Monday, April 25, 2016

Going Back to the Methods of the Old Masters...

I'm advocating for a new approach to making violins -- the revival of the old methods of design and build.

Instead of today's prevalent copyist's approach, and instead of the innovators' hubris trying to out do the old masters by reinventing the instrument, I'd like to see makers embrace the revival of old methods of build and design.

Rather than copying visual features and exact measures from the outside, lets copy the processes.  Rather than trusting modern ways and using fancy copy methods to make something that looks like an old instrument, but in its creation and essence is modern.  Lets trust the old masters.  Lets do as they did.  Let all of our instruments be unique non-copies.   Let us copy their means instead of the outward features of their outcomes.   Lets revive the spirit and methods of the old designs and building processes.  Lets do as they did.

For the last 200 years or so, new violin making has lived in a strange place.

Nearly universally, the old Italians were acknowledged for making the most beautiful and best playing violins ever.  And new makers showed this reverence by copying the old masters.  But oddly, new makers would copy some features of the old instruments, but not all.  Or, they would copy the appearance and measurements of an old instrument in great detail, but not the process of making at all.

Partly, this was because respect and knowledge of the old methods had gotten lost in the waves of social, political, and industrial change during the age of revolutions and Napoleonic reforms.  And partly this was because by the time makers turned to the idea of copying old masters, the only methods they knew were modernized industrialized methods.

Regardless, most all copy work of the last 200 years has acted as if copying some aspects of the old instruments by modern means would be sufficient to capture the virtues of the old instruments.

It's hard to blame anyone for such assumptions.  Most kinds of manufacture benefited from industrialization.   Modernized tools are stronger, sharper, harder, more precise -- better.   Modernized materials are purer, more predictable -- better?   We all easily assume that at least some if not all aspects of modernization aught to help violin making be better than ever.

Yet somehow, violins are the exception.   The best instruments don't have that cleaned up modernized feel to them.  In fact, just the opposite.   Those great violins and cellos have a warmth and humanity in every detail.  They are irregular, variable, and inconsistent in their details.  These instruments are artfully beautiful and finely detailed in a human way, but they aren't precise or symmetric or even in a modernized or mechanized way.

For perspective, consider baking loafs of bread in a 'copyist' context.  Imagine some universally respected master baker prepares his dough by hand, bakes the loafs in a wood fired oven.  The loafs come out looking and tasting magnificent.   The crust on the top of each loaf cracks open in beautiful shapes, but of course each loaf comes out unique and different in the details of how the crust cracks, etc.    The process is both artful, and in a sense loose.   All the loafs come out wonderfully beautiful, but no two are quite identical.

Now a copyist comes along and wants to try to make loafs that all look exactly like one particular loaf from the master baker.  Rather than use a hard to control wood fired oven, he might choose a precisely controlled lab oven.  And rather than loosely preparing the dough by hand with art and instinct, he might seek to control the dough and make the outcomes repeatable.  So he weighs and measures everything, and uses only the most lab certified and purified materials.   Now comes the hard part.   He wants to learn how to control the cracking of the crust as it bakes, so he can repeatedly make perfect visual copies of the master baker's one example loaf.

In its way, the copyist's road has its own logic and makes sense.   But by the time the copyist has controlled all the variables and can make visually convincing copies of the master baker's loaf, the copyist has in fact strayed very far down an alien kind of road.  It would be shocking if his loafs tasted good at all, let alone anywhere near as good as the master baker's loafs.

Sometimes, the things that give us sufficient control to achieve consistent repeatability and enable us to exactly replicate fine superficial details, sometimes those same things also take us miles away from the essence we seek.

For an extreme example, wax food in a display case might look great, but it isn't actually even food.


We don't see any evidence of a copyist approach in the classical Italian making.   The processes are like the master baker's: loose and artful.   Their processes ensured good and beautiful results, but not consistently repeatable or highly controlled outcomes.

Two great Stradivari instruments are no more alike than two loafs of handmade bread.   


It's possible now.  We have extensive visual access to the old Italian instruments now, thanks to the web.   This allows us to study the design issues in a way never before possible.

Also, we have broader general access to past research and source documents.   We have access to more evidence and research than ever.

And we can see inside and through great instruments thanks to 3D imaging technology.  

Even the most privileged insiders of past generations would, over the course of a long career, only have had access to a small fraction of the instruments and information now available to anyone willing to search.

Let's stop doing anything in our making that we know the old master couldn't or wouldn't have done.  Let's aim to follow in their ways as fully as we understand them.  Let's fill in the gaps by aiming for results consistent with classical example, with means as consistent with classical methods as we can see.

Lets stand upon the shoulders of past generations, and lets finish the work of reviving the old methods of design and building.

Lets lay aside and reject the copyist approach, and modern methods and materials.   Put yourself squarely in front of the same problems the old makers would have faced, and allow yourself only the solutions they would have had available.

This is a call for a new approach to making.    

Lets not take the innovator/scientist's road of hubris, seeking a magic short cut or to outdo the great masters.

Lets not take the copyist's road.

Lets make by reviving the old methods of design and build.

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