Please welcome Maika Keuben to our growing team of staff writers. Maika is the co-editor of Archie McPhee’s Geyser of Awesome (I recommend setting aside many hours to fall down into that glorious rabbit hole). You may find her on her two tumblr pages, Liquid Night and Analogue Visions, and on Instagram as @LiquidNight.
Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin…
If ever an instrument was meant to perform Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (Op. 40) it was this, the Blackbird, a full-size, playable violin made from a black diabase tombstone, the only one of its kind.
The Blackbird was conceived, designed, and created by Swedish artist Lars Widenfalk. While working with large diabase blocks for a project in Oslo, Norway, Widenfalk noticed how the stone gave off a strong, beautiful tone when struck with a hammer and chisel, singing “like a bronze bell.” It was then that he became curious about testing the limits of this dense crystalized plutonic rock, 1.6 billion years old, as an artistic medium.
Photo by Gabriel Urbanek
Widenfalk acquired a piece of highest quality Swedish diabase when his grandfather’s tombstone was retired due to the creation of a shared family grave. He based his design for the stone violin on the original designs of Antonio Stradivari’s famed Stradivarius violins, making exceptions for a few technical modifications of his own that enabled this unique instrument to be playable. The painstaking, high-precision process of cutting, carving, and assembling the Blackbird took two years, from 1990-1992.
Its sound box measures a mere 2.5 mm thick and features a gilded interior. The fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece, and chin-rest are made of ebony. Because original Stradivarius instruments were often given names related to birds, Widenfalk felt the name Blackbird was the natural choice for his glossy black violin. Its bridge was carved from a piece of rare Siberian mammoth ivory, the yellowest ivory available, which beautifully symbolizes a blackbird’s yellow beak.
Photo by Gabriel Urbanek
The diabase instrument weighs 2 kg, 4 times heavier than a standard violin. But it is considerably lighter than its only peers, marble violins made by Czech sculptor Jan Rericha, which weigh between 3.6 and 6.5 kg.
Such a singular violin, hewn out of the tombstone of its creator’s grandfather, black as a moonless night sky; the Blackbird must be beloved among psychopomps wishing to soothe tormented souls. It is instrumental memento mori meant to be played by a liminal fiddler to accompany the living as they dance with the dead, à la the Macabray from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, or perhaps simply The Mamushka.
Watch this video to hear the Blackbird sing:
Visit Lars Widenfalk’s website to learn more about the Blackbird violin.