were impressed by his unusual but gorgeous
sounding instruments. Andrew Cronshaw went in
search of luthier Peter Biffin.
At March's Europe In Union concert in London by Ross Daly and his band Labyrinth, it wasn't just the music that fascinated, it was a couple of the instruments he was playing it on.
One is similar in size and playing technique to the Cretan lyra that Ross has long played, but with an even more alluring, breathy, voice-like sound. Its three bowed strings are of horsehair and, like Ross's modification of the lyra, it has nine sympathetic strings running under the fingerboard, but in place of the lyra's soundbox its body is a flattened spheroid with elegantly-shaped multiple soundholes.
The other, much larger with a long thin neck, movable tied frets across its curved fingerboard, has a similarly shaped body, and is also fitted with sympathetic strings. Its four playing strings can be bowed or plucked, producing startling volume and breadth of tone. With a two-and-a-half octave range on each string, it covers the pitch range from cello to violin.
Both instruments are remarkably fine looking and sounding, and exquisitely crafted, with a balanced rightness clearly shaped by the skills of centuries and the needs of generations of players. But a riffle through the mental dictionary of exotic instruments doesn't quite turn up their country or tradition of origin. That's because actually they're new inventions, both designed and built within the last ten years by Australian luthier Peter Biffin, who calls them tarhus. The name combines tanbur and erhu, and both of those instruments were among the influences in their design. But the key factor that distinguishes tarhus from, probably, all other stringed instruments anywhere, and gives them such a powerful rich sound, is visible through the soundholes: a very thin wooden cone, facing backwards. One foot of the bridge rests on the apex of the cone, very lightly, with only enough pressure to transmit the vibration. The other bridge foot rests on the body and acts as a pivot.
Vertically held, knee-supported bowed instruments, generically known as spike fiddles, entered Biffin's life in 1977 when he heard Erhan Alptekin playing Turkish tanbur. He took up the instrument, and began to investigate, build and modify other types of spike fiddle including Chinese erhu, Persian kemanche and Indian esraj and sarangi. He began experimenting with cones then, and by the mid-1990s he'd arrived at the tarhu approach, with its spheroidal body (which on the large tarhu is made from strips of wood, as is the bowl of a lute) and wooden cone.
Of course, there are other instruments - resonator guitars and mandolins, phono-fiddle, Stroh-viol - that use a cone or vibrating diaphragm, but in them it's made of metal rather than wood. "I tried lots of different materials for tarhu cones including metal, fibreglass, carbon fibre, paper and various types of wood. It became pretty clear that the sound I wanted was going to come from a very light cone, which made light-weight wood a good contender.
"Even though changing the material the cone is made from makes a big difference to how it sounds, without the right way to get vibrations into the cone there is almost no sound at all.
The phono-fiddle and Stroh violin have nifty ways of doing this, but for me they have two main problems - to varying degrees they are ideas that can only work in small instruments or limited string numbers, and secondly, the acoustic concepts behind them produce instruments that look like pieces of machinery. Some of my own early experiments with instruments based on the Chinese erhu had some of the same limitations - an acoustic concept that could only be used in very small instruments. I wanted something with a big voice and the freedom to pursue any pitch range I wanted, so I had to find other solutions. That is where the tarhu bridge design came in, and is by far the biggest single factor in why both the sound and the aesthetic design have been able to develop the way they have."
Making the body, and the cone itself which is also made out of strips, seems like quite a lot of woodworking. "It does make things hard, and several times I have tried to abandon it for an easier, 'cheaper-to-build' alternative. However, it is such an elegant solution to all the structural, functional and aesthetic issues, that I inevitably return to it. Decades of making lute backs certainly helped in developing the techniques I needed. However making one sphere out of, say, 18 ribs is definitely more than twice as much work as making two lute backs of nine ribs each. But no matter how many times I throw all the design parameters up in the air, they always seem to land the same way - a tarhu with a spherical body."
"And there has been a lot of trial and error in working out how to make the cones. I've used two designs, with either curved or straight sides on the cones. They both have their own difficulties, but I think any type of construction that involves bending and gluing strips of Western Red Cedar that are 0.6 mm thick is going to have its tricky moments. One of the most fascinating parts of making a wooden cone is seeing it emerge from these delicate, fragile components into a wonderfully strong and responsive structure."
It's surprising no one else seems to have come up with anything similar. "One comes across multi-genesis in the invention of instruments, where the same idea pops up in different people's heads even though they might be half a world apart. I often wonder whether that's the case with the tarhu, that somewhere there is another maker pursuing the same ideas. I would love to talk to such a person if they are out there somewhere, but so far as I know the tarhu is the only instrument to work in this way."
Biffin's career as a luthier has always been bound up with his enthusiasms as a player. "I grew up in the Australian bush, a long way from any sources of musical instruction or inspiration. I listened to old country tunes and played them on a succession of instruments I bought with pocket-money earnt by shooting rabbits. Whenever a new instrument joined the collection, I just tuned it up to what felt like a fair thing and started playing tunes on it. It was actually years after I started playing stringed instruments that someone who could play finally turned up and pointed out to me that there were 'proper' ways to tune and play these instruments."
"Making instruments that didn't necessarily fit into neat categories was probably an automatic extension of that early approach to doing things. When I was about 20, I wanted a lute, didn't know where to find one so made one… and another, and another… then a slightly kinky one, and off we go. Not far into a career as an instrument maker I developed an interest in the music and instruments of the East, and the various traditions from Turkey through to China have been a great inspiration ever since."
"In music my interest has always been melody. So far as formal study is concerned, I spent many years with North Indian classical music, and a few with Turkish classical. What I play now certainly has elements of those forms, but there is also simple country tunes turned into a contemporary modal form that is improvised. The tarhu came into existence so that I could play a wide range of melodic styles and ideas on the one instrument."
"I first heard of Ross in the early '90s and saw him perform in Paris then, but I never really expected our paths to cross. In 2001 he did a tour of Australia and a member of his ensemble was a friend of mine, Linsey Pollak, a particularly fine exponent of the hybrid art form of music/ instrument making. From the beginning of his association with Ross, Linsey had seen the potential for an exchange between Ross and I, which he eventually arranged. Ross's open-minded and open-hearted approach to life and music were wonderful to encounter, especially as he was the first person I really 'showed' the tarhu to. At this meeting he ordered a lyra version of the tarhu, which I then made and delivered to him in 2002 at Rudolstadt Festival in Germany, where we were both involved in that year's Knee-Fiddle Magic project. The lyra tarhu was very much a collaboration between Ross and I, as was the kamancheh version of the tarhu between myself and the Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor. Spending time with those two musicians at that festival has remained a high point in the life of the tarhu."
"There have always been two sides to instrument making for me - the professional, straight side, and the experimental side. The experimental side is completely and inseparably entwined with my interests as a musician. I think there is a small category of people who work in an unrecognised art form that integrates being a musician and developing new instruments. My dream has always been to reach a point where I can pursue this hybrid art form and earn a living from it - that a point could finally come where there doesn't have to be a battle between making standard instruments for money and pursuing the synthesis of music/ instrument that the tarhu has been for me for so many years. I'm not quite there yet, but I am getting closer."
You can find more information, photos and diagrams about the various models of the tarhu on Peter Biffin's website, www.spikefiddle.com