...On Craft, Science, and Art
in Violin Making
The work of the luthier can be thought of as supported by the three pillars of craft, science, and art. The emphasis can fall on these in different ways, but all successful luthiers seek some sort of equilibrium between these three.
* * *
I think of craft as referring to the traditional knowledge and skills passed down through what has become many generations -- centuries, even millennia -- of luthiers. Today, the name of Stradivari is held in esteem as the pinnacle of the luthier's art and his work remains an ideal toward which all modern makers pay respect. Violin making has changed little since Stradivari's time, and the craft of violin making remains the classical example of fine skilled hand work and traditional knowledge of design and function. The craft of violin making necessarily starts with the emulation of the great works of the past.
Training, practice and experience are the means through which the luthier hones his craft. Just as a musician must practice long hours until certain actions become unconscious and "natural", so an experienced craftsman must internalize his skills in order to allow him a spontaneity of expression -- an easy grace and economy in line and toolwork that can surpass even the most virtuosic of technical achievements. It is our craft that gives us the traditional forms with which we work and the language by which we understand what we do -- the ideals to which we aspire and the methods we use to acheive them. It represents the timeless aspect of our work -- our hands reflecting those of the great masters, rediscovering for ourselves their forms and movements by using the same tools and techniques, honoring the same ideal of simple classical perfection. It gives us pride in work well executed, according to standards that have held over long centuries, and it also teaches us humility in the understanding of the great works of the past, and a tradition that is so much greater than the accomplishments of any individual. Craft is what is handed down from master to student -- it doesn't question, but rather preserves the values of the past in the knowledge that the results prove the method. We don't always know why we do what we do, but the path has been proven and, who are we to question?
Science, on the other hand, is historical process -- where not tradition, but cumulative empirical discovery becomes the guide. It is the application of critical thought to the traditions of the craft. The evolution of the violin was a such a process where, over generations, the form adapted to the musical needs of the time through a slow process of trial and error and growing understanding. All working luthiers have a similar experience of incremental discovery at their workbench, through the process of making a number of instruments -- comparing the differences in wood, design, and techniques -- in order to try to understand what it is that gives the most favorable results. The traditional ways of assessing these variables are by comparing outlines and arching shapes, measuring thicknesses and weights, flexing for stiffness and tapping for tonal response.
In addition to these traditional methods, modern technology has given to the luthier a whole new array of investigative tools, from the now common practice of checking Chladni patterns of free violin plates (patterns of dust that form on the plates when made to vibrate at various frequencies, and are indicitave of the plate's natural resonances) to more advanced techniques of laser interferometry, and the analysis of frequency responses of whole body vibrational modes. The normal resonances of the air chamber and of the body of the instrument itself have now been mapped and measured for their common configurations and parameters. Advances in acoustical physics, engineering, chemistry, biology, and computer modelling have all been brought to bear on the work of the violin maker in the attempt to understand and improve upon what we do.
Science provides us with a method that leads us from empirical observation to the abstract and unchanging mathematical relations between the things of this world. But to do this, it has to leave behind the actual world of the concrete and specific. This particular piece of wood can only be approximately equal to the one described by mathematical variables, and the subtle complexities of tone production in a violin quickly exceed the descriptive capabilities of even the most sophisticated of mathematical tools. Modern scientific technology can provide us with valuable insights and information that is not immediately obvious, but when applied to the sphere of aesthetic judgements, it offers little help at the workbench. It works best as a descriptive tool -- it can tell us in detail how a given instrument behaves, but not necessarily why. And it is still up to the artist to decide the ends toward which he strives. The complex unique and individual qualities that we find fascinating and beautiful as we play, will probably remain forever beyond the measurements of the physicist.
* * *
As an artist, the luthier enters the realm of the singular and unique. Craft and science aim more at the reproducable aspects of the work: the techniques, sanctioned by tradition or empirical study, that lead to predictable results. But art is an endeavor that seeks the particular and individual, and it's approach is intuitive rather than rational. To the untrained, a first glance would lead one to think that one violin is much the same as another. However, for the more knowledgeable, it is the uniqueness of each one that becomes of more interest than the commonalities between them, and here neither science nor craft can follow. Just as great singers do not all sound alike, neither should we expect a good violin to give up its individuality for some ideal of perfection. Every tree is different, and each violin combines these different qualities in various ways. The experienced luthier tries to open up the sound of each instrument as best he can, to let the voice of the wood sing by creating a full, open sounding instrument that is acoustically efficient, responsive, and balanced, while still allowing the individual character of the materials to come through.
Intuition is the tool of the artist; and when dealing with the individualty of our materials and the complexities of design and function, we confront something new with each instrument, where our knowledge of craft and science must halt at the threshhold of the unknown and we must make judgements and decisions on the basis of a faith in our creative intuition, informed by experience. There is a mystery here that we must respect.
For the artist, it is important not to let one's view of the forest be obscured by the trees. There is a wholeness and integrity of style that can unify a work in sound, touch and vision that can forgive the many small irregularities and eccentricities of execution that come from work performed with the freedom and spontaneity necessary for the artist's intuition to flow.
* * *
We must beware of thinking that the history of lutherie has been one of steady progress toward better and better instruments. Rather, the best luthiers throughout the centuries have managed to fulfill the needs of the changing musical styles and expectations of their times through whatever means they had available. We must remember that we still consider the example of the old masters of the past to remain the standard by which we measure our own efforts. And we must not fail to see there the diversity of style, and the range of different methods and conceptions of what a fine instrument can be.
I began this essay with a statement of the need for balance between the three aspects of craft, science and art. A deficiency or a too heavy focus on any one of these will only work to the detriment of the result. By itself, craft can give us work of great technical proficiency -- finely detailed copies of the work of the past -- but it is not well prepared to deal with the element of the unknown that faces us each time we pick up a new piece of wood. Science can provide us measurements and methods of assessing the physical parameters of our materials and products, but it cannot tell us what we are striving for in the end. It wants a rational and measurable reason for each step we take, but our finest examples are there in front of us and the reasons are absent. A pure artist may have the will for great things, but without being grounded in the fertile soil of tradition and the steadying light of science, his work will at best be erratic, and at worst, floundering. A good luthier may be a fine craftsman, or have a scientific bent, or an artistic flair, but it is only when the work is also informed with the qualities of the other of these three themes that the best work is produced.