IN his workshop at the back of his house in Cork city, violin maker Bertrand Galen is working on one of his creations - a violin made from maple wood and spruce.
It’s for a client and is part of his practice that also involves repairing instruments.
Bertrand, a Frenchman who has been living in Cork since 1999, is himself a cellist and performs classical as well as improvised music. His instruments are on view at The Old Cinema in Bantry as part of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s exhibition of makers’ instruments until July 3.
Bertrand was part of the renowned Interference band, led by the late Fergus O’Farrell for ten years. He toured with them to the Czech Republic and New York. Bertrand’s recording work for The Swell Season with Glen Hansard made him part of an Oscar-winning soundtrack which saw him tour America, playing to packed venues including Radio City.
For these projects, Bertrand worked in collaboration with Finnish violinist, Marja Gaynor.
From a musical family in Metz in eastern France, Bertrand started playing the cello at the age of seven. He was also doing gymnastics at the time and had to make a choice. Music won out. He was also enjoying making things with his hands, even though he says he’s not “super-creative”. As a cello player, he had to learn how to maintain the instrument. And he was inspired by a violin maker that he used to visit.
“I liked the quietness in his studio, the smell of the instruments and the light. I remember coming home from holidays in the car when I had this light bulb moment. I decided I wanted to be a violin maker. I was 13 or 14 at the time.”
Bertrand learnt his craft at the French school of violin making in Mirecourt, where he started at the age of 15.
“It’s not far from where I lived. People come to the school from all over France and beyond. It’s the cradle of violin making in France.”
After school, Bertrand moved to Paris and worked as an assistant to a violin maker, doing repair work. He also went to jazz school. He came to Cork because he wanted “a new experience” and to perfect his English.
And a friend from the violin school, Jeremie Legrand encouraged Bertrand to follow him to Cork. It was the Celtic Tiger era and there was plenty of work. Bertrand initially shared a workshop with Jeremie. A year after arriving in the city, Bertrand opened his own workshop. It’s located in Maylor Street.
Bertrand does a lot of repair work, mostly for the MTU Cork School of Music.
“I get a lot of work through word-of-mouth recommendations. I don’t get much work from traditional music players. People choose (their instrument repairers) based on the music they understand. So, for me, I would get more classical players coming to me.
"Making violins is like the cherry on the cake. I do a lot of repair work and I make violas a lot. I try to make more violins because I just want to get better at it.”
The MTU Cork School of Music co-commissioned Bertrand to create two quartets of string instruments which are played each year by the school’s top musicians.
His instruments are played in numerous countries, by musicians such as Rebecca Jones, Aiveen Gallagher, David Kenny, Adam Newman, and Sinéad O’Halloran.
How did Bertrand come to work with Glen Hansard?
“Interference was touring and the band crossed paths with Glen in the Czech Republic. They were playing in the same venue.
“Marja Gaynor and I were doing a sound check. We were messing around. Glen said, ‘what was that?’ He’s a bit intimidating in some ways because he’s so intense. I didn’t know if ‘what was that?’ was a good thing or a bad thing. A few days later, I got a text asking would I like to record with Glen. It was the summer and the recording was in December. That was the start of our collaboration.
“We recorded the album, The Swell Season. It was the first time Glen had recorded outside his band, The Frames. From that album, we toured. We were really happy when we broke even. The Swell Season (released in 2006) was linked to the film Once. And the song featured in it, Falling Slowly, won the Oscar.”
Bertrand’s instruments can be viewed and played at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, along with the work of other fine instrument makers. “The idea is to open it up to the public and to do a demonstration. There might be a few talks and small conferences as well. It’s a way of interacting with musicians and getting feedback.”