Bob Childs has built violins for nearly 35 years, customizing every instrument to meet a musician's desires in feel and sound. With his ensemble Childsplay, up to 30 musicians who share a love of Childs’ instruments come together to blend various specialties into a unique brand of contemporary fiddle music.
Together since 1986 and united by instruments Childs has hand-crafted, the band sought a fresh ingredient when devising a direction for their fifth album, 'Waiting for the Dawn.' They brought in a human voice.
The vocals of Aoife O'Donovan, founding member of the modern bluegrass band Crooked Still, are central to 'Waiting for the Dawn,' the most diverse and multi-faceted album in Childsplay's history.
"The idea was to examine the relationship between the voice and the violin," Childs says. It is often said that of all musical instruments the violin, when it is played soulfully, is most like the human voice. I now realize that part of the reason I have come to craft violins has been to give voice to my early experience, my early years of living in foster homes, to create a vehicle for something that I didn’t have language for. So for me there is something profound and moving in adding the voice to the violin."
One constant through each of Childsplay's albums is the use of fiddle tunes from Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton in addition to new compositions by band members, and fiddle-based music from other lands. It's a co-mingling of cultures, brought under one roof by a band of top-drawer musicians who specialize in styles ranging from folk-based dance music to European classical.
"We're inventing this as we go," Childs says of the band's sound. "We play different styles of music, do a lot of old time music and play a lot of new music, all of it with a real contemporary focus. We're not focused on replicating a sound."
Sound engineer Bill Winn, who has engineered for jazz artists and classical ensembles, used an old Decca Records trick with microphones suspended in the studio. “The cool thing,” Childs avers, “was he created a space for Aoife's voice and surrounded her with the violins." Pete Sutherland, the Vermont fiddler whose recording career dates back to 1969, produced the album.
On 'Waiting for the Dawn,' Childsplay has forged a good number of medleys, using the traditional and modern to create an invigorating take on fiddle music. The band has turned to pop music, U2's "Mothers of the Disappeared" and the Elvis Presley hit "Love Me Tender," in addition to the compositions of the band's members. Keith Murphy's "SamSam Amidon" is paired with the traditional tune "Good Morning to Your Night Cap"; a song Shannon Heaton wrote for the wedding of Childsplay violinist Lissa Schneckenburger, "Frost Place," is married to one of her earlier compositions, "Otherwise Engaged," and "The Aughamore" by renowned Irish composer Ed Reavy. The opening track brings together a traditional Cape Breton tune, "Ratting Roaring Willie," with a Scottish original, "High Drive."
Liz Carroll wrote music for a 2008 Childsplay tour specifically to be choreographed by Pilobolus dancer Molly Gawler. The composition appears on 'Waiting for the Dawn' as "Liam Childs/Balkin Balkan/The E-B-E Reel."
"Liz is trying to bridge the worlds between the old style and the new by making intricate harmonies much more complex and ultimately more interesting,” Childs notes. If there is one characteristic that makes Childsplay music stand out from traditional styles, Childs says it is the rhythmic quality of their music. And that, he proudly states, owes to the varied backgrounds of the players.
Among the specialties of fiddlers in the band: Hanneke Cassel was the National Scottish Fiddle champ in 1997; Lissa Schneckenburger has a solo career as a fiddler and folk singer; Laurel Martin is an Irish fiddler and educator; Naomi Morse specializes in English country dance music; and Bonnie Bewick has been a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1987. Every Childsplay member, save for Bob, makes their living as musician separate from the ensemble.
"It's a collection of all-stars coming together," Childs says. "There's a lot of trust in the group - each person gets to have input into the band.
"Having Bonnie in the band has been helpful in getting us to play more as an ensemble, bringing in the classical side of playing as a unit. It's a real opportunity for everyone to try different things. When we get together, each of us is expanding the way we approach the violin. And because we have been playing together a long time we have evolved our sound organically."
In his teen years, Childs worked as a furniture maker in Maine and started playing the violin as a hobby. His instrument was in need of repair and when he approached the local instrument craftsman, Ivie Mann, the two bonded: The 70-year-old Mann offered to makes Childs his first-ever student and pass along his knowledge about instrument building and repair. Childs dove headfirst into crafting violins and violas, eventually moving to Philadelphia where he learned under Anton Smith and Michael Weller. Soon he was getting commissions to make instruments for violinists, most of them members of symphony orchestras.
While in Philadelphia, Childs received a call from a group of seven violinists in Washington, D.C., inviting him to visit and perform with them. Childs said yes, figuring it would be a fun diversion. The bandleader then alerted him that they all played instruments he had made - and that the band was called Childsplay. That was in 1986.
Shortly thereafter, Childs set up shop in Cambridge, Mass., building instruments out of the third floor of his family's home. He has made about 150 instruments - he now does about six a year - and uses Childsplay as a performance and education group. Besides touring and performing at folk festivals, about four times a year members of Childsplay will visit schools to expose children to fiddle music and dance.
"It's something I have done since I started making violins, "Childs says. "It sends a message to young people that it is possible to do things yourself."