Central Ohioan Daniel Houck was pushed into the limelight when Strad Style, the indie film chronicling his unlikely rise from a tinkerer who learned violin-making by watching YouTube videos to a craftsman tasked with creating an instrument for a concert violinist, won big at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.
With Strad Style as his launchpad, will Houck be able to keep his career aloft on the international classical music scene?
If you haven’t yet seen Strad Style, then — spoiler alert — skip the next three paragraphs.
The film is based on a story as unlikely as it is true. Houck — a Columbus native, former funeral industry business owner and self-taught violin-maker obsessed with the mystique of great Italian violin-makers like Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, del Gesù — meets Romanian concert violinist Razvan Stoica on Facebook.
With very little professional violin-making experience, Houck offers to make him a copy of Stoica’s dream instrument: the Guarneri violin, which previous owner and legendary violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini called “Il Cannone” (The Canon) for its powerful sound.
Stefan Avalos, a filmmaker working on a documentary about today’s great violin-makers, discovers Houck’s self-taught making through a mutual friend, visits him at his rural Ohio home, learns of his project to make a copy of one of the world’s most famous violins for a rising European concert artist and decides that Houck — not all those other violin-makers — should be the subject of his film.
Strad Style is born, wins the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival, becomes a hit and thrusts Houck from rural Ohio oblivion onto the international stage.
"Really good, right from the get-go"
After all the hype of Strad Style, can the self-taught Houck sustain a career as a world-class violin-maker?
David Edge, a violinist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, thinks Houck’s career looks promising.
Edge met Houck several years ago when another Columbus violinist and one of Edge’s professional associates took Houck on as a violin student. Edge learned of Houck’s interest in violin-making and ended up playing the first violin Houck ever made in a concert with his string quartet, QUBE.
“We were playing a piece (that) required an alternate tuning, and I didn’t want to tune my good violin down and then have to quickly tune it up to play the next piece,” Edge said. “So I thought, you know, I should just use another violin. And Danny was willing to let me use it. And I was pretty impressed with the violin. I thought it sounded quite good. I mean, none of my colleagues complained that the quality didn’t match what we were used to or anything. So that’s pretty good for a first violin.”
Edge later had the opportunity to play one of Houck’s other instruments, a Guarneri, del Gesù copy Houck had built on commission in 2009 or ’10 for a violinist then living in Egypt who had found Houck through Facebook.
“(Houck) made it and he wanted to hear it (played), so he brought it over to my house and we played it,” Edge said. “I recorded a little bit of it. And it was great fun. It was a really good-sounding violin, beautiful-looking violin, beautiful sounding.”
Edge, who has played Strads and Guarneris on occasion, says what makes the sound of Houck’s violins beautiful is that they carry something of the sound of older, more seasoned instruments.
“A lot of times, a brand-new violin can sound a little bit raw,” Edge said. “It takes a while before it develops some depth and beauty to it. And this had the beauty right away.”
Stoica said much the same about the copy of Il Cannone that Houck made for him.
“The sound palette of Houck’s violin could be easily compared to one of an old instrument,” Stoica wrote, “so I guess and hope that Houck's Guarneri ‘Il Cannone’ would someday become as much as a legend as its original.”
Watch Stoica play the Guarneri Il Cannone made for him by Houck:
At the same time Houck was making what he now calls the “Egypt violin,” he was also working on what would become his first copy of Il Cannone for a violinist in El Paso, Texas.
But what about the million-dollar question? How close do his copies of priceless Strads and Guarneris come to sounding like the real thing?
“I’d say he comes pretty close,” Edge said. “I think he’s doing very well. I think he’s right up there and has the potential — he hasn’t made as many violins, so he hasn’t had the experience. But he’s definitely doing very well, and I think the most impressive thing has been, the sound of some of these violins is really good right from the get-go.”
To the Land of the Great Violin-Makers
In the aftermath of all the Strad Style hype, Houck is planning a trip to Macerata, Italy, where he will spend two months this summer working in the violin shop of the late Italian violin- and bow-maker Floriano Nofri.
As with every other aspect of Houck’s story, this one came about by way of the Internet. Nofri’s daughter, Giuliana Nofri, found Houck on Facebook, sent him a friend request and started chatting with him about violins and violin-making.
“Because of our common passion for violin-making, we decided to meet to revive my late father’s violin shop,” Giuliana Nofri wrote in a recent email interview.
Houck will have all of the tools and materials in Floriano Nofri’s violin shop at his disposal. He says he plans to use them to make violins as well as his first bow. In the meantime, to prepare for his trip to Italy, Houck is learning Italian. And as you might guess, he’s teaching himself.
“I’ve got an old Rosetta Stone, but I also found lots of good stuff on the Internet,” Houck said, “and lots of good videos.”