Peter Biffin began instrument making in 1973. His professional work has included Renaissance and Baroque plucked stringed instruments, acoustic jazz guitars and various forms of tarhu. In these fields Peter’s instruments have been played by some of the world’s outstanding musicians. He has also done extensive experimental work in the fields of new instruments for Just Intonation, new instruments for Steiner Education and an assortment of fretless plucked instruments for his own playing.
Interview with Lindsay Rowlands for AZITIZ, Armidale Region Arts Diary March 2019
Peter Biffin, one of Australia’s foremost luthiers (noun; a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars.) lives on the outskirts of Armidale. Peter’s instruments are highly regarded internationally and as a performer he has appeared on the world stage.
What was the crucible that began your instrument making journey?
The really concrete trigger was when I was living in a remote corner of Spain around age 19. I smashed my guitar and couldn’t even guess how to find someone to repair it – if I wanted to keep playing I had to fix it. Even though I had played guitar for years before that, I had absolutely no idea what was inside a soundbox and was amazed at all these little bits of wood that all did…. something.
Can you point to anything in your childhood that lit the fire – billy carts, tree houses, slingshots, etc?
Yes, I did all those things……a 1950’s rural childhood. However, I think the more formative influences came from my parents. During my early teens my mother went through a metamorphosis, becoming a very prolific artist within one medium or another. I watched this transformation from the sidelines and found it really inspiring – both as my first exposure to what art might be, but also seeing that such inner transformation was possible. My father was a farmer, always building stuff to make farm processes work better. I did a lot of farm work right through my teens, and when equipment needed to be changed/upgraded he would always invite contributions as to what would be the best design and how it could be made. He was also a very fine leather-worker. I have still not seen leather plaiting that can equal some of what he did.
And music? Where did it start?
I started around 12 years old, playing accordion to begin with then a range of stringed instruments ending up on guitar. Living out in the bush provided zero opportunities to learn from anybody, so I taught myself. When I look at what a disciplined music education has allowed some of my own kids to achieve by their late teens, it feels like where I was up to at that same age was quite a bit less than nowhere……..however, as things turned out the self-taught, make-it-up-as-you-go approach was exactly the right beginning for me.
How did you learn your craft?
By making instruments……one after the other, learning new skills as the need arose, studying any instrument I came across, continually trying new ideas, getting right out on the thin branches and learning from ever fall.
I read in your interview with Danielle Rivière you began making instruments in order to have access to instruments you wanted to play, but had you made other things previously?
Through my late teens I often had a burning desire to make something…..didn’t know what. I made a few small metal sculptures, but my first instrument was my first piece of woodwork.
Is the creation of music the goal you focus on; is that what guides your decision making?
The main thing that guides my decision making is the creation of a sound. I have to keep an eye on the form of music that the sound is going to bring into existence, but the integrity of the sound itself is my main focus. It is also a reality of working as a professional luthier that one has to keep an eye on what the players are used to. It is quite possible to create a sound that will fulfill all of the requirements of the particular music, but that is so far from what the players are familiar with that it will never be accepted. Trying to channel the creative stream so that musical requirements, players expectations and luthier’s visions all line up can be quite tricky.
What instruments are you making these days?
Since the early 2000’s it has been pretty much tarhus of one sort or another.
Are you still asked to make other instruments?
I made a lot of Renaissance and Baroque instruments earlier on in my career, and many of those ended up being played by “important” people in Europe…….so inevitably requests still come, especially for Baroque guitars. I continued to make the occasional Baroque guitar until quite recently. I have also had a long-running connection with instruments for use in Steiner education and I still go back into that world every now and then. Over the decades I created an ensemble of new instruments in response to Steiner’s philosophy on children’s music. Between designing the instruments and writing about their application, I find that this field can be very consuming……..while having few financial rewards.
You are as much an innovator as you are a creator of known instruments. What do you feel are your greatest contributions to new objects and ideas?
The tarhu. It has been over 20 years since I created it, and now there are several other luthiers around the world also making them. It will take awhile yet to see whether the tarhu can gain enough of a foothold to survive without me, but the prospects are looking pretty good at this stage
What are some of the instruments you feel most personally rewarded making?
The ones that emerge from my dual roles as musician and instrument maker. In making something like a Baroque guitar, I function pretty much as a maker only – it is a long time since I have been personally involved in that music, so they don’t engage that side of myself and my perspectives as a musician don’t really come into play. It is quite a different experience when I am making something that is a central part of my own musical direction – the vision of where I am trying to take the sound is crystal clear and evaluating how close I have come to the mark requires no thought at all. Intuition is engaged in an unprecedented way and ideas that don’t work out just become another chance to learn something new. This happens especially with some of the tarhu variants and with a new off-shoot of the tarhu, the d’bush (the tarhu is predominantly a bowed instrument, the d’bush uses the same design concepts but is purely a plucked instrument)
Is that process what keeps you going?
Absolutely. If I get caught for too long in the just-making sort of making, the whole endeavour ceases to make sense.
If you hadn’t become a luthier, what do you think you would be doing now?
I have been doing it full time for 45 years now, hard to imagine doing anything else. Musician I suppose, but music as a money-making profession inevitably involves a lot of travel and I am essentially a hermit……..so instrument making suits me pretty well.
What’s the lived experience of making an instrument?
Its difficult to generalise. Let’s say it is an instrument that I am deeply involved in. Momentum takes awhile to build. Sketches, detailed drawings of any new aspect, several days of sitting around in the workshop playing related instruments. This phase will then usually involve a few experiments to test any new ideas. This initial phase then builds the momentum to actually start the new instrument. Usually there will then be a couple of weeks immersed in the woodwork, keeping in touch with the test instruments/experiments, little adjustments/changes as they suggest themselves. The tarhu and the d’bush are unusual in that they consist of a neck and a body shell, with all the important sound-producing parts being added as internal components. Once the outer form of the instrument is complete and varnished, I start to focus on what happens inside. This will often involve another few days of playing and listening combined with the use of the sleep cycle – taking the instrument’s burning questions into sleep each night and watching for intuitive answers in the morning. There is nothing so rewarding as having that process work. Once the inner components are finished and the instrument can be strung up, the final phase begins…….which can often go for weeks. Tarhu and d’bush are incredibly sensitive in terms of the effects small changes have on the sound and so it usually takes awhile to feel my way into the voice of the particular instrument and make the adjustments necessary to best realise the potential. In helping other luthiers make tarhus, the ability to negotiate this last phase is what I have had most difficulty in imparting – intuition is such an absolutely central part of it.
Are you currently performing?
No, not for awhile now. For me there has always been a pendulum-swing between workshop focus and music focus. My instruments reach a point of resolution where they are so enticing I can’t do much other than play them. Time goes by in the playing cycle and as I become more familiar with the instruments, small dissatisfactions start to creep in. The vision of what they could become is thus gradually refined and developed. Once the discrepancy between that vision and the reality on the ground becomes too great, I start heading back towards the workshop. At the moment the pendulum has traversed the instrument-making side and is starting back the other way with some new treasures for me to explore in the world of music.