Day Two, SCVMW

Today I got to spend about 45 minutes with Michael Darnton. I had him teach me about his cycloid technique, and how to make and use the templates. Will taught me to “just wing it” when doing violin arching, which I like; but these cycloid arches are just so pretty that I felt I had to learn how to do them.

Michael believes that the perfect arching is responsible for a violin’s response. If the arching is good, then the response will be good. If it is poor, the response will be poor. He also believes that the graduations are not as important as the arching, or rather, that imprecise graduations are important! He does not go for exactness in that area. Modern makers use calipers to try and reproduce the exact graduations found in famous violins, believing that these varying thicknesses of the wood are responsible for the violin’s excellent sound. However, Michael pointed out that the old makers had no such tools as calipers and that it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that people started measuring and quantifying everything, including violins. And from that point on, Michael believes, the art of violin making has gone downhill. When violins became things that demanded analysis instead of Art, that’s when the art was lost.

We looked at some response charts of modern violins that frequently win the VSA competitions and compared these to the response graph of a Strad. These days, makers are so intent on measuring and tuning every little part of the violin, that they produce instruments that are very responsive in a few predictable frequencies. So there are frequencies that naturally respond to that tuning, and of course there are frequencies that fight against it. Those violins sound incredible in some rather limited contexts, but don’t listen for too long! They are awfully inflexible in what they can do. Michael seeks to build instruments that the musician must coax the sound from. You have to drive it and find the many sweet spots that produce excellent tone across the board. A violin is something that the player must discover and push to its limits, not a measured thing that is predictable and limiting.

That’s a pretty good philosophy, and I think similar to Bartruff’s; although their ideas diverge in some areas.

It’s been fun getting to know some of the people who are improving their violin making along with me. Here are some photographs that I took of various work benches of those who work near me:

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Here is the work bench of my 89-year old neighbor. Born in Italy to a poor family, he made his own pair of skis when he was nine years old. After emigrating to America, he joined the Navy and served during WWII on a hospital ship. They were docked in NY on VJ day when he was in Times Square. “You know that picture of the sailor kissing the girl?” he asks, “That could have been me! We were kissing everybody that day.” I love listening to his stories–his Italian gusto must be genetic.
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Another work neighbor is a bass player in the Philharmonic Orchestra. I mentioned him in yesterday’s post. He builds basses and violas, but this is his first violin, I think. Actually, he started one last year but doesn’t like how it was coming out. I looked at it and thought it was beautiful; better than my work, I thought.This piece is based on the Titian Strad, with the corners inspired by the Messiah Strad. This maker loves to work with hand tools and even does the purfling rout by hand (on his basses too!). For this build, he tack-glued the top and bottom to his ribs in order to travel and found that he actually likes working on it this way.
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This work bench belongs to my microbiologist neighbor. He does very meticulous work! He’s doing a 3/4 Strad as well as a full size. He brought surgical loops with him to be able to see up close and get the details right. He claims that he isn’t satisfied with his first violin, but I bet it’s spectacular. At lunch time, he tells stories about how Anton Van Leeuwenhoek ground tiny microscope lenses by hand and discovered the micro-world of bacteria. Van Leeuwenhoek was looking for the thing that made pepper spicy, you see; and he found little swimming creatures instead! Anyway, this violin maker is supposed to be accompanied by his wife, who also makes violins. She has been delayed but should be here for day three.
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Here is a bench that belongs to one of the most interesting people I have ever met. This maker is a local artisan, and boy does it show. Those tools? Mostly hand made. Yeah. Like, the head of his brass mallet is a whale. A WHALE. The handles of his chisels and gouges are strange and fantastic sea creatures. He has bits that attach to other bits via super-strong magnets. He knows all about shaping and hardening steel, casting brass, and what-have-you. He’s a musician and plays–I don’t know–everything, including slide guitar. And he makes guitars and lutes and who knows what else. Look at that violin! It’s his first one, and it’s amazing. He covered it with fresh propolis that some lady scavenged from an enormous, active beehive. She bagged it and ran, and didn’t get stung even once. Or, so she says. *Sigh* Why isn’t my mallet a freaking whale? WILL THE KING OF SPAIN PLEASE SPONSOR ME SO THAT I CAN BECOME AWESOME LIKE THIS GUY? He never stops. He’s always inventing and making cool new stuff.

Well, I could go on about the doctor who owns a Strad and a del Gesu, or the violinist from Reno whose arching is so beautiful that it makes me want to cry or something; or the man from Australia who flew up to California just to attend this workshop. There are even a few women makers who are doing simply stunning work. What a crowd.

Well, more to come. Here is what I accomplished today:

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A bit of rough arching. Those corners are starting to look all right.


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