Monday, September 29, 2014

A Chat with Henner Harders, Builder of Viols

Henner Harders is the mystery luthier on the cover of Catacoustic’s season brochure. He is a viol maker in Germany and created Annalisa’s beautiful lirone.

How did you become interested in building viols and historical string instruments? Did you build violins and cellos first?

I grew up in a musical family together with two brothers and two sisters. My mum taught all of us and the neighbors kids recorder. My father was playing the cello and double bass. He got interested in this mysterious instrument called viola da gamba because the cello parts he played were often originally meant to be played on a viola da gamba. Being a Professor for crafts in the university of Bremen, his interest in the instrument made him take part in Fidel making courses. After a few years and after having made quite a few and also after having started making his own versions of Viola da gambas he started giving the courses himself. At the same time, he started playing the instruments, and our
whole family started playing them. These instruments had steel strings and fine tuners;
later on, when most of us got proper viol lessons, they were changed to gut strings. So, we had my mum and dad building these instruments as a hobby, and we had a well-equipped woodworking workshop. Us kids spent a lot of our free time in the workshop using the fretsaw and cutting out lots of things of plywood.

Making a viola da gamba is unusual enough. How did you become interested in making a lirone?

One of my first customers asked me to make her a lirone, so I went to the museum in Leipzig and measured the 2 existing instruments they have and the left overs of a destroyed original lirone. Based on these, I made my first lirone, which was 20 years ago. Over the years I kept changing little details to improve the instrument. I like the sound of it. It sounds more like a keyboard or like a whole consort with its clear and very carrying sound.

Do you model your instruments on historical examples? If so, how do you get your detailed information to craft the instruments? Paintings? Museums?

My models are usually based on instruments I have measured myself in museums or private collections or on detailed drawings. I may change things to accommodate the customers’ requirements.

You live in a small village that is quite secluded from city life. Is this an inspiration for you? What are the pluses and minuses of this small-town country life?

I grew up in the countryside and always liked it a lot. I work from home, and as my customers come from all over the world, I don't depend on having a shop and I can concentrate on the making of new instruments. I really enjoy the peacefulness of living in our small village of about 120 inhabitants. The downside is that one has to do a lot more driving to get the kids to their music lessons or school and that it is more difficult to find other musicians locally which share the same interests.

You are a team with your talented wife Susanne K├╝ster, who is an in-demand scroll carver for many instrument makers throughout the world. Does she carve the scrolls for all of your instruments? How does your partnership work? Is this how you met?

A Susanne Kuster original
Yes, she does do all the carving jobs on my instruments, which is a privilege. I prepare the pegbox and after having found out what the customer would like, she makes a sketch and either she or I cut out the outline. Susanne was trained in the same carving school as my little sister, she was just a year above her and moved to Bremen and was looking for work. This is how we first met. After she had done some carving jobs for me, she also started making instruments and decided to learn violin making properly in the violin making school in Newark / England.

Do you play the viol? How did you learn about historical instrument making and repair?

I started playing the viol at the age of 7 and had proper lessons from 9 - 12 until my teacher moved away. Later on I had cello lessons, but after leaving school came back to playing the viol. I have had lessons with a pupil of Wieland Kuijken while we were living in Viersen before we moved to our own place in the former east of Germany. I was trained to make viols at the London College of Furniture back in 1986 for 4 years, where I visited the early fretted instruments workshop. When Susanne went to Newark, I followed her and also enrolled in the violinmaking course while still making my own instruments. At the same time I started working for Dietrich Kessler in London 2 days a week making viols. This was a very inspiring time for me, as he had seen so many old viols and had some fantastic old viols himself, which I could look at while making a copy of them.

How many instruments have you made? What is your dream project in instrument building? What are your favorite projects?

Henner Harders, the day Annalisa took delivery
So far I have made about 80 instruments. Before I started building viols, I was making electric basses. I do not really have a dream project, as long as I always have instruments on order, I am happy. It is always exciting to find out what exactly the customers want from their instrument. Depending on the kind of repertoire they want to play, on their ideals of sound and possibly with some individual decoration or carving. I find it very helpful to be able to play the instrument myself, which gives me a good idea of how the set up could be optimized to aim for best playability and response.

More information about Henner’s instruments, along with his contact information can be found at his website at

Friday, September 19, 2014

Behind the scenes at Catacoustic

Catacoustic’s season opener:  T minus 2 days and counting.  What’s going on behind the scenes?

All the musicians have arrived.  For this event, it’s a big crew:  twelve people will be on stage.  Six locals, six visiting from out of town.  Where will they stay?  

Welcome to Upland Place in East Walnut Hills, the friendliest street in town.  Neighbors up and down the street host musicians in their homes.  The hosts get to meet fascinating artists:  “You play the what, again?”  The guests get a quiet, homey environment, walking distance from Annalisa’s house, where most of the rehearsals take place.
Music to make the angels sigh

Standing-room-only lecture
Rehearsals may last all day, and can be intense.  But Catacoustic is committed to – and famous for – a nurturing, musically-rewarding experience.  Everyone brings their best to the table, and the primary goal is to create a cohesive interpretation that shows each person’s strengths.  Musicians find their time with Catacoustic so positive they often return.  We also look for ways to make their visit extra productive by finding them other opportunities.  This week, our baritone is giving a guest lecture at CCM on Baroque performance practice.  Our visiting gambist is offering a workshop to local viol players.  

Meals are taken around Annalisa’s table.  Yes, she cooks all that food for all those people, day after day, meal after meal, concert after concert.  When they sit down and break bread together, the musical bonds they’ve been forging in rehearsal are cemented with fellowship.  

Two pardessus!
Dress rehearsal is the last day before the show.  The troupe moves into the performance space.  Chairs, stands, lights are all checked.  Acoustics and staging are experimented with.  Notice I don’t mention a sound check:  of course we never amplify; we make the building do the work for us.  Instead of electricians, our technicians are the architects who knew how stone could resound, how overtones could meet up in the vaults.  And on this occasion, one Mr. Louis Tiffany has provided us with a spectacular light show—past audiences have clamored to see the stained glass by daylight, so for this concert we are obliging.  

The continuo team
The hour or two you see the musicians on stage represents days and weeks of preparation and careful thought.  Who’s picking up the theorbist at the airport?  Can the bass player sleep in a house with a cat?  Is one of the singers vegetarian?  Has Annalisa cooked enough food for all these people?  

Donors, take note:  We stretch every dollar as far as it will go.  By housing the musicians privately, and feeding them in Annalisa’s kitchen, we save thousands each year, which we can turn around and use to present ever finer concerts.  If you would like to be more involved—if you’d like to house musicians, or provide some meals, if you’d like to sponsor one of our world-class soloists – please get in touch.  We like to think of Catacoustic as a community, with everyone coming together to make what we do possible.  

3:00pm Sunday, September 21, 2014
Church of the Advent, 2366 Kemper Lane, Walnut Hills (Cincinnati), OH 45206
There is ample street parking available, as well as available parking in the US Post Office lot just south of the church on Kemper.
Tickets are available at or at the door.  $25, students $10.

Or order season tickets!  Five tickets, which can be used at any concert in our upcoming season, for $100, a 20% discount!  Available until September 21.