Academic journal article TriQuarterly

On Building a Violin

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

On Building a Violin

Article excerpt

I watch the silver flakes of maple curl from under my scraper. How curious, I think--I am demonstrating the time-binding capacity of the human animal. I am practicing the craft of Stradivari as he did in his Cremona workshop--and as Guarneri del Gesu is reputed to have done in a jail cell, supplied with tools and wood by the jailer's daughter.

I lift my eyes from the violin back taking form under my fingers as if by some magic outside of my control, and look down at the cluster of glowing red taillights flowing north on New York's First Avenue, twenty-one stories below. How strange this would have seemed to Stradivari--this silent, swift-moving caravan of vehicles, contrasted with the clip-clop of horses' hooves on the cobbles of his Cremonese street.

And yet, I imagine, were he to come back to life, he would feel at home here under the brilliant white electric light. He would recognize the shape of this violin back, its curves and contours. For I am working to a model that he designed two-and-a-half centuries ago. Through drawings of a 1710 Stradivarius, made long ago by some forgotten artisan, I am able to shape the back and sculpt its subtle contours to the Stradivarian model. I am working to data carried through time by symbols men invented.

Last night I heard a gifted violinist play the unaccompanied Bach B Minor Partita on a 285-year-old Stradivari. The notes rang precise and clear, in velvety and resonant Stradivarian tones. Again, the vagrant thought--a time-binding phenomenon combining the arts of luthier and composer long dead with the living art of a great musician, satisfying the ancient longing of two thousand listeners for rhythmic repetition of musical sound.

I once hiked with a timber cruiser through a spruce forest on the Oregon Coast. We were searching for Thuja plicata, giant Western red cedar, in the damp ravines between the hills. We walked in the gloom of tall spruces. An occasional raindrop penetrated the dense needles far above our heads and splatted on our hunter's hats or fell hissing into the mat of brown needles and twigs at our feet.

The wind was from the west, blowing in gentle gusts on our backs. Once in a while we could hear the dull boom of the surf a thousand yards behind us, carried to our ears by the wind. We were eight hundred to a thousand feet above the sea.

We came to a small clearing in the trees. There on the hillside before us was a giant spruce. It stood tall, towering perhaps a hundred and eighty feet. Its trunk was gray, darker than the sky. It became obscured by the rain, which had grown heavier, falling like a curtain in the clearing.

I estimated the diameter of the trunk--at least eleven feet, and a straight sixty feet to the first limb. The wind had died and the raindrops now fell in vertical lines. Each drop hit the brown mat underfoot with a distinct note, creating a linear melody that was somehow disturbing, yet somehow satisfying. I have had this feeling before, I thought, listening to Heifetz conjure the rhythmic, hard-beating, unaccompanied Bach. And I wondered what fiddle was he using then, his Guarneri or his Stradivari?

Recognizing that the auditorium was the vast outdoor Hollywood Bowl, it would take a violin of special acoustic characteristics to reach the last row. Thus, it would require a Guarneri, such as Paganini used and which he called his "cannon." Itzhak Perlman and Pincus Zukerman both use Guarneri instruments. Playing at the White House, Zukerman explained that his Guarneri viola was the "Mama," and Perlman's violin, the "Baby."

I looked up at the blue-gray spruce above me--spruce, the wood chosen above all others by the old master makers for their violin bellies. What great fiddles could be made from this giant spruce--such conditioning for music, with its roots buried deep in the rich earth of this Oregon mountain, the rain pelting through its branches and the cadence of the surf caught in its needles. …

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