First published in the Australian Music Centre's magazine Sounds Australian, No. 62, 2003, Sounds Unlimited - building the instrument. www.amcoz.com.au
Hybrid Strings
Peter Biffin has worked as both an instrument builder and a musician since the early 1970s. He builds stringed instruments of many kinds, specialising in the tarhu (a new bowed instrument he has created and developed over the last twenty years) and the fretless guitar.

Michael Atherton (MA): What background do you draw on?

Peter Biffin (PB): I have had thirty years of diverse work building and playing stringed instruments from most parts of the world, both past and present. The main areas that I keep returning to are the music and instruments of the Middle East / Central Asia, new instruments for Just Intonation, and the instruments from early European history. There is also country music in my background that surfaces from time to time, mostly in the form of 'country and eastern'.

MA: What research do you do for a new musical instrument?

PB: New instruments usually begin with an initial point of inspiration that is then explored and developed through experimentation. Because research time is always scarce, I try and make the first investigative steps by assembling some approximation of the idea from whatever bits and pieces I can salvage from past experiments, and make something that is vaguely playable as quickly as possible. If I can still feel the potential after playing it for some time, I make a prototype designed in such a way that it is quick to build and allows me to explore several key parameters such as acoustics and set up. As the ideas refine and settle into a form, I start experimenting with sculptural ideas. Sometimes I end up playing the prototype for a long time. In the case of the tarhu, it was almost seven years!

MA: What characteristics were you looking for in the sound of the tarhu?

PB: I was after something that would allow me to play as many of my favourite styles as possible on one instrument. I tried many different forms until gradually the current tarhu configuration emerged. Once the overall physical parameters were established - dimensions, number of strings and tuning - the finer details of sound characteristics came into focus. More than anything, I wanted an instrument that would respond to minute changes in what the bow was doing so that the sound could move through different vowel qualities. I also wanted the sound to be strong enough that in most circumstances amplification would be unnecessary. The current system using a featherweight wooden cone instead of a soundboard provided the means to achieve these goals. Once I had a prototype up and running it was a matter of gradually refining the sound over many years. This work mostly centred on increasing the amount of available tone-colour changes, and bringing the level of bass response up to match the treble, (which was very powerful right from the beginning). I also tried to work out how I could have the best possible version of the bowed sound and still have a useful plucked sound as well. I must have tried (and given up on) that idea at least 10 times. The current tarhu feels like it has almost achieved this at last, and I am now happy to play it for extended periods either bowed or plucked.

MA: How did the performance practice for the tarhu develop?

PB: My use of the bow began when learning North Indian music on a not-­quite-traditional Turkish tanbur. I was learning from a sitar player, so the bowing techniques were more or less whatever I made up. I was aware of the basic principles of the underhand bow hold used throughout the East, and used that as the starting point. Left-hand techniques initially followed the principles employed on Indian plucked instruments, combined with some aspects of violin family techniques and some from classical guitar. Because I have played a large number of stringed instruments, there are many techniques available for me to sort through and consider for possibilities in any new situation. As the tarhu evolved, various techniques rose to the foreground, to be replaced when subtle changes in the instrument made something new more suitable. It is at an interesting stage now, with some very talented musicians having recently taken up playing the tarhu, including Ross Daly and Kayhan Kalhor. It will be fascinating to watch how the performance practice unfolds after they have played tarhus for awhile.

MA: Is being a player or a composer integral to the process of building something new?

PB: I don't think it has to be integral, but the process is much more straightforward if it is. At various times I have worked with musicians and composers who have had an idea for something new, but haven't had the design or construction skills to bring it into existence. While working with others in this way can produce results, it is pretty hard going compared to one person's imagination guiding the entire project.

MA : How do the characteristics of the instrument influence a performance? Is this a consideration in the instrument building process?

PB: The player unfolds the piece of music through the characteristics of the instrument. If the instrument has a wonderfully rich mid range, for example, this will be explored and featured - and if it has some inherent weaknesses, then the musician will automatically tend to avoid such areas. The greater breadth of possibilities that the instrument possesses, and the fewer dull spots, the further the player can explore.

MA: Is there a relationship between improvisation and the emergence of hybrid instruments?

PB: If you are an improvising musician who also builds instruments, it is almost inevitable that the instrument forms will gradually start to mutate. For me improvising in music and developing new instruments are two aspects of the one art form.

MA: Is there such a thing as an Australian sound, or Australian way of seeing and doing things? Does it matter?

 

PB: I think it is easier to see whether there is an Australian sound or not if you come from somewhere else.The isolation one experiences in Australia has always seemed like a positive thing to me in allowing fresh ideas to float to the surface. Through necessity it engenders a spirit of trusting and relying on one's own imagination. I use Australian timbers a fair bit, but I don't think an ‘Australian sound' results from that. The use of such timbers assists in creating a particular sculptural aesthetic in instrument making which could reasonably be called Australian, but that which makes a sound distinctive is much more subtle and elusive.

MA: Where is instrument building heading?  Will the `real, the electronic or the virtual' compete, overlap or dominate future music?

PB: I think the trend is unquestionably from the real toward the electronic and virtual. However, all these distinctions are getting pretty blurry - if you went to a festival of acoustic music today, you would probably be extremely lucky to hear a single performance that had not been amplified or electronically processed - so even “acoustic” has become electronic or virtual. For all that is gained through the use of electronics there is also much of value that is lost and I personally prefer music and instruments that are electricity-free.