This article is an extract from a feature in the next edition of IAM (November 2016). Visit the subscriptions section of our website to order your copy.
Composer, artist, musician and instrument maker – if there’s a craft then François Sarhan has turned his hand to it. For his latest project, commissioned by Scottish contemporary music ensemble Red Note, the French polymath tasked himself with designing a whole new ensemble of instruments. Interview by Maria Roberts.
The origin of the project was a proposal from Red Note ensemble. They asked me to compose a new string quartet for them to play at Scotland’s festival of new music, Sound Festival 2016. However, I wasn’t so happy with that. After all, there are already thousands of fantastic string quartet compositions, so I really didn’t see what I could add to the genre. Instead I offered to make entirely new instruments for the ensemble to play, and a new composition to go with it. The final piece is called KEIN.
There have already been many attempts in history to modify instruments and give them different shapes, sounds or properties. We began our project with the Stroh family of instruments: these were made at the end of the 19th century, and combine string with brass instruments. The horn on the Stroh violin amplifies the sound of the strings using a diaphragm and was often used on early recording sessions to capture a clearer violin sound.
First, I made some sketches to inspire the luthier and to open ideas to the fields of possibilities – violin makers in general are used to building the same kind of instrument, so for them to make something entirely new does not come easily or naturally.
Planning a new instrument is a little bit like architecture; when the architect makes the first sketch of the building it has many ideas in it, but the reality has to be more pragmatic and adjustments are made. The end result demonstrates that there were many differences between my original sketches and the reality of what we created – we had to work within the constraints of what was possible.
KEIN is a music theatre show that involves four string musicians, traditionally associated wiith the iconic ensemble called a string quartet. But instead of a traditional quartet all the musicians will play on Stroh instruments. Each musician has a strong vocal part, moves on stage and swaps instruments. KEIN also includes spoken elements that deal with oppression, disrespect, identity loss and rivalry. It quotes Malcolm X and other people involved in the civil rights struggle.
As for the music, I elaborated from a quotation from Gabriel Fauré. This composer is one of the finest of his period, and he is very typical of the French “salon” music of the 19th century, when France was a colonial power. Combining this music with the text will create a strong contrast that creates space for the voices of the repressed people and the real world to appear.