It’s not often that a musical instrument will elicit a wild response from the audience without a note being played. Then again, the Stroh violin, owned by Tyler Carson of Seattle alt-folk duo Impossible Bird, is no everyday instrument.
"We don’t even get to start playing before people ask what it’s called," Carson said. "Every single show I go to. I’ve taken to taking it out at the last minute so I don’t have to talk to every audience member individually."
A Stroh violin is basically a violin with a trumpet horn instead of a traditional hollow body. It also has a thin aluminum resonator that Carson likens to a soup can lid. Think of it as the violin equivalent of a resonator guitar (the blues ones with a metal cone instead of a wooden soundboard). The Stroh’s sound, which Carson identifies as "a haunted, disembodied sound from the past," resonates across Impossible Bird’s debut EP (April’s album of the month) on tracks like “Here I Am” and “Overture.”
Stroh violins were originally created by John Matthias Augustus Stroh in the late 19th century to record violin sound onto phonographs’ wax cylinders. "Violins had too nice of a sound; it wasn’t piercing enough," Carson said. "So they actually made this intentionally to have more of a shrill kind of sound." As sound recording improved, the need for Strohs diminished and production stopped early in the 20th century.
There were a number of different variations of Strohs and Carson’s falls on the simple end of the spectrum. "Stroh instruments are quite fanciful and expensive and very big, whereas this I’m pretty sure was a horn off an old antique, like a clown horn or something, and the wood is like a two-by-four. I think of it as a gypsy version."
Carson, a 24-year veteran of the violin, hadn’t even stumbled across a Stroh until he saw a friend selling one on Craigslist in April 2011. "He said, ‘Are you interested?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s a fair question!’ Do I want it? I do. I just don’t know why. It was the first instrument I ever bought without playing it. I was aurally blind!"
Caring for the Stroh violin has been no easy task. Carson can’t find a proper case for it, so he carries it in his backpack. Since buying the violin, he’s changed the bridge and pegs, and installed a pickup to bring the old relic up to date. Carson’s luthier (someone who builds and fixes stringed instruments) had never seen one until Carson brought his in for maintenance, so the luthier had to improvise—with an electric drill and a blowtorch to solder parts together. "This is the first violin I’ve ever seen a power tool used on," Carson joked. Apparently a blowtorch isn’t commonly used for wooden instrument upkeep.
Impossible Bird (and the instrument) make an appearance this Saturday at Northwest LoveFest; the band will also headline Q Cafe on July 6. Carson is prepared for the onslaught of speculation. Seems everyone has a name for the Stroh.
"We get ‘trumpolin,’ ‘buglelin,’ ‘horn violin,’ lots of different ones. Someone shouted, ‘It’s a horny violin!’ That’s a good one. She was cute, so it was okay."
Northwest LoveFest 2012
June 30 & July 1, Magnuson Park, $15–$25
July 6 at 8, Q Cafe, $8