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.