Instrumental: The Violin Expresses Sarah Neufeld’s Many Voices

December 13, 2019

Sarah Neufeld. Credit: Gesi Schilling.

By: Matt Williams

Violinist Sarah Neufeld was a feisty, determined little kid who, by her own admission, worshipped her brother, who’s older than her by a few years. When she was just two years old, her brother started taking violin lessons which she would be forced to attend, as she was still just a baby. Not content to just sit and listen, Neufeld would grab for the violin as her brother played it, demanding that she get to play it, too. “It wasn’t like I just wanted the toy because he had it,” Neufeld says over the phone from New York City. “I really loved it.”

Eventually, when she was three, she got the chance to take lessons herself. Even at such a young age, she remembers feeling like she was finally being taken seriously. She was started on the Suzuki method, a Japanese music curriculum and teaching philosophy that was popular at the time, in the early ‘80s, and she was hooked.

“It brought me a lot of joy to play pieces that resonated with me,” Neufeld says. “I remember really connecting on the first levels, and what I enjoyed most as a little kid—actually my mom says it was the only way she could really get me to spend time playing—was improvising. She was crafting improvising games that the two of us would play together, and I could just go on and on and on. It was basically a game of improvising a phrase and having the other person play it back. My mom was a total genius with me, because I loved improvising and I was really competitive—‘I’m going to make a phrase so long and so hard my mom will never be able to play it back to me on her flute. Haha!’ That’s how I started writing music.”

Neufeld’s playing is often expansive and sweeping, full and bold. Her second solo record The Ridge, released in 2016, is filled with otherworldly compositions—wordless, breathy vocal parts, violin that ranges from uneasy and mysterious to melancholic, bordering on traditional with tunes like “Where the Light Comes In,” if it weren’t buoyed by low-booming synth. It has always felt to me like the soundtrack to some long-lost, silent, desert planet sci-fi film, scenes awash in the saturated blues and yellows of the album cover. She’s worked for ages with Arcade Fire, is a member of Bell Orchestre, and has frequently collaborated with Colin Stetson.

It’s clear that, as a kid, the violin brought her immense joy. It’s so often the case with creative pursuits that, if you’re lucky enough to make a career of it, that joy can quietly seep away. So I’m curious whether playing still conjures that feeling now, decades later, and Neufeld’s answer is nuanced—there is a balance to be struck between joy, work, and creation that, depending on the task, shifts perpetually.

“I practice my solo pieces until I think they sound good,” Neufeld says. “And then sometimes I carve space out to be creative and write music, but I don’t do that enough. I need to do it more and that’s the thing with life and with your 40s. Everybody says the same thing. Time starts to move quicker and you start to realize like, ‘Oh, I’m not giving myself enough time to do things that really bring me joy.’ That includes the kind of joy brought on by a light-hearted approach to just playing music. I’m talking to you at a phase where I’m really busy and also working on an album so I’m not in like the juicy creative flow—I’m more in a ‘getting things done flow.’”

Neufeld got her longest-running instrument when she was 11, finally able to play a full-sized violin—a beautiful, old, late-1800s French instrument her grandparents bought. She threw a pick-up on it and started touring with Arcade Fire. One day she opened her case after a show and found that the violin was, ‘kind of shattered—big cracks in multiple places.’ She bought a carbon fiber violin because she figured it would hold up better, but then realized it didn’t really have a voice or personality and wasn’t any fun to play.

“So I just looked at that old violin from when I was 11, and it had weathered those cracks,” Neufeld says. “It was fine. Luthiers can really fix quite a lot of those problems. It was still great. And I was like, ‘Okay, you’re officially my rock violin. You’ve served me well and you’ve shown that you can you can take a beating. Sorry, pal, but you’re gonna just be the rock violin.’”

Then she went on a quest, while she was writing her first album Hero Brother around 2011, that found her wandering through a bunch of New York’s fancy violin shops. She found a beautiful instrument by a contemporary maker—”very full of character, really robust sound, quite hard to play.” She eventually noticed that it was extremely finicky, its sound and playability deeply affected by humidity, weather, temperature. So a couple years ago, she headed into another shop and told them what she was looking for.

“I needed something with a great sound, that wouldn’t be over-reactive, that could just weather a little bit more hassle than my fancy violin, but respond better and be more beautiful sounding than my childhood violin that had graduated into the rock violin. And I found this perfect instrument that can also take a beating,” Neufeld says. “But it has no personality in terms of its appearance.”

Neufeld says that picking out a violin is stressful, totally contextual, and compares it to wine-tasting. What makes sense depends on the day, the room, your ear. You go back multiple times on different kinds of days, borrow it for a week and see how it lives. And as is the case with many instruments, different tools work for different styles. Neufeld’s playing crosses genres and what she needs from her instrument changes depending on the music.

“That’s the nature of the beast for violin,” Neufeld says. “If you don’t end up sticking with your violin you’ve had forever and you start shopping around a little bit, you end up with these newer instruments that you don’t have a long story with. It just fits for the reasons that you have today, and it doesn’t have a big, beautiful story or anything.”

Sure, Neufeld’s ‘rock violin’ has a lifetime of stories in it, but the instrument she’s using the most currently, which makes it the most important one in her arsenal, is relatively new, nondescript, a workhorse. While this Instrumental series has most often focused on the stories of individual tools, this is an important deviation in theme that perhaps gets overlooked: tools of creation change depending on how the creator changes. Neufeld’s current violin is most capable of what she needs a violin for at this moment—recording a new solo record that is, “very romantic and heartbreaking.” It’s heavy on the arpeggios, with a lot of feelings and smooth timbres. Neufeld says the music cascades like, “an immersive waterfall of notes.”

So, it’s the violin—in all its many incarnations—that remains the instrument that best expresses Neufeld’s own personality.

“I like how dynamic it is,” she says. “It’s kind of like a human voice in that way. I find it very easy to interact with other instruments because I can join in. I can play with other people without taking over, I can be in the background, but I can also then be in the foreground and be really melodic or really rhythmic. I think it’s really versatile. And it’s also got this really extreme range of sound. It can be beautiful, it can be super scary and ugly, it can be tiny, it can be huge. So I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s the most natural extension of my own voice.”

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

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