At what point do you actually get to call yourself an artist? When does the world consider you one?
This was one of the many questions I found myself pondering, watching Strad Style, a film directed by Stefan Avalos that won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary and the Audience Award last week at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Avalos is a documentarist whom I met in 2014, when we spontaneously found ourselves working together, interviewing Giora Schmidt about his modern violin during the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
Strad Style is a film that emerged from Avalos' efforts to document violin-making, but it plays more like a thriller-comedy than a documentary. In fact, as I watched it at a sneak preview last week in Los Angeles, I thought Avalos had taken a turn at fiction -- but no.
If you think of a violin maker as a sophisticated artisan whose wood shavings fall onto a Persian carpet in a small but impeccable studio workshop in Cremona, Italy, then Daniel Houck might strike you as unusual. Actually, he might strike you as unusual anyway. That's what attracted Avalos to Houck, whom he met (through a Violinist.com friend!) shortly after we met, in 2014.
Houck, 32, jobless and chronically short on cash, lives in a ramshackle farmhouse in Laurelville, Ohio, literally in the middle of a corn field. Avalos thought Houck's story would be a short appendage to his bigger documentary on violin-making -- a sidebar on how it's pretty much impossible to make a violin if you don't have the proper training. But Houck turned Avalos' suppositions upside down -- with so many odds against him, Houck had raw talent, dogged determination and a heck of a story to tell. Los Angeles-based Avalos spent the next two years doing just that, visiting and filming Houck in Ohio.
Houck is impossibly obsessed with the violin, something the film makes immediately clear. He has a tattoo of Jascha Heifetz on his left arm, and a tattoo of Antonio Stradivari on his calf. He wears around a coat that says "Strad Style," hangs a picture of Paganini on his wall, the list goes on. For those musical Muggles in the audience who would not get the references, Avalos deftly -- even comedically -- sneaks in a lot of information about the history of violin-making. Here is a trailer of the movie:
Houck has no formal training in violin-making, aside from what he has learned on the Internet, which is apparently a great deal. He is not properly equipped with the right tools for the job, but his resourcefulness abounds, and when he gets in a real bind, local luthier Rodger Stearns sets things straight.
The story really gets going when, through a series of conversations on the Internet with Amsterdam-based Romanian violin soloist Razvan Stoica, Houck agrees to make Stoica a replica of the 1743 "Il Cannone" Guarneri del Gesù, the violin that Niccolò Paganini played, which sits in a glass case in the Genoa town hall in Italy. Houck agrees to deliver Stoica this violin in Amsterdam (Houck's first trip out of the country), the day before a big concert for Stoica. The clock starts, and the drama begins.
While Houck repeatedly sends Stoica "things are going great!"-type messages via the Internet, we see him assemble the violin in ways both traditional and highly unconventional, struggling constantly with the lack of heat in his house, his poor tools, his lack of money, his bipolar condition, skepticism from family and friends -- not to mention the innate complexities of building a violin. The blunders continue, as in an episode of Seinfeld, and it seems nearly impossible that Houck will be able to deliver on his promise.
Funny as it all is, I found an extremely poignant undercurrent in the story of Daniel Houck. It won't ruin the story to tell you that Houck actually does succeed in making the violin, and Stoica, whose main instrument is a 1729 Strad, is delighted with the instrument. The day after Houck delivers it to him, Stoica uses the instrument in a performance of Paganini Concerto No. 1 in Amsterdam.
Moving into the real world, Stoica also made a surprise appearance last week at the Slamdance Festival to play the Houck violin after the screening. Then he brought it to Los Angeles for another private concert Saturday, one that I attended at the home of Avalos' next-door neighbor.
Before the recital, while everyone was having refreshments, I made my way over to the piano. There was the now-famous Houck fiddle from the film, resting on the lid. I looked around, then carefully picked it up and examined it. It's a physically beautiful violin. A little heavy, but apparently so is "Il Cannone." No one seemed to be noticing, so I picked up the bow and played it for a bit. A genuinely beautiful tone. A photographer at the party caught me red-handed:
When Stoica played it? Well, it sounded even better, of course. Stoica's playing is both artful and virtuosic; below is a sample from the recital.
Still, I'm left with the question: when are you an artist? I think this quirky violin maker always was one, and always will be.
If it comes to your neighborhood, go see this wonderful film! Those in LA can see it at the Hollywood Arclight for a screening in March; and hopefully it will be making a larger circle of rounds in the fall.
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