eja Teadus ja Kunst
Наука и Искусство
Science and Arts

Gabriel Passov
and his
Chord Viola
(virtual interview)

Accept my belated congratulations on your invention. The first question that crosses my mind: As far as I know, the violin has not changed for hundreds of years. How did an idea arise to add something, to make a change? For whom is it necessary? For what purpose?

Regular viola

The modern violin was created by Andrea Amati in 1550. Since then it changed a little in spite of the fact that about 700 inventions were registered (in a class of bow instruments). Bow instruments are designed for solo, i.e. they are not suitable for playing chords. At the same time, there is a special group of chord instruments (keyboard, plucked) that allow to play solo or chords alternately (solo and accompaniment).

The Gipsy musicians of Eastern Europe needed an accord tool to reduce the size of their ensemble. Keyboard instruments (harpsichord, clavichord) didn't suit because of their bulkiness (not transportable), plucked instruments (lute, guitar) didn't suit because of their low power (low sound), a harp had both of these limitations.

Brasca - three-stringed chord viola

Therefore, they modified a viola for this purpose, having made it a chord instrument. In the Gipsy-Hungarian tradition such instrument is called "Bracha (bracsa)”.

Bracsa (the Gipsy 3-stringed chord viola) was created for execution of chords. Solo performances using this instrument are extremely difficult because this bracsa is a single-mode instrument. I modified it in such a way that it is possible to perform chords and solo episodes in turns. Two-mode performance is very valuable fir violinists giving them the chance to use accompaniment and solo tunes in turns.

So why didn't Gipsy musicians turn their bracsa into a two-mode instrument?

Strangely enough, the reasons were not technical but social. The Gipsy community is deeply patriarchal and authoritative. A musical group is a social entity whose leader (as is typical for their community) doesn't allow other members of ensemble to be the soloist. For comparison, there is democracy in jazz. Everyone has the right to play solo… Why add the solo mode to bracsa if the musician would not be allowed to play solo…

And still, how did you, all of a sudden, become engaged in all this and "to whom it is necessary"?

The idea arose when my acquaintance, the violinist Priyt Bernhardt, familiarized me with a chord viola (bracsa) and gave me his own viola which has been already modified as bracsa. He showed me some introductory methods of playing this instrument, and I began to practice. Soon I realized that I could try adding a solo register to its chord register. I started exploring the ways to do so.
For whom is it necessary? Let’s say, it gives the violist playing the accompaniment on bracsa an opportunity to expand the performing capabilities by including the solo episodes. It reduces an ensemble from a quintet to a trio, and replaces a guitar (with its amplifier), which makes the ensemble moving closer to audience.

Is your invention officially recognized, patented?

Yes. There is a form of recognition of the invention. It is called "Utility model". Its protection is weaker than of a patent (10 years instead of 20), and it is valid only in Estonia. But what is important – the invention is worldwide, i.e. nobody and nowhere could receive a patent for this invention. For the entire history of the Estonian State our invention is the first and the only one in a class of bow instruments.

I am not a technical expert. Tell me please, in a popular form, what is the essence of your invention?

It is always difficult to explain in words any technical things. There are illustrations, the design. One problem is that if it is too simple and clear, there is a temptation to steal. After all this type of patent protection works only in Estonia...

String lifting mechanism is in chord mode. Photo by V. Laur

String lifting mechanism is in solo mode. Photo by V. Laur

Interesting. The obvious question: How come nobody had this idea before? Why is it you and why now, but not 40 years ago?

I already spoke about the Gipsy musicians. The question about “why and now” is difficult. A lot of things happened by accident. Naturally, I am not a professional musician and I have no prejudice. For example, experts in aerodynamics tell us: "Flying, the dragonfly breaks laws of aerodynamics but why does it fly?" "Because it doesn't know these laws." My coauthor, the doctor of physics, says that our predecessors definitely tried, but it didn't work. We were not aware of that, and also we were lucky.

As I understand, you had assistants and consultants? Who helped you with work?

The total list includes about 50 names. There are three coauthors:

  • Roman Denisov, doctor of physics, author of the string lifting mechanism
  • Rayvo Hiyema, violin master, head of a workshop of musical instruments of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, the screw elevator idea
  • Priyt Bernhardt, the violinist, studied gipsy musicians in Hungary.

Also, I want to mention the violinist and the teacher, Mikhkel Kuusler, my violin and chord viola instructor who writes transcriptions for C/V.

It is necessary to mention Mikhail Kazinik (a star of the Russian television in a genre of promoting of classical music). In 2012, being in Tallinn on a tour, he found time to listen to me and my instrument. He helped me very much having made the recommendations, and he opened for me doors to various musical institutions of Russia. Thanks to Kazinik's support, I was presented to the composer Shandor Kalosh who wrote the only existing work for accord viola, "Concerto Grosso Per Viola Gabriele solo".

How do musicians, violinists treat your innovation? Whether there is a hope for broad application of your invention? As they say, what are your "creative plans"?

Strictly speaking, I don't know it. The majority (about 300 people) to whom I sent my article didn't answer (297). Those whom I informed personally didn't react either. I can tell that there are people (colleagues) with whom I play music who help me in advancing my ideas.

There is a difference between innovations in technology and culture. In the first case, the innovation "is measured". Better speed, weight, volume, stability, and other technical parameters. To promote innovations, they are advertised. In the second case, the innovation can be just some subjective feeling, formation of a new habit, unmeasurable timbre, or new performing opportunities ... These subjective parameters are impossible to be advertised directly. For example, the new instrument needs to be "promoted" like in the case of a vocalist. Only after it becomes known, it can be “bought” (going to concerts). It will be noticed by musicians and noted as emergence of a new fashion (trend), and they will try to imitated this hoping for financial success...

So I have no special hope for broad application of this invention. To get any support from a foundation, you need to state that there would be buyers. I don’t have any. For this, it is necessary to make the instrument well known (to promote it). For this reason, I decided to stop the campaign of information dissemination and musicians familiarization with my invention; I decided to be engaged in playing music. Norbert Wiener once wrote: "If you put a monkey in front of a typewriter, that it is insignificantly small probability that during an infinitely long period of time it will compose L. Tolstoy's novel "War and peace".

I don't lose hope that, having seen success of an ensemble that includes the Chord Viola, musicians will want to earn some money and will claim the new instrument. Hoping for best results, than that of Wiener's monkey…

Thank you, Gaby! Can you tell a little about yourself. Your ancestors have lived in Estonia for a long time?

I was born in 1946 in Tallinn and was the youngest child (sister Rachel) in a family of Ber Passov (1917, Tallinn) and Blyuma Shapiro (1915, Narva). The Etonian Passovs were natives of Belarus (Gorodock, a town inthe Vitebsk province). The great-grandfather Jacob moved to Valga in 1897, having got a job on the Pskov/Riga railroad. In 1910 he moved to Tallinn. His younger daughter Zelma, having graduated, in 1934, from the Tarty University with degree in natural sciences (with honors), taught chemistry and biology in the Jewish gymnasium. All I know about the family of my mother is that her parents (Gabrielle Shapiro and Doba Shapiro (Aronovich)) moved from Lithuania to Narva at the beginning of the XX.

My first encounter with music took place in 1948. I remember that a violin was hanging on a wall of our bedroom. The grandfather Gershen bought it at a flea market from a soldier in 1945 and then sold it in 1948 to Yoonas, the violinist of Estonia Theater who lived on our street. I went to the kindergarten, and once when mother came for me, the teacher told her: "Your boy tells about a violin. My father is a violinist who could teach him". The father took me to this teacher. It was the same violinist who bought a violin from my grandfather. The teacher listened to me, and all three of us went and bought a violin. Later the teacher showed me more than once this valuable instrument which he couldn't sell as it was ¾ the size. Later, when I didn't wish to practice, parents often told me: "You wanted to play music yourself and you even found the teacher yourself"

After a year of music lessons, it was decided to apply in Youth Music School. For examination I was prepared by the pianist Dora Rybak who was my aunt Zema's neighbor. I was accepted to a class of Asya (Asmik) Arutyunovna Matsova with whom I studied for 2 years (she transferred to teach at Musical School). I remember that when Asmik was not available, I was sent to her home and I had lessons with her husband, the conductor Roman Matsov (educational process shouldn't have interrupted).

After 2 years Erich Loit became my teacher. Despite my resistance, he succeeded in get me as far as the Youth Music School graduation. I was in touch with him up to his death in 2012. Many Jewish children studied at this music school: Jean Patoursqui, Ellick Meyertal, Dima Supin, Eduard Klas (all on a violin). Later, I recognized many of the musicians and greeted them.

I didn't become a musician. Instead, I got a degree in engineering of electronic equipment. After the graduation from Tallinn Polytechnic Institute (TPI) and until retirement I worked for Computer Centers as the engineer - the operator of CPU.

I returned to music in 2006 – after a 45-year break.

You can watch the Estonian TV program (in Estonian) about this invention here

Gabi Passov's unternet site

Video materials of Aleksander Borshevsky.

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