Saturday, March 30, 2019

Why bother reviving Classical making and design methods? How it matters.


Violin Value Strongly Follows a Making Style’s Closeness to Old Cremona Traditions

Some auction results from the last ten years:

By far the strongest values are seen in makers that were actually in the Old Italian Tradition, and more specifically in Northern Italy in the 18th century.    Next come makers directly in the Old Italian Tradition, but perhaps not from a prime era or region.  After that come makers whose work style is more or less directly a heritage from the main tradition.

The Industrial and Napoleonic revolutions largely disrupted the continuity of these traditions.  Copyist work was the main new approach that emerged.   Among makers from this new style of working, the highest values are seen with makers who most strongly and faithful observed classical examples.    

While innovative and scientific methods have been so successful in most other fields, violin making has proven singularly adverse to such an approach.  


Classical Revival Making
Do As They Did

If you want to duplicate the beautiful and delicious bread of a master baker, you can’t use different materials and methods and make something that merely looks like the master’s bread. You’ll want to learn the recipes and materials to make the real thing.  Then you learn to follow the master’s way, using the same care and love, the same ingredients and recipes, and preparing and baking the bread just as the master did.  In this way, we can make actual real great bread.  We followed the master’s way, to ‘copy from the inside’.
if instead we focus on external appearance and dimension to ‘copy from the outside’, we can make beautiful visual replicas.   But if we don’t follow the inner ways of the making, we can get replicas that have the look, but lack any real physical relation to the originals.   Plastic display food.   Wax statues of people.  Silk flowers. Etc.  
Most modern violin making has been based on copying from classical example. However, mostly the copying as been too much ‘from the outside’; too much about copying appearance and not enough about copying the substance and method.  Recently however, there are many signs of improvement and change.

A Rose is a Rose,
but a Copy of a Rose is not.

Today we have a new choice available.  At last, research has drawn a sufficiently complete picture of the old methods.  If we choose, we can today work entirely by reviving old methods. We can build from within the old classical traditions, the physical building processes, the choice of tooling and methods, and the choice of materials. If you will, we can ‘copy from the inside’ and ‘do as they did’.

Classical Revival Making
Building Traditional Classical Instruments
Made the Old Way


The Traditional Design Methods Reverse Engineered

* All shapes created from a limited number of traditional compass and ruler geometry constructions
* Sizing and positioning are based on simple ratios between features
 * Each feature’s design allows a limited range of traditional choices in the ratios and geometry
 * The traditions behind each feature’s design can be as a collection of guides and rules to execute the work


The total collection of design choices in classical style making acts like a DNA code

Identical twins share the same DNA code, but end up with slight asymmetries and difference arising as they develop and grow.  Shared design codes guide their growth, but slight variances in process as they develop lead to slight differences between left and right sides of the body, and between each twin.
The collection of design choices in classical making acts like a DNA code.  Repeat all the same design choices and you get a twin.  But slight variances in the build process executing those encoded choices will lead to slight natural asymmetries within an individual instrument, and slight differences between twin instruments sharing identical design DNA.
A Classical style maker can repeat all the same choices, or can vary a few from one instrument to the next.  We typically see a small degree of constant experimenting with the classical makers.  But all within the bounds and range of design choices traditional to each feature.


Classical Tradition as an Evolution

The combination of each feature having a tradition range of limit choices behind its design, together with repeating most all the same choices from one instrument to the next, while experimenting with just a few variations each time – these things combine into a mechanism for evolution.
Throughout the main period of Classical Making in Cremona, for more than two centuries from about 1550 to 1750, we see the same basic collection of design choices repeated for the most part, in a slow evolution and development of the tradition and maker choices within the tradition.
And all the basic methods and principles seen at the height of Cremona making are continuations and developments of themes that go back to the several centuries of Italian experimentation with various types of bowed strings before the violin emerged.
Further, the best Cremona examples come toward the end of all this evolution.  The golden period Strads, and wonderful Del Gesu, Goffriller, Bergonzi, and Montagnana instruments all come at the peak of a centuries long continuous development in the Italian making community. 
Such a mechanism for design by evolution leads to technical improvements even without needing to understand why an improvement works.   As long as makers hear or see which choices turn out better and which don’t.   An encoded repetition, with a minor degree of variation, subject to a selection favoring biased repetition of choices with better outcomes: in combination these things produce evolution.
In design development by evolution, understanding the success or shortfall of outcomes is what matters – as the key to selection.   But understanding why a choice succeeds doesn’t matter a bit.  In design development by engineering, the situation is reversed. Design by engineering and science is the modern way. But design by evolving tradition was the old way. This is a profound difference. In many fields, modern methods brought improvements, but not so with violins. Its components overlap and interact in complex ways.  It’s a tool by artists, for artists.  So far, attempts to ‘improve’ or ‘engineer’ violins generally have ended up disappointing.  The best results are still tied to more completely following the design that evolved in Northern Italy, a design that developed through an evolving tradition.  The pinnacle of violin design as it evolved in Cremona in the 18th century is still best.
An MIT study identified an example of just such design evolution in Italian making – looking  across North Italian making of bowed string instruments from roughly 1300 to 1750.  They found a technical advantage had ‘evolved’ in soundhole designs over these centuries.  The science and understanding behind this advantage wasn’t understood until late 20th century, so it wasn’t an improvement that the makers from those centuries could have engineered.   But the MIT study demonstrated an evolutionary pattern of development that better and better exploited this technical opportunity across centuries and generations of bowed strings making. Soundholes ‘evolved’ to better exploit this opportunity. The results of my research show the mechanisms behind such ‘evolutions’ as the one reported in the MIT study.


Cultural, Social, and Economic Changes Led Away from the Old Traditional Style Making and inherent Mechanism for Design Evolution

We see a host of changes from about 1740 to 1810 that push away from the traditional style of Old Italian making with each feature designed interactively with the building

A move away from churches and courts buying elite instruments for players to use, and toward individual players being responsible for acquiring their own instruments
The success and international expansion of the violin leading to many more players, and many more makers and dealers dispersed around the world pushing toward great quantities of instruments at lower costs
Downward economic pressure on violin prices. New price competition on individual master craftsmen from more economically driven production violins. Many players seeking lower cost less labor intensive violins
The industrial and Napoleonic revolutions, together with break up pressures on the old systems of guilds, and social pushes toward employing people in cottage industries.
Disruptions of guilds and apprentice system that historically taught new generations and transmitted the traditions 


Understanding the Design Choices Lets Us ‘Read’ the Conversation

Reversing engineering the characteristic and traditional design choices behind every feature allows us to then ‘read’ the specific choices in any example instrument from the tradition. 
We can then compare the collection of choices in individual instruments to examine differences across the generations of makers, and within one maker’s output.
This allows us to see the development of preferences and differences within the tradition.  We can see which features different makers experimented with, and which they accepted as mostly settled already.
In away, we can see a dialog going on among the makers, exploring variations of various features.  By understanding the tradition and its methods, including the traditions and choices presented with each feature, we can now read and follow this conversation among the makers from the old Italian tradition.  


Now, We are Able to Make by Resuming the Same Choices Favored at the Peak of the Cremona Evolution

By understanding the traditional methods and limited range of choices behind each feature, we can ‘read’ and follow the conversation across generations of Italian and Cremona makers.

Each maker worked by repeating most of the same traditional choices from one instrument to the next.  But a small amount of experimenting on some features for each instrument was also typical.  This experimenting was always done by simply trying different combinations of choices, always within the bounds of traditional ranges of options and choices.

By experimenting, and repeating what led to good results, makers preferences evolved – entirely within the traditional methods.

The most valued classical instruments came at the peak of centuries of evolving Italian bowed instruments making. Now, we are able to read the choices behind these best examples, and start our making from there.
We can resume making in the old ways.  But we can also learn by studying the whole range of the tradition, and learning from the preferences that evolved leading up to the peak era of Cremona making.   


Theme and Variations
Understanding Grants Flexibility

Looking across the many variations within the. traditional methods, we can find larger guiding principles for many features.  And we can see which things were deeply conserved across generations and regions, and which things were more freely varied.
We can also examine how the same principles and methods play out  in very different instrument types.
From such studies, we can learn how to apply the same basic tool kits in special or unique cases.  This is a freedom we see with great frequency in classical work. Since design and build uniquely interact in each instrument, there is little barrier to making variants while still entirely following tradition.
Working within the old traditions, and by understanding the principles behind the design choices, we regain the freedoms of classical making.


Interaction of Design and Building is Part of What Makes Classical Work Special and Different

Many differences emerge between modern copyist work and a classical style of making.  One major difference is that the design acts more like a recipe, interacting with the building process as it proceeds.  We aren’t building to copy a preexisting example, nor to follow a predetermined blueprint.
Unfolding as the build process proceeds, this ‘as we go’ approach to design choice has many consequences.  For one, we can relate features one to another by simple ratio, rather than steering by preset specifications. This leads to a greatly reduced need for control and precision in the old style build. Organic and naturally balanced, the old style protects the relatedness and integrity between parts, rather than their measure or squareness. And this looseness is closely tied to the pervasive slight asymmetries that characterize classical work. This also means that in many features we can follow the natural bend and flex of materials, rather than forcing and stressing the materials into conforming to something predetermined.
A characteristic of old style classical work is that the sizing and position of each next feature follow off of already established features.  Any asymmetries that introduce in earlier established features will follow through in the work on later features.  These asymmetries are followed as we proceed, instead of being corrected away.  This traditional approach doesn’t result in precisely measured, symmetric, or square features, but it does leave features traditionally and accurately related to each other.
As is characteristic to classical making, this leaves feature strongly and accurately related in exactly the ways the tradition evolved to consider important.  But it also leaves organic and natural differences and asymmetries between twin instruments with identically collections of choices, and even between the treble and bass sides of individual instruments.


Only by understanding and reviving the methods of the old making can we:

* Resume making from the same DNA choices as favored at the peak of Cremona making

* Regain the flexibility to create special designs that are still well structured and entirely within the traditions of Old Cremona work

* Recapture the lively organic character of classical work that is both highly structured and interrelated by the design traditions, yet carried out as free and natural handwork 

* Relate the components of the instrument with the same combination of confident variations and protected priorities as shown in the old tradition

* Do as they did.


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