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Category Archives: music

It’s always nice to hear from people for whom you’ve made instruments, and I was delighted when Dave Crispin got in touch recently. I made him a classical guitar five years ago, (see here for photographs) and he sent me a recording in which he uses it to play Paul McCartney’s Blackbird.

Lars Hedelius-Strikkertsen is a Danish guitarist, who plays a 19th century guitar and specialises in the music of that time. Here he is playing a piece by Fernando Sor.

 

 

If you go to his website, you’ll see that he sometimes takes the trouble to dress the part when he gives concerts. Not surprisingly, in view of this attention to authentic period detail, he didn’t like the idea of using an anachronistic metal contraption as a capo d’astro and asked me to make him a cejilla.

 

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I’ve written about these devices before so I won’t repeat myself. But the commission reminded me of what delightful instruments these early romantic guitars are. Anyone interested in finding out more about them might like to take a a look at this excellent online gallery.

A few years ago, I made one of these guitars, which is now owned by the artist, Gill Robinson. The instrument that I copied was made by Louis Panormo around 1840, and it’s now in the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

 

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There’s a photograph of my guitar above, and a video of Rob MacKillop playing the original instrument below.

 

Talking of Stradivari cellos (see previous post), I heard Julian Lloyd Webber play the Barjansky cello in a concert at the Theatre Royal, Winchester a couple of years ago. It was an unusual programme because apart from the music, which was wonderful, it included a question and answer session.

I asked Lloyd Webber why he didn’t sell his Strad and play one by a modern British maker. That would have two beneficial consequences, I suggested. First, it would help talented young cellists to understand that they could make good music even if they didn’t have a famous Cremonese instrument to play. Second, it would be a huge encouragement to modern violin and cello makers.

He responded to this potentially irritating question in a gracious way. He conceded that I had a point, but explained that he had been playing this particular cello for many years and that it had become so much a part of him as a musician that he couldn’t imagine being without it.

It was easy to see the force of that argument, but I didn’t want to let him off so lightly. So I followed up by asking whether, if he were to play the Barjansky and a modern cello behind a curtain, listeners would be able to tell the difference. While Lloyd Webber thought about this, the audience answered for him. ‘Oh yes,’ several people called out before he had a chance to speak.

I found this response both annoying and depressing. Annoying because it’s impossible to believe that any of the audience who seemed so certain about the superiority of the Strad had ever tested their belief in the sort of experiment that I outlined. And depressing because it reminded me of the difficulty that modern makers have in obtaining recognition of the quality of their instruments.

To challenge people’s assumptions about what makes a stringed instrument sound good, I made this trapezoidal fiddle. As you can see from the photographs, it bears little resemblance to the great instruments made in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it’s a copy of an experimental violin invented by the french physicist Félix Savart around 1820. Heron Allen mentions it in Violin-Making: as it was and is. Rather more usefully, there’s a fairly recent book about its construction by Ronald Roberts (Making a simple Violin and Viola ISBN 0 7153 6964 4) which contains plans and a full set of measurements.

 

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Several violin players have been amused and interested enough to try it out and have been surprised by how well it sounds. I’ve been meaning to make a decent recording of it being played so that others can judge, but never quite got around to it. However, the other day I took it to my friend Tim Richards, who is a bowmaker in Frome. Tim says that he hardly plays these days, but I persuaded him to try it out in his workshop. As he did so, I switched on my Edirol recorder and captured a few snippets. Beyond normalising the levels, I’ve hardly done any editing and you’ll have to put up with some background noise and a bit of conversation.

 

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Now I’m not claiming for a moment that the sound made by this Savart violin is the equal of a fine traditional instrument, although I’ve heard many ‘proper’ violins that sound far worse. Nor am I saying that violin makers are wasting their time by paying so much attention to plate thicknessing, plate tuning and arching, although the fact that a flat-topped box-fiddle produces such a violin-like sound does make one wonder whether these things are as important as generally thought. What I am suggesting is that, before offering the opinion that old is better than new or that violins made by Stradivari or Guarneri sound better than those made today, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves if there’s any evidence to justify this view or whether we’re simply repeating a hoary old myth.

Of course reliable evidence is hard to come by. This page on Wikipedia mentions some of the attempts to evaluate the sound quality of different violins, although many are flawed in their experimental design. If you’d like to try for yourself, click here to compare a brief passage from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto played on Stradivari violin with the same passage played on a modern instrument. But don’t congratulate yourself too heartily if you get it right; tossing a coin would give the correct result 50% of the time.

In a recent and much better experiment, experienced players were asked to compare several different violins, including 2 made by Stradivari, 1 by Guarneri del Gesu and 3 by modern makers. The players wore welder’s goggles and tested the instruments in a darkened room so that they couldn’t be influenced by the visual appearance of the violins that they were playing. There’s a detailed account of the methods and results in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, available here. If you don’t have the stamina to wade through a scientific paper, here’s how the investigators summarised their findings:

We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics. We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

They go on to say, “These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom”. I couldn’t agree more.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

Here are a few photographs of a recently completed steel string guitar. It’s based on a Martin ‘OO’ model but I’ve added, although that’s surely the wrong word, a venetian cutaway. The soundboard is Sitka spruce and the back and ribs are English walnut. I used holly for the bindings and tail stripe, and Rio rosewood for the bridge.





My friend, Dave Crispin, came to the workshop to try it out a few days ago and while he was playing I captured a few moments on an Edirol recorder.



A few days ago, my friend Michael Lavelle, surgeon, cellist and luthier, dropped in to return a plane that I had lent him and to try out the cello that I have been writing about recently. He brought with him a beautiful pochette, a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, that he had completed last year. Mike’s instrument has an owl’s face instead of a scroll.

He tells me that these instruments were used by dancing masters in the 18th and 19th centuries, presumably because they were so much easier to carry around than a full-sized fiddle. They’re held, not under the chin, but between the left chest and elbow and they’re played mainly in the first position.The name ‘pochette’ obviously comes from the French word for pocket. In England and Scotland they were known as kits or kit violins – which is probably a diminutive of pocket violin.

There are a few pochettes in musical instrument collections. The Burrell Collection in Glasgow has one, which can be seen here, but it’s not nearly as attractive as the Clapisson. And I believe that the V and A in London and the Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments have examples too.

Not many modern makers however, seem very interested in pochettes, although Owen Morse-Brown is an exception.

Mike hinted that his pochette might be for sale so, if you are interested, email me at info@finelystrung.com and I’ll put you in touch with him.

A few weeks ago, I dropped in on the Tartini ensemble during a rehearsal in St Mary’s  church, Penzance. They were preparing for a concert of music by Dietrich Buxtehude and Jan Adam Reincken. And a very interesting and exciting concert it turned out to be:  music by two composers whose work is heard less often than it deserves to be, with brilliant performances on period instruments by the ensemble.

Here’s a photograph taken during the rehearsal.

It was also the first outing for the baroque violin that I wrote about a couple of posts ago.  After the rehearsal, Pamela Rosenfeld played this adagio by Tartini on it, accompanied by Nigel Wicken on a chamber organ.

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Patrick Gale, who commissioned the baroque cello that I completed earlier this year, spoke  about why music was important to him in a recent broadcast on  BBC Radio 3.  If you missed his  brief and amusing  talk,  you can listen to it  here for the next few days.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about making a pair of tailpieces for two violinists who wanted to change the way their instruments were set up. The violinists, Pamela Rosenfeld and Liz Gregg, are members of the recently formed Tartini Trio who specialise in music of the baroque period. Naturally, they’re keen to produce an authentic baroque sound and, having already switched to gut strings and baroque bows, wanted to take things a stage further by fitting baroque bridges and tailpieces. Over the Easter holiday, Pamela and Liz visited me and let me hear the sound they were making. Very generously, and without rehearsal, they let me record them as a duet playing the Bourée from Handel’s Water Music. The primitive recording (made in my workshop with nothing more than an Edirol digital recorder propped up on the work bench) doesn’t do them justice – but even so, it sounds pretty good.

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A report from the UK last year complained that gender stereotyping influenced children’s choices about which musical instruments they took up. Girls get to play harps and flutes, while boys prefer trumpets and drums. I don’t know whether this is really right or that, even if it were, it would be a very terrible thing, but it certainly is true that more boys than girls play guitars. And while this might be gender politics, I can’t help wondering if the dimensions of the guitar have something to do with it too. The body of a concert guitar can be too big for many women to hold comfortably and I suspect that the usual measurements for the string spacing and fingerboard size are optimised for a male rather than a female hand.

I thought that it might be interesting to make a guitar with a slightly smaller body size than usual and combine it with a shorter scale length and narrower fingerboard. The idea is to make an instrument that a woman will find easy and responsive to play without compromising either the quality or the volume of the sound it produces.

The water-mark figure in this walnut is attractive but delicate and I think that it might work well for the back of a smaller guitar:

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The front will be cedar and I’ve inlaid a rosette of spalted beech. I’ve carried the same theme through to the headstock veneer.

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Some of my earliest posts when I started this blog at the beginning of the year were about making a clavichord. I recently went to see David Condy, who had commissioned the instrument, and had the great pleasure of hearing him play it. Although an accomplished pianist and organist, he told me that it had taken him a little while to get used to the different action of a clavichord keyboard. As you can hear if you click on the pieces below, he has succeeded magnificently. Clavichords make a beautiful but rather small sound, so don’t turn the volume up too high.

He’s playing a piece from Sweelinck’s Liedvariationem für Klavier, called Unter der Linden grüne. The first is just a snippet for anyone who wants to hear what a clavichord sounds like. The second, which lasts a little longer, comprises the theme and the first two variations. Click on the blue titles below to hear them (or use the audio player in the bar).

Clavichord piece

Unter der Linden grüne

So far in this blog, I’ve been writing about how instruments are made and showing photographs of what they look like. But what matters most, certainly to players and listeners but to makers too, is what they sound like. The trouble is that it’s not easy to make recordings that do justice either to player or instrument. Having made that excuse, I’m going to try. So here, as a first step, are three short pieces played by Fiona Harrison on this cedar top guitar that I’ve written about before. Click on the labels to hear them.

Piece 1

Piece 2

Piece 3

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