...On the Violin Maker in the 21st Century
The world has changed enormously since the violin first evolved into its present form in northern Italy during the time of the Renaissance. Tools and methods that were employed by necessity several hundred years ago are now a matter of aesthetic choice. Technological advances that were beyond the wildest dreams of the early violin makers are now as routine as the local hardware store or desktop computer. The art of the violinmaker is today challenged, like much of modern society, with the problems of tradition, innovation, relevance, authenticity and progress -- and these issues are faced differently by practitioners of varying temperaments. Violin makers come in all stripes, but it might be informative to consider some these issues by considering two characteristic attitudes from opposite ends of the field.
For many, the violin can be a symbol of a classical unchanging perfection of form that resists the onslaught of modernity. The traditional ways of the past violin makers represent a pinnacle of artistic endeavor -- the ideal design combined with masterful craftsmanship – and give us insight into a world still whole, before the machine age reduced our vision to the lowest common denominator. For the traditionally minded violin maker, this may culminate in an anachronistic defiance that rejects modern methods and tools, and turns instead to follow in the traces of tool paths left by the masters. After all, these old violins do still lure us with their unmatched beauty and mysterious tone. Try as they might, it is said, the modern violinmaker will never match, much less improve, upon the great examples of Stradivari and Guarneri that still reflect the glory of that Golden Age of violin making. Rather than risk missing an important but unnoticed characteristic, it may be best to simply accept the authority of the past and follow as carefully as possible in the ways of the great classic makers. This outlook is commonly represented by meticulous copies of the original artifacts, sometimes to the point of painstaking “antiquing” in place of history and carefully reproduced tool marks to stand in for the spontaneity of execution in the originals. Some highly skilled makers can beautifully do this, but for others, it becomes an unquestioning quest for an authenticity belonging to another age.
Science as a way of understanding the world is the most characteristic trait of the modern world, and it has certainly entered into the world of violin making. Many current makers have borrowed some of the tools and techniques of modern science in the effort to understand and improve the state of violinmaking. The violin, in this view, is still evolving – progress through science usurps the veneration of past glory. It is believed that through the objective quantification of the behavior of an exemplary violin, a final understanding of the variables involved will give the rationally minded maker the power to equal and surpass the great historical makers. Unfortunately, the violin has proved rather recalcitrant to the efforts of the physicists. Physics can do a very good job in describing the unseen behaviour of a given instrument as well as mapping and measuring acoustic response, but the problem is in generalizing this information for use at the workbench. To the scientist, the violin turns out to be an extremely complex system of interdependent variables, all of which must be simplified and generalized, and even then are quite beyond the power of mathematical prediction. Scientific analysis is best in isolating and measuring the details, allowing us to know more and more about less and less.
Most violin makers today fall somewhere between these two extremes of attitude. Just where the balance is drawn is a mark of how the violin maker sees him(her)self as an artist against the background of our time. We violin makers are torn between the lure of the past and the promise of the future. History can provide us with the inspiration of great individual examples; science with general laws in isolation from the real world. It takes the creative vision of the intuitive mind to integrate and balance these scattered bits of learning into the wholeness of a true work of art.