slightly ‘chinoiserie-style’ collection of songbirds and foliage, is dominated by six-pointed stars, which may, may not, relate to the head of the instrument, which might be a representation of the great musical figure of the old testament, King David.

The head, quite literally, of the 17th century pochette at the Metmuseum. Is it a demon? 3 4 23

The choice of heads for bowed string instruments seems complicated. In some cases, it verges on the problematic: there is certainly a correlation betweemn the notion of a conquered, subdued, enslaved nation, and the trophy-like displays of heads on musical instruments, pub signs, or, as I remember, a disturbing 18th century library in the Bavarian town of Neuberg-an-der-Donau, which was decorated with severed Ottoman heads commemorated the final end of the wars between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Turkish, in 1739. In fact, looking at the the head of the Germanic Head to the left, what first appeared to me, to be a demonic head, now looks increasingly turkic, or even Tartar.

So it is uncomfortable to find that so many instrument heads seem to represent the vanquished, or the enslaved: one of the instruments I held today had an elaborate native american head, with an exquisitely carved feather head-dress,a and a face of utter despair. A large portion of the instruments have African heads – the question of the horror of slavery is impossible to avoid. Thinking about how to approach these instruments, let alone how/whether to display them, raises insuperable, yet unavoidable moral questions. This is one place, where the world of ethics and the world of aesthetics are intractably bound up with each other.

This brought Bradley and I to the big question of the day, and back to a discussion which I have been privileged to be a small part of for the past two years. In 2025, the Metropolitan Museum will mount a major exhibition ‘Music and the Body’, which Bradley Strauchen-Scherer is curating. Every time we meet, we talk for hours about the ideas feeding into this exhibition. Many of these, are the things which drive and fuel ‘Knowledge Exchange Violin’, and if you look up to the ideas I was exploring around the Hepworth strung sculpture at the National Gallery of Art, you will see how my ideas are forming themselves around this notion.

Today, for example the conversation ranged freely from the relationship between the Ancient Greek words for light, sound and speech, all ?-

Illustration from Gerard Way’s ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Volume 1. ‘Vanya Hargreaves’ -the ‘White Violin’ character


words, to the character of the ‘White Violin’ in the ‘Umbrella Academy’ graphic novels. The point is this. Ask any question about the relationship between music and the body, and you find that you will be talking about everything!

Even Alexander von Humboldt found his way into the chat – on the Mongolian border, on his last great expedition, listening to choirs singing Mozart orchestral works (mirrored in Japanese prison camps during the Second World War, by the ensembles of European prisoners who got together to sing the orchestral pieces that they loved and could not hear – but they could remember). Music and the body are inextricably linked.



April 4th Day Two at the Metropolitan Museum

An embarrassment of riches. Bows at the Metropolitan Museum! 4 4 23

It is fair to say, that bows get short shrift in the understanding and thinking about music-making. Yet, they are the soul of string playing. My early violin-inspiration, Beatrix Marr, was adamant that given the choice between a great violin and a great, bow, the serious player would always take the latter, as it could was the fundamental of all violin-playing. And over the years, I came to realise that she was right. Over the past couple of weeks of performance, for instance, it has been my wonderful Airenti ‘Biber’ bow, which has caused audience members to come and talk about sound. So it is very exciting that bows are going to be at the heart of one of my next projects for the Metropolitan Museum.

Roman Sistrum. Ist century BCE Store Room Metropolitan Museum 4 4 23

Bradley Strauchen Scherer and I went back to the top-floor music instrument storeroom at the Met, to dig into the shelves filled with hundreds of bows of every description. The wonder of going into a museum storeroom and opening drawers, is everything else that you see, the unplanned meetings that result. The storage drawer below the the first cache of bows that we opened sent us straight back to the Classical world, as it was filled with tibiae, auloi and a spectacular Sistrume (see the picture), which I was hard-pressed not to shake. The great Turkish composer Sidika Ozdil wrote me a wonderful piece for violin and piano ‘Winter Ceramics’ where I play a fast movement holding kashishi along with my bow, which produces the most wonderful rattle when the bow is played ‘tremolo’. There’s something primal about this, and it chimed in the continuing discussions about the ‘Music and the Body’ exhibition that we are having.


April 11th. Exploring Samuel Dushkin’s bow at the Metropolitan Museum

The bow used for the premieres of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the orchestral version of Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’ and the ‘Paradies – Sicilienne’ a successful hoax by its owner, the great Samuel Dushkin! 11 4 23 New York

A glimpse of a day’s exploration. Meeting Samuel Dushkin’s bow at the Metropolitan Museum today. Malene and I returned to the museum today to talk about what a bow does, the effect that it has on a player – their sound, and the expressive tools that they use. She did not know, when I picked up this bow, that it is, in so many ways, a ‘storied instrument’.

Malene Sheppard Skærved 11 4 23/A Bow

‘Peter was trying out a museum bow – it made the instrument, the Amati, sound like nothing I had heard before. He had chosen a piece that he had not played before, [arranged by the famed owner of the bow in the 1930s], and allowed the piece to speak through the bow. It is not that he cannot aforce a bow to speak his language. Rather, it is that if he feels it, lets it do what it wants, it speaks differently.

The bow spoke with a broader sound that I was used to. The ‘edges’ were less distinct, deeper, rounder, like a person comfortable in their home, in their favourite chair, observing, learning, holding court.

It was an familiar sound, like after dinner drinks, when conversation has been settled, the comfort, the wine, the good food, lets the conversation become intimate. There is less shock and more understanding at that hour. Maybe it could have done more, become larger, but Peter seemed to find its most natural sound and voice. It would be interesting to see what it would do with a Strad…’

It is difficult for me to not ‘project’ onto a bow like this, with so many associations. But together with Bradley Strauchen Scherer at the Metmuseum, I am determined to break the one-sided notion of bowed string instruments. A violin without a bow, or vise versa, is silent, and incomplete. So I am delighted the the first encounter with this great instrument, played if you like, without prejudice, was so fruitful.

The royal crest on a Dodd bow dated 1813, at the Metropolitan Museum 11 4 23

But here’s something else to think about. One of the most beautiful bows in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum is a bow stamped ‘Dodd’ (=(John Dodd1752 – 1839)and dated ‘1813’ ( on the screw of the bow). It is gold mounted, and the gold ‘ferrule’ is engraved with a distinctive crest., is a ‘statant guardant’ lion wearing the Tudor Crown, himself on another representation of that crown.

There are two possibilities for the crest. One is that it was a royal warrant. This is unlikely, as no luthiers or archetiers seem to have been issued with such in the early 1800s. The more likely reason for the stamp, in fact the only probable one, is that this expensively mounted bow, made by the greatest English maker at the beginning of the 1800s, formed part of a set of instruments kept for and played in one of the Royal residencies.