Liminal Timbres

A few instruments from the Liminal Timbres collection

The vast majority of violins available today are copies of instruments made by three legendary craftsmen: Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati.

In fact, a significant percentage of them are copies of one specific Strad, made in 1716 and nicknamed the “Messiah.”

An early 20th century violin modeled on a Guarnerius from the 17th century, next to a 1/132 scale instrument. Though it fits in the palm of the hand, it is fully playable.

Of course, people have been experimenting with the violin all along, from lengthening the fingerboard and adding things like shoulder rests, to more extreme changes.

However, the mythos surrounding “fine” instruments, combined with the extremely high standards set by conservatories and contemporary recordings, have created a sonic monoculture. The music is beautiful, but what do we lose when we focus on a single definition of what the violin is?

Liminal Timbres is an exploration of the world of the violin beyond the limits of what we’ve come to expect. With this growing collection of altered and modified instruments, we can open our ears to new and unexpected sound worlds.

These instruments challenge our ideas about what the violin is. Where do we draw the line? And what happens when we try to take them seriously?

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, we find it disturbing. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

This quote from John Cage has become a touchstone for this project. If we listen to these instruments expecting to hear a Strad, we might be disappointed. But if we listen to them on their own terms, even the most familiar repertoire becomes transformed.

The aluminum violins were painted with a wood grain finish.

Are you curious yet?

Liminal Timbres is a multifaceted project that can include solo or chamber performances, workshops for violin students, and community outreach.


The Liminal Timbres concert features an eclectic repertoire utilizing a variety of violins from the collection, anchored by selections from the Bach cello suites (performed on the octave violin pictured above) and John Cage’s “Eight Whiskus.” Composed using the famous chance procedures, Liminal Timbres adds an extra layer of chance by using a spinner to determine which violin will play each mini-movement.


The tone workshop uses instruments from the collection to help students find agency in tone production. Figuring out how to engage with instruments with very different capacities and demands can unlock new freedom on one’s own instrument.

This workshop is adaptable for any students who can play a full-size violin, but ideal for more advanced students.


The improv workshop uses instruments from the Liminal Timbres collection alongside the ideas of Murray Schafer, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and others to introduce students to text and graphic scores as well as free improvisation. This can be the springboard for more focused creativity on their own instrument, or for more traditional composing.

This workshop is suitable for all violin students, but especially those who can play a full-size violin.


The first Liminal Timbres event took place at the 2022 Re-Happening, an annual festival celebrating experimental art and the legacy of Black Mountain College. For this day-long event, I set up a selection of violins from the collection as an interactive exhibit (aka “instrument petting zoo”). Visitors to the exhibit could engage with the violins (with as much or little assistance as necessary) while learning more about their history. I adapted “Klickitat Ride,” a text score by Pauline Oliveros that presents 108 directives for sound, into a community improvisation project, creating recordings that may be used in a future work. The open exhibit was bookended with two performances.

The only constant…

From a classically rooted past to a postmodern future, the violin will continue to evolve. I am still adding to the Liminal Timbres collection and am always open to new ideas!