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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Three things have engaged my attention this week. Granted: I am easily overwhelmed by the state of the world, and though I do my best to keep myself generally informed, I find that I function best when I am able to concentrate my energies and my attention on my community, my friends and loved ones, and my work.

This perhaps belies my past as an activist. While my stance on social change has not wavered, my personal approach has, in fact, changed.  Lest my intentions be deemed petty, or trite, I would challenge anyone to grasp the correlation between these 3 items of interest:

1. My city of Holyoke, MA opens a brand new skateboard park. Btw – Holyoke’s new skate park also happens to be situated in Pulaski Park, designed at the turn of the 20th century, by Frederick Olmstead :

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2. Residents and friends of Holyoke petition to save an historic building:

The Farr Mansion then:

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And now:

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3. I spend the better part of three months working on a 17th century fiddle:

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Clearly, this is not simply a pedantic interest in saving old stuff. I like old stuff. But more importantly, I see that an investment in the future is predicated by carrying the past forward. I am never more in touch with this truism than when I am at work. While my current patient was created while Monteverdi was still freshly in his grave, I am aware that, in its reincarnation, it will just as likely be called upon to perform Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No.1 .

And so, a skate park, in some odd way, makes good sense to me: an underutilized and yet historically significant park becomes a hot spot for serious play. Our kids. Our future.

As for the Farr Mansion, that is yet to be determined. My hope is that Holyoke with grasp it in its hands and bring it, too, into the future.

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Thanks:  Rob Deza Photographer

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Years ago, I opened an instrument for repair. I was not the first to do so. I was not even the second. My most recent predecessor had not only signed his name, but also left a numbered legend with corresponding arrows clearly identifying his contribution amongst the multiple repairs in the old fiddle. To seal the deal, he used a blue ball point pen, further distinguishing himself from the mere mortals who had signed previously with a lowly pencil. I’m sorry this was before my obsessive picture taking days.

Sometimes, when I open an instrument and see a repairer’s signature/label, I hear myself thinking: Ah, Kilroy was here. Kilroy? Who the heck is Kilroy?  This was an amusing lunchtime digression. Here is a little bit of Americana from urbandictionary.com:

 
In December 1946 the New York Times credited James J. Kilroy, a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, with starting the craze. Usually, inspectors used a small chalk mark, but welders were erasing those to get double-paid for their work. To prevent this, Mr Kilroy marked his welding work with the long crayoned phrase (“Kilroy was here”) on the items he inspected. The graffito became a common sight around the shipyard and was imitated by workers when they were drafted and sent around the world. As the war progressed, people began opening void spaces on ships for repair, and the mysterious Mr Kilroy’s name would be found there, in sealed compartments “where no one had been before.”
“Kilroy was here…”

So today I decided to put the infamous “Heap of Cello Bits”, which I own, back in the drawer, since I just had another substantial cello job come in that I will actually get paid to do. Instead, I decided to pull out a violin of mine, 19th century French something or other, which I think may be a good candidate for a restoration workshop I may attend this summer. My thinking is that if I can get the cracks repaired ahead of time, I can spend my week away grafting the neck and doing some retouch. I find both of these activities good “travel tasks” because they require a relatively finite set of tools and materials. Retouch is a never ending area of exploration and will always inspire good exchanges with colleagues. And if I can get a graft done too, then I return home with a project solidly moved along.

It’s always a minor thrill to open an instrument. Tonight it was the French fiddle and while there were no serious surprises, good or bad, it was definitely one of those “Kilroy” moments. Kilroy, Kilroy, and Kilroy.DSCN0352DSCN0349

What’s with all the labels? I thought, and then realized that they were all identical except that the handwritten dates spanned 30 years. Our Kilroy in this case is Milton O. Wickes, in case that’s not clear yet.

Currently, the accepted practice among professional restorers is to do the work that needs to be done, be as subtle and/or as eloquent as one can, and leave as little extraneous evidence as possible. My own practice adheres to this principle. Because, in another lifetime I may have been a fantastic spelunker, I conjure images of a pristine, never been explored cavern. Go in, have fun, and pack your crap out.

Still, when I encounter these “indiscretions” in the form of signatures, labels, narratives and veritable road maps, perpetrated by someone other than the original maker, I admit to feeling a little guilty pleasure. Can I puzzle out the whys and wherefores of Mr. Wickes’ three major encounters with this violin? What about that fiddle I had years ago with the simple inscription “do not scrape?” That was a puzzler. Or the Simoutre family history inscribed in a fiddle. Or my favorite, the handwritten apology from a noted Italian maker, for his sloppy repair work: “Repairs according to the price paid.”

Like so many things, I guess it’s a matter of degrees and context. I’m glad Mr. Wickes didn’t plaster his labels all over the inside of a real Joseph Guarnerius, although that would have been the least of it. Labels are removable. Pencil lead is easily washed off. Ballpoint pen, not so much.DSCN0359

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Two violins in my workshop this week suggest a topic of study that was addressed recently by the membership of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Lectures and a collection of instruments for study at the biannual meeting (this year in New Orleans) centered on the influence of the Amati family of makers (17th century), of Cremona, Italy, on contemporary and subsequent makers throughout Europe. Think population centers and European trade routes c. 1700 and one can begin to imagine how instruments may have moved around along with other goods. It’s become clear that the early  Amati models not only made the journey, but were so highly regarded that violin makers throughout Europe copied them.

The first is a violin made by Andrea Guarneri in 1686. I believe it is generally accepted that A. Guarneri, patriarch of the Guarneri family of makers, probably studied first in the workshop of Giralomo and Antonio Amati and then later, in Nicolo Amati’s shop (nephew of G and A). It’s also possible that Antonio Stradivari studied with him there. In any case, it’s obvious that the work of Andrea Guarneri would show the influence of the Amati shop. In the example that happens to be in my shop now, probably the most striking similarity, is the classic geometrically derived model, and the shape of the arching. I had the additional fortune this week of seeing a violin by AG’s eldest, Peter Guarneri of Mantua. Very similar arching, but with a broader, longer, more robust outline. I think the axiom that is evident here (and is true for modern makers as well) is that the best makers do not work in isolation, but build upon the ideas of their predecessors, and even their contemporaries.

So Andrea Guarneri was a local boy working in or near the Amati shop. That all makes sense. But what is more amazing to me is that 1179km away, by modern standards thank you googlemaps, and 50-60 years later, we have Peter Rombouts in Amsterdam making an instrument with an Amati influence. Now Mr. Rombouts married the lovely daughter of violin maker Hendrick Jacobs, whose work was also influenced by the Amatis. Did they have a client in common with a superb example worth studying? Were they “following the money” and answering a demand for Cremonese modeled instruments? Did they recognize an efficacious development in design and tone and seize the opportunity to advance their own work??

Who knows?

For the sake of reference, I’ve dug up a few shots of a 1656 Nicolo Amati violin that I see fairly regularly.  It’s a lovely instrument, exquisitely crafted with all the delicacy one expects from this maker. See the photo at the left and then compare it to this Peter Rombouts from Amsterdam, early 1700’s, on the right.  It’s so hard ( for me) to get effective photos of archings, so here are the ff holes. There are obvious differences, but I hope the similarities in geometry and placement will be evident. If you imagine the “eyes” on the Rombouts enlarged, you come pretty close to the Amati.

Again, a detail in the back corners. The Rombouts corner is quite worn, but still elongated like the Amati example on top. So not Strad.

The Rombouts is having some extensive work done in my shop, which provides a segue into one reason I care about any of this stuff.

As I approach the end of this particular restoration project, I am faced with the possibility of rebuilding some badly worn top corners. The back corners are somewhat worn, but overall, beautifully intact. However, the top corners, only two of which are original, are terribly worn down. Obviously, the back corners will be my primary reference, but as I am trying to recreate the missing bits, having a sense of the larger picture and understanding more about the derivation of Rombouts’ design can only help me.

Above, one can see that the top edges have been fully doubled. I have made a tracing of the back C bout/ corners and shaped the new top wood to this outline. Below, I have cut away the worn wood around the purfling (which is whale baleen by the way, in the manner of this Dutch maker) and added new wood to the outline. From here, I will do some further shaping to emulate an appropriate wear pattern. The “new ” wood I’ve used is very old and heavily oxidised, so hopefully it will require a minimum of retouching to match.

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