© Jonte Knif
© Jonte Knif
At last summer’s BRQ Vantaa Festival, audiences were introduced to a remarkable new instrument: the omniwerk. Jonte Knif and harpsichord builder Jukka Ollikka combined two historical keyboard instruments – the geigenwerk (or viola organista) and the lauternwerk – into one totally new instrument.

It was Sławomir Zubrzycki’s work on creating a viola organista in 2012 which proved the inspiration for Ollikka, when he realised he could combine a geigenwerk with a lauternwerk. They both have gut strings and share the same tuning, so a “lautengeigenwerk” (literally a ”lute-violin-instrument”) seemed a distinct possibility.  Lauri Porra, a Finnish bassist and composer (and great-grandson of Sibelius) commissioned Ollikka to make the instrument. 

The omniwerk has two manuals, which can be played at the same time, producing a remarkable range of sounds. The BRQ Vantaa Festival was responsible for bringing it to the public. Artistic director Markku Luolajan-Mikkola recommended Ilpo Laspas, who performed a recital which put the omniwerk through its paces for the first time:

 

 

Jonte Knif told Bachtrack more about the design of the omniwerk and something about its incredible sound:

The two "parts" of the instrument have different needs in soundboard and bridge structures because one is plucked and should have enough sustain of its own, while the other gets more energy to the string from the bow during the whole duration of a note. Also, the basic harmonic structure of the sound waves in the string are very different with plucking and bowing. More importantly the plucking and bowing produce vibrations in different directions, therefore the bridge and soundboard combo has to be responsive to all directions. This makes a continuous bridge, as in harpsichords, an impossibility, so multiple bridges must be used. This then causes stringing challenges in the treble.

Also stringing requirements are different, ideally the Lauten part should have thinner stringing than the Geigen part, which is obviously impossible with just one set of strings. Therefore, the combination design of the omniwerk was a task to combine the actions with a minimum of acoustical compromises. The ideal plucking points and ideal bowing points were pretty much possible to combine without problems; since strings are available to either plucked or bowed instruments, and very definitive ones, it was not easy to find something that would work in our instrument. Therefore, bass strings were spun by us and required a lot of prototyping.

© Jonte Knif
© Jonte Knif

The Lauten sound–nut (starting point of the sounding part of the string) had to be stable but on the other hand move the string with finger force only to be played by the belt. This required a very special mechanical structure. Modern permanent magnets were very beneficial in realizing these conflicting demands. Bass string amplitudes are problematic because there is so little space available per strings due to all the mechanical parts and the keyboard spacing.

The Lautenwerk part of the instrument is straightforward to play, with a harpsichord like touch, although demanding a bit more force. There is a very limited dynamic range, just as with harpsichords: playing harder or softer does not produce much variation in volume. The "Lute" part’s sound could be described as a strongly plucked theorbo, with a touch of koto or banjo. It is certainly louder than a lute and carries in medium size halls extremely well. The bass is strong and full.

The Geigenwerk part is another story! The touch is very sensitive to the smallest pressure changes, and there is the possibility and danger to produce harsh and even unpleasant timbres. This is not a beginner instrument! Also a vibrato effect is available. The Geigenwerk’s sound is partially viol-like, but with more aggressive playing sounds close to a reed-pipe organ stop, perhaps a regal. Particularly in the bass, a light touch can be used to produce harmonics and synth-like sounds. The unlimited length of sounds is of course a difference compared to string instruments and can be used to great effects. The possibility to shape the sound during its sustain makes it very different from organ sounds. It can be quite loud, comparable to a string quartet fortissimo. There is also the possibility to produce vibrato with finger pressure variation. Pressing the pedal and plucking the strings with fingers produces a very convincing harp sound.

© Jonte Knif
© Jonte Knif

The pedal is an extremely useful part of the instrument. Actually, both lautenwerk and Geigenwerk originally had no dampers, and since this is somewhat of a problem with dense musical textures we decided to include dampers from the very beginning. One can lift dampers from the strings with it, and produce a sweet resonance when it is needed and keep textures clear when wanted. It was hard to predict all the possibilities that the omniwerk could offer. All kinds of harmonics are available, bringing great possibilities for contemporary composers. Pressing the pedal and plucking the strings with fingers produces a very convincing harp sound.

The renowned harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was bowled over by hearing the instrument: "It was a real pleasure and revelation to come into contact with the 'omniwerk,' an experience which I can liken to something like hearing thunder or tasting wine for the first time. I had no idea what to expect and I was totally blown over when I not only heard it but realised that Jukka has done something really quite new, at least in terms of our own sound world in this day and age. I think it's really crucial that the world of early keyboards receive new energy from people like Jukka who experiment with coming up with new sounds by applying old technologies. It's been wonderful to see it come to fruition." 

 

Article sponsored by BRQ Vantaa.