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Dennis Lau on his priceless Phoenix Violin and upcoming concert

Internationally renowned electric violinist, composer and producer Dennis Lau is set to hit his next milestone with his first ever large-scale concert, “Dennis Lau & Friends”, The Phoenix Rising”, featuring Malaysian all-star powerhouses and talents that have collaborated with him over the years.

The concert will soon be Malaysia’s next most talked about event, as Dennis will be unveiling his new masterpiece, The Phoenix Violin, a custom-made 23k gold-plated violin which is the only one of its kind in the world, and is touted as the most expensive electric violin in the world.

The Phoenix Violin was personally handcrafted by Irish guitar maker, Alistair Hay, who previously built Steve Vai’s Emerald Ultra Guitar and Wang Lee Hom’s Dragon Guitar, AKA the Bahamut.

Dennis’ astounding violin was also Alistair’s first ever violin project which was customised to fit just one specific body, which is of Dennis' himself.

“We are not building an instrument, but more lie a suit and masterpiece where it has to fit perfectly,” said Alistair.

Set to take place on 22 October at the Mega Star Arena, Dennis promises that the dynamic concert will be a mix of music and art that will take musicality and showmanship to a whole new level.

See what else to expect from “Dennis Lau & Friends”, The Phoenix Rising” concert, as Dennis and Alistair tell us more about the concert, the violin and everything in between.

This will be your first ever large scale concert. How do you feel?
Dennis: Life is about challenging yourself. You create waves one after another to make sure that you progress and to give entertainment value to audiences and to anyone who doesn’t know you – that is my goal! Of course, it is also to show the diversity of the violin, and myself as a violinist, producer and composer. I’ve been dreaming of doing this concert for so long. It is actually inspired by “David Foster & Friends” concert. Every time I see David Foster performing with Michael Bolton, Kenny G, and Earth, Wind and Fire, I think to myself, “One day, I want to perform with all these artistes that I have collaborated with before.” Throughout the years, I have built the relationship with all these artistes, and I think this year is the right time to do it.

Some of the talents who will be performing at the concert. (L-R) Koujee, Vince Chong, Soo Wincci, Syafinaz Selamat, Russel Curtis, Sarina Sundara Rajah and her student. 

What is the message and value that you want the audience to derive from this concert?
Dennis: Ultimately, it is to tell people that instrumental music deserves a platform to be showcased and to be recognised. If you see international award shows like the Grammys, there are categories for Best Instrumental Music, Best Composition and Best Film Score, which are all instrumental music, but in Malaysia, we don’t have all of these. It’s not that I’m trying to make a statement that we should have these categories at award shows, but I feel that it should be recognised for its quality of work.

What can we expect from the concert and how will your performance with the Phoenix Violin differ from the other violins that you’ve used?
Dennis: The Phoenix Violin has to sound like a normal violin. What can you expect from the concert? It’s definitely not going to be like any K-pop concert that you’ve seen. The musicality and the ingredients, for example, if you cook fried rice, mine would have foie gras, that’s how it would be different.

Alistair: From a distance, I’ve been looking on what’s been developing with concert and the music, and there’s a word that we used at work which we called the synergy. And the meaning of synergy is two or more components acting together to give something greater. That’s why I think that synergy is a word that could define this concert, because it’s a collaboration of great people who work together, and together they create something even better.

You started off as a pianist, but what makes you want to focus on just playing violin?
Dennis: The answer is very simple, I can carry my violin around but not piano. That’s not the only reason, I also feel that the violin is the closest instrument to a human’s voice – it can play pop, rock, R&B, jazz, classical and others. I want to show the audience that a violin can be played in all these genres as well, and not just classical music because a lot of people would find the instrument very boring. That’s why the artistes that I choose to work with have to believe in my music and the capabilities that a violin can do. That is the message that I’m trying to deliver.

So Alistair, this is your first violin, can you tell us about it like what is it made from?
Alistair: All of my instruments are made from carbon fibre. I don’t work with wood at all, so the materials are very light and very strong. I made a lot of guitars in the past that have been very weird and sculptural, like the Dragon Guitar that I made for Wang Leehom. It gives me the opportunity to build something that is different and unique.

What were you doing before making guitars?
Alistair: I was building Formula 1 racing boats. So that’s where I learnt on how to work with carbon fibre and that eventually led to making guitars.

How did the transition from race boats to guitars happen?
Alistair: My passion was always to build things, and my other passion is guitars. I have always loved guitars and I can play a little bit. So eventually the two things kind of joined together. There’s this one time, where I tried to make a guitar for myself, but it didn’t turn out very good. So I tried making another one, it was little better than the first one. And after the third guitar I’d decided that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Dennis Lau and Alistair Hay.

Who came up with the phoenix design of the violin?
Alistair: I’d say it’s a joint effort. We talked about different designs over the years, we mentioned all kind of animals like snake, dragon and bull – we have many different concepts back then. It was only in April that we finalised it to be phoenix.  

How long did it take for you to make the violin?
Alistair: It started properly in June after we finalised on the designs and concept. So everything was condensed into a pretty busy two months.

Is everything custom-made?
Alistair: Everything is handcrafted. I do have a team back in Ireland but for this kind of custom projects, I did almost everything myself. The only process that I didn’t do is covering the violin in gold, because the whole violin is covered in real gold. At first, I was planning to do it by myself, but I don’t really want to mess with all the gold and get it wrong.  So I got a specialist to cover in in gold.

Can you reveal what's the price of the violin?
Dennis: It’s priceless, because this is a product that I would not sell in a million years.

Alistair: Let’s just say that it’s probably the most expensive electric violin that’s ever been made.

Dennis: I can say that it is the most expensive electric violin in the world because acoustic violins, they can go up to millions, so I can vouch that this is probably the most expensive, and it’s one of its kind.

You mentioned that at first you didn’t want to make the Phoenix Violin at all because you're not specialised in that area. What made you finally decide to take up the challenge, and what were the difficulties that you faced while making it?
Alistair: Firstly, why I took up the challenge was because Dennis kept following up with me. I get asked to build some of the most unusual crazy things that you could ever imagine, and a lot of times it’s just fantasy. Dennis came to me 6 years ago, and I don’t think that it was the right time for either of us back then. Every year, I would get an email or a Skype call from Dennis, and overtime, we build up a friendship. He was determined to build this violin, and I could see from a distance that his career was developing well. So it was the right time for both of us to do it. I’ve taken many challenges in my instrument building career, and I’ve done just about every style of guitar you can ever imagine, but to build a violin is a whole different thing. I was reluctant to do it at first because it was an area that I’m not familiar with, and the violin is something that has so much history. Guitar is almost a modern instrument by comparison, and the violin has been around for 400 years and virtually not changed at all. But this is an electric violin, so that gives it a little bit of freedom.

Like the Dragon Guitar that I created for Leehom, I like to make them look as though they are unplayable yet, when the person plays them, it will feel like any other instrument that they’ve ever played with. That was sort of the idea with the violin. So it’s functional art, it’s an artistic piece that will stimulate the crowd visually, but when you play it, it sounds and plays like any other violin.

Now that you’ve made your first violin, does that mean that you will continue making them in the future?
Alistair: I don’t’ know, whenever I start building it, I keep telling myself that I’m going to stick with guitars but now that I’ve seen it finished, I realised that there’s something special about violins, and it’s probably something that I might consider.

Back to Dennis, you’ve been in the music industry for 13 years, so in your eyes, how has the industry changed over the years?
Dennis: One of the main factors that have changed in the music industry is that now, it is so easy to get your voice heard with social media like Facebook, YouTube and more. So I think a lot of the artistes nowadays, they want their music to be heard. So, social media is like a tool to make sure that your message gets across and that you can add entertainment value for the right people.

Have you ever thought about scoring for movies?
Dennis: Yes I thought about it before, but it’s a longer process than what I thought I can do. So it depends on my time, effort, and the product that I want to collaborate and believe in. So, I can do that but it also has to have a win-win situation so I can give it a greater value than what it already is.

What kind of movies do you think that you can score?
Dennis: Probably just like Hans Zimmer stuff.

What’s next for you? Who will you collaborate with next?
Dennis: I think every artiste will always strive to collaborate with an idol. Of course, I dream of collaborating with Usher, John Mayer, and Ryan Wesley, and I think that this is a goal and dream that we should not take our eyes off, because it may happen anytime. For me, I just want to collaborate with people that I can see eye-to-eye with via their dreams and vice versa.

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