Nestled in a corner of the most historic of Liverpool city centre’s historic buildings is a secret getaway, where a master craftsman goes about his work by the light of a flickering candle. PHOENIX VIOLINS has been a fixture of The Bluecoat for many years, presided over with great warmth by its wise and gregarious owner, Michael Phoenix. We sent Glyn Akroyd along to find out a little more about the world and work of one of the city’s hidden gems.
A light shining through the autumn twilight guides me across The Bluecoat’s garden to the Phoenix Violins workshop, a grotto of wood shavings, blueprints, wall charts, brushes, glues, and esoteric tools. The bodies of stringless cellos stand waiting, lifeless in a corner, and violins hang like glazed hams from the ceiling, next to bunches of thick, white horsehair.
Michael Phoenix is a big guy with a big beard, a shock of white hair currently tied back and a twinkle in his eye. His craftsman’s apron bears the symbol of his name and, after a quick summary of his journey to date – a brief career as a computer analyst, seven years of training at the prestigious Newark Music College for a J & A Beare Diploma, making, restoring and repairing a range of violins, violas and cellos from a studio at his home in Mold, and now The Bluecoat – he launches into the story of his long-term plan, the Scouservarius Legacy Project: “I got the idea in 2003. I think about it every day; it won’t go away until it’s done”. The project is now in the delicate Arts Council funding application stage.
Each individual will contribute a single task, which could be as simple as drawing a line on the template or as intricate as carving part of the scroll that decorates the head of each instrument, depending on the skills of the contributor. Now, making such a contribution may sound fairly prosaic but with typical flair Michael manages to elevate proceedings: “In 400 years’ time people will actually be listening to these instruments and going ‘Who made these?’,” he laughs. “When a musician plays an old instrument – say it’s been stuck up in the loft – they go ‘Oh, it’s forgotten how to play’, implying that it has a memory: ‘It needs to be played in’. So if a violin has a memory it would be in the fibres of the wood.” To demonstrate, he proffers an old mug filled with coloured straws. “These represent the fibres of the wood, so pick a fibre.” I draw a straw from the mug. “Put the wood to your forehead and put a memory into the wood. Everyone who takes part will do this. Put your happiest memory in.” I do so. “Then take another fibre and put your saddest memory in, and finally put your most romantic memory in, and lock it into the instrument and then when it’s played the instrument is primed with happiness, sadness and romance. But it’s not just about the making of the instruments, it’s about demonstrating that if we all do one small thing together we can create something magnificent.” It’s a grand, romantic vision and Michael Phoenix makes its success sound both inevitable and desirable.
The idea is this: get 2400 Liverpudlians and visitors to the city to make a string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello). Once created, the instruments would be hired out to orchestras, individuals, concert halls (“Sydney Opera House, why not!”). The resulting funds – managed by another of his projects, the Liverpool Quartet Trust – would be poured back into educational schemes providing instruments, tuition and exam fees for aspiring musicians, and to commission new pieces of music.
In order to raise the profile of the Scouservarius Legacy Project, he has collaborated with the Liverpool String Quartet since 2012 and they, and other guest artists, have been performing regularly at The Bluecoat and other Merseyside venues. Their current programme sees them based at the beautiful Nordic Church on Park Lane with monthly, themed performances including an upcoming Carol Concert on 21st December, a Charity Gala in conjunction with Radio Merseyside in January, and an afternoon of Parisian jazz in February.
The workshop is littered with objects, large and small, all of which play their part in the process of making and restoration, and many of which have a quality and beauty all of their own: nestled in the palm of Michael’s hand, a set of five tiny wood planes, their bases curved to better follow the arches of the instrument’s breast and belly; a spruce violin front which rises from its outer edges to a central ridge, its map-like contours marked by an un-named hand-tool designed by Stradivari himself, itself another triumph of art and engineering. “Sometimes,” Michael says, “people leave messages or objects inside their instruments – one maker left a note stating that he was in poor health and that this was probably the last violin he would ever make. An American bluegrass player came in for some work on his fiddle and said, ‘I’d better warn you there’s something in there, I don’t want you to freak out and drop it’. I peer inside and there’s a rattlesnake tail. I said, ‘I spend all my life trying to stop these things from rattling and you put that in!’ ‘It’s to ward off evil spirits,’ he deadpans. Didn’t half resonate.”
Does he play? “I’ve got a theory about that,” he declares, unsurprisingly. “I am very suspicious of players who make violins, because they tend to be failed players who go to making. I come to it through a love of wood first and then of music. Life’s too short to be a player and a maker, because you can’t work out the making, you’ve got to be taught. Players think they can create an instrument that will sound exactly the way they want, but it’s not possible. If the musician is the painter, I’m the guy who stretches his canvas, puts hair on a stick and mulls some coloured powder, but only yellow, blue and red; it’s up to him to mix the shades and to paint the picture.”
It’s a nice analogy, but one that somewhat undervalues the years of dedication Michael Phoenix has brought to his craft. In a world of throwaway, made to fall apart, short-termist junk here is a true craftsman, an artisan who takes total pride in his work and has an eye on the long game. If he pulls off the Scouservarius Legacy Project then he just might qualify as a visionary too. So pop along to the Bluecoat and think about the happiest of times, the saddest of times, and that first romantic kiss.
Words: Glyn Akroyd
Photography: Antonio Franco / antoniofranco.net