Crafting the impossible: a chat with ‘Strad Style’ filmmaker Stefan Avalos and subject Danny Houck

by Andrew Parker

An unlikely inspirational story, the documentary Strad Style, which screens twice more at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this week and has been charming audiences around the world since its premiere earlier this year, shows viewers just how hard it is to make a violin, but also how much harder it can be if you’re ambitious and like to procrastinate a lot.

Classical music lover and lowrider enthusiast Danny Houck from the tiny, rural hamlet of Laurelville, Ohio has a passion for making intricately designed violins from hand and in the style of great master craftsman like Stradivari and del Gesu. He dreams of one day being able to go to Italy to study and hone his craft, but financial instability and anxieties have always held those dreams back. When Danny strikes up an online friendship with renowned violinist Razvan Stoica, the somewhat novice violin maker assures the musician that he can make him a spot on replica of one of the rarest, revered, and protected violins in the world: Paganini’s Il Cannone. Working only from pictures and never getting close to a violin that’s designated as a national treasure in Italy, Houck races to try and complete the violin in time for Stoica to play it at a major European concert engagement.

Filmmaker and fellow violinist Stefan Avalos spent a great deal of time with Houck at his home in Laurelville and documented every failure, success, and setback along the way, and for his efforts, Strad Style was awarded both the Audience and Grand Jury awards for Best Documentary at Slamdance this past winter.

We caught up with Danny and Stefan while they were in Toronto to talk about their work together and their crowd pleasing documentary.

Strad Style filmmaker Stefan Avalos (left) and violin maker Danny Houck (right)

Stefan, you’re a violinist yourself, so when you and Danny started hanging around, did you guys first strike up a relationship to figure out where you guys came together and where you differed in terms of musical tastes as part of the feeling out process?

Stefan Avalos: Yeah! We met really as part of the film thing, but whenever the camera wasn’t rolling or we were texting back and forth with one another, we’re just a couple of violin nerds. We both share an affinity for old school kinds of guys, but he’s more of a purist for old school than I am. I’ll always say, “Have you heard of this new guy?” and he would say, “That’s not for me.” (laughs) I think on either the first or second day that I had met Danny, which was about a year away from when the big part of the movie started, I was asking what kind of players and artists that he liked, and one of the names he said was Fritz Kreisler, and he’s one of my favourite composers and violinists. So when he said that, I knew we were gonna be friends.

Danny, what’s it like being someone who has this great affinity for classical music in a culture like the one you see around you in rural Ohio where classical music isn’t really a big thing?

Danny Houck: If I were to think about who within fifty miles of me listens to violin music or classical music, I would be hard pressed to tell you, so that’s definitely where I’m at. Where you live is usually associated with your tastes, so most people in a rural area are going to like country or rock music for the most part. And yeah, there are people who like a lot of other interesting things, but for a classical music fan, you really do feel like you’re in a different land because you’re not close to a lot of people who share in that. If I lived in Cleveland or Cincinnati, it would be a lot different than the farmlands. There, it’s all on me. And I think, in a lot of ways, that’s what keeps me inspired to work, but makes it hard to keep at it sometimes. You’re not surrounded by that, it can be harder to stay motivated to do it, and that’s what keeps me trying hard at it. It’s like if you love the rain-forest, but you live in the desert, you’re kinda fucked.

Did you ever have a time where you had to explain classical music to someone who maybe only knows about violins in the context of pop and rock songs?

Danny Houck: Yeah, totally, because that’s the kind of stuff that’s stereotypical if you only think about a single thing like that. You can say that about any type of music, really. There’s lots of people out there with really different interests, and that’s cool. What’s interesting is that the most people who ask me about it often just want really general answers about what kind of music you like, but once you get too far into the violin thing, it’s almost not even worth trying to explain it, because unless they get it, you might have totally lost them. Most people I know don’t get it unless they’re violin people. And, I mean. I listen to current music, too. I usually listen to whatever’s on the radio. I feel it’s great to be current and in tune with what the energy of what’s going on in the world at any given time. I can just sit around and listen constantly to violin shit, though. (laughs)

This is a film about replicating one of the most famous violins in the world, and it brings to light something that I don’t think a lot of people realize, which is that a lot of the world’s greatest violins are kept under strict watch and under lock and key. Not even a player of the caliber of Razvan can just make a simple request to get one of these instruments to play on. So, Danny has a hard time because he doesn’t have the resources to go and look at Il Cannone to replicated it, and you, Stefan, also have a hard time making a film about how great this instrument is because your access to it is also limited. What’s it like trying to build a film around something Danny’s trying to recreate that most people can’t access?

Stefan Avalos: That was actually something that I like a lot in terms of making the movie. I knew that by hook or by crook we would somehow find a way to see this violin in person, even if it was at the end of it all. I had a chance to see a lot of different and expensive violins early on when I was working on this project in a different capacity before it became what it is now. At one point, I was looking at a table with $53 million in violins on it, and I got to play quite a few of them, too, which was really cool.

But Cannone, which is what we’re talking about here, is under lock and key.

Danny Houck: It’s designated in Italy as a national treasure.

Stefan Avalos: They take it very seriously. But I love that this guy in rural Ohio who really hadn’t done a lot of travelling in the world, and who had seen all these things that he loved in books and in stories about them, was going to make it based only on what he perceives in these books was a fascinating aspect of how someone could make a violin. We see the violin in all these books, but we’ve never actually seen the real thing. It was a very magical journey. And we did try to see if we could get Razvan a chance to play the actual Cannone in the film, but that would have taken all sorts of hoops and would have taken at least a year of paperwork and preparation to come close to working anything out. The violin does get played occasionally, but there’s no immediate anything to it. It’s a lengthy security process.

Danny Houck: There’s actually a Paganini competition that brings together all of the best players in the world, and the best player gets to play on it, and it’s a massive honour. That’s the big time, and about as big as it can get.

Stefan Avalos: And I think the violin has only been to the United States once.

Danny Houck: Yeah, only once. They took it to L.A.

Stefan Avalos: And when it came over, it was escorted around like it was in the Popemobile. It was intense. Honestly, I think they secure it more than they need to do, because there are plenty of people out there with ten million dollar violins and they just travel around in taxis.

It’s always fun in a movie to watch people who fail to get things right the first time around, and there’s something funny in that, but it’s always way more satisfying to watch someone struggling every step of the way before they get the hang of something. I think that people will genuinely want to root for Danny, so when you were making this, were you rooting for Danny to pull this off, and did you think he could do it?

Stefan Avalos: Danny was so confident in his abilities, and at times I would wonder if he was being overconfident. I wondered if this was the confidence of a fool; someone who goes running into battle with absolutely no idea of just how deadly a bullet is, but somehow they managed to avoid them all. I always wondered if that was what was happening here. It was a pretty harrowing journey at times, especially towards the end.

Danny Houck: It definitely was for me, too. The violin almost got totally destroyed at the end. This happened on a weekend, and two days before we were supposed to go to Europe with the violin, and you can’t just overnight something there on a weekend. This was almost absolutely down the drain at certain points, and that’s an intense feeling. But no matter what, I’ll always be a violin maker because it’s not a job to me. It’s something I love to do. If someone came to me and offered me a job making something for them, no matter what the job was or what it was worth to them, I would try it and be okay with it.

And I mean, I like to socialize with people, but being out there has left me feeling isolated for years. I could go weeks without seeing anyone, and even when I eventually do, it’s usually because I had to go to the store or something like that. So it’s good to be out and living because I haven’t been doing that for the past thirteen years. I let all these fears and anxieties take over my life to a point where I couldn’t live properly for years. When the film started coming out and these things started happening at film festivals, I realized what I had to do, and I had to conquer these fears.

Do you think having Stefan and a camera around motivated you at all to stay on task?

Danny Houck: No, not really. I wasn’t thinking about that because it never felt like I was being filmed. A lot of people would act differently if they thought that way, and I didn’t even really consider it much. All I had to do was just get this instrument built. And it took a long time to do that; longer than it normally does. I had a lot of stuff going on in-between this with my personal life that were bad. There were always hard times that made things go a lot slower. There was a lot that went into this movie. There were a lot of emotions and a lot on the line. I had no choice but to make a great violin. It had to be or I would have failed, and I had no room in my mind to think that. I knew that I had to do it and it had to be good. I kept sensing it was going to be good, but I just did my best to stay positive, and even at the end when it almost go destroyed, I never gave up. You can’t give up on your job. You gotta do it.

Stefan Avalos: Danny and I never once got into an argument or even so much as raised voices to one another or had short tempers, which is pretty amazing considering how much time we were spending together, day and night in the same room. Definitely, if there was anything that was difficult – and Danny talks about this in the movie – it’s that he wasn’t used to this kind of schedule that he needed to meet.

Danny Houck: That really was the thing. My work ethic was good, but I wasn’t as disciplined. It’s like having a supervisor. If that supervisor is out of the room, the natural tendency is to go and take a break, you know? (laughs) When you are working for yourself and doing things for yourself, there is no one watching over you and making sure you do what you need to do. And another thing is, when you’re away from other people with similar interests like I was talking about earlier, it’s even harder. If you’re in the city and you have a shop, people would stop by and ask you what you’re up to and how’s it going, and you want to have something to show them. But when you’re isolated like me, people don’t pop by to say hi for five minutes to see how you are. That makes things more difficult.

One of the things that’s so fascinating about this film is that it makes you think about how we consume culture today. This situation is kind of a blend between new school social media and old school craftsmanship, since you guys all basically met and knew about each other via the internet. What’s it like as a filmmaker making this fun movie that also talks about how we meet people and consume culture in modern society?

Stefan Avalos: The fact that we are all connected now is amazing. There are some negatives to it, for sure, but there are so few in comparison to the overwhelming positives of it. But being able to become aware of someone like Razvan Stoica, who’s a really big deal in Europe but hasn’t really broken big in the States yet, or someone like Danny, who I only knew electronically, was amazing, and I probably never would have known either of them otherwise. What’s really amazing, or even daunting in a way to think about, is if it were not for the internet, Danny probably would have lived and died alone at that farmhous.

Danny Houck: It’s really true, though.

Stefan Avalos: It really forces you to think about all the other people out there who might be geniuses at something that can really change the world, but they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you might never know about them. I know Danny disagrees with me slightly on that, but Danny has the potential to be a great, famous violin maker, but he lives in Laurelville, Ohio in modern times, which isn’t exactly a cultural music hub. Whereas if he lived in the eighteenth century in Cremona, it would be a different story. Even if he were in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, or even Cremona now, we would have a much different story than the one we have now. The internet saved him in that way, which is amazing.

Do you think that through your story, you could actually hope to inspire more people to become violin makers? You make it all look kind of fun.

Danny Houck: (laughs) It’s not fun. It’s a job. It’s a very hard job. You don’t see it all because it would be so boring, but it’s a lot of laborious, hard work. My hands feel broken every night when I’m done. So, maybe not violin making, but I do hope I inspire people to do what they love and not give up on what their dreams on. But the violin? There’s enough violin makers. (laughs) We don’t need any more. I don’t want to lose any work, so let’s not go too crazy there. (laughs) We have enough! That’s fine.


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