Pursuing the mystery of Guadagnini

Highly Strung, the newest film by Scott Hicks, premieres at this month’s Adelaide Film Festival

One of the world’s rarest sets of instruments happens to reside here in South Australia. It is the only matching set of instruments by Guadagnini, who along with Stradivari and Guarneri makes up the triumvirate of history’s most revered violinmakers. Valued at around $6 million, these four instruments were acquired for the exclusive use of the Australian String Quartet through the vision of Ulrike Klein, whose philanthropy has also given us the amazing new Ngeringa Cultural Centre at Mount Barker Summit. It was enough to get Scott Hicks interested. He says he became fascinated the moment he first heard about it two years ago. This was when Klein and Alison Beare, Ngeringa’s then newly appointed general manager, made contact with him. “They asked me, ‘Do you think there’s a story in this?’, and I said ‘Wow, there are many layers to this’. Said yes immediately,” Hicks recalls. “It’s the only known grouping of Guadagnini instruments in the world, which itself is quite a challenge because he made very few violas or cellos. This was quite a story.” But the starting point in making Highly Strung was just as much Ulrike herself, he explains. “Here you have these four prized instruments and four virtuoso ASQ musicians playing them, but in addition to this is the story of a person who believes quite powerfully in giving back, and for whom music is so fundamental to her being. Ulrike does not particularly like the term ‘philanthropist’, but to me it is the greatest act of philanthropy for her to gather these instruments and make them available in perpetuity. That is an astounding cultural vision.” Shot on three continents and in 12 cities, Highly Strung explores the minds of instrument dealers, musicians and philanthropists through the prism of Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, who is acknowledged as one of the greatest violinmakers. The surprise is to realise how little has been known about him. “Guadagnini is shrouded in mystery,” says Hicks. “Only in recent years have very basic biographical details been discovered about him in Cremona. For hundreds of years he has been confused with his son, but biographical details have been gradually teased out. We actually went to the house he was born in. It’s in a tiny village [Bilegno, south of Milan] where there are a simple crossroads and church, a few houses, and not even a store. You wonder how on earth a world famous luthier came out of this. “His family were carpenters and poor, and he obviously taught himself. Amati came within an inch of perfecting the violin, and Stradivari did because he lived such a long life. Guadagnini is the next chapter in the history of violin making, but it was outside of Cremona. He picked up all the ideas of Stradivari, but he was an incredible maverick. He brought a real immediacy to his instrument making. An Italian luthier once said to me that Guadagnini had a very ‘happy hand’, meaning there’s a great feeling in his work. So his violins have become tremendously sought after.” Scott-Hicks The early violinmakers were working with an entirely different understanding of timber than we are familiar with today, believes Hicks. “They put such energy and love into it. Roberto Cavagnoli, a modern luthier from Cremona, explained to me that these are energies we don’t know or understand at all. He talked about the tremendous physical energy makers put into the wood when they carve it. It was an observation he just made at the time, but there are tremendous truths in that.” To this day a felled tree will actually be tapped, and if it is resonant it gets marked ‘R’ and is set aside as ‘tonewood’; the remainder goes for lumber. “There are vast warehouses of this tonewood in Cremona particularly, where it’s like Bunnings on steroids. I filmed Roberto doing this very thing, tapping and sorting through wood in these warehouses. He reads the grains of the wood, and says how fast it was growing for so many years and how it must have been cold during other years.” “One of the things we do is we follow how the luthier searches the forest for wood, all the way to the finished cello which we hand to the ASQ’s cellist, Sharon Draper. You can see the dedication and love that is put into that object, that instrument. You see its incredible beauty. But it’s a tool. The musician completes the picture.” For Hicks, documentary making is about exactly that: people not things. In the 1990s he was making documentaries on “arcane things like submarines and aircraft carries” for the Discovery Channel, and in the process says he realised that it is the obsessions and passions of the people behind these things where all the interest lies. “In music, that is an absolute given,” he says – which, coming from the maker of Shine and the Glass doco, could hardly ring truer. Making documentaries is also about exploding a few myths along the way too, Hicks adds. One of these in Highly Strung concerns the secret varnish recipes the old makers supposedly used. “So many films go back to the old tropes on subjects like this,” he says. “I asked a maker in Cremona who discovered Stradivari’s will a few years ago, and he was able to tell me how Stradivari lived right next door to a varnish maker, which might tell clues about who actually did the varnishing. This maker said it shows how we must get away from the notion that there’s just one key to unlock.” Highly Strung premieres Thursday, October 15 at the Adelaide Film Festival adelaidefilmfestival.org

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