Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let Them be Played by Machines

I'm in a violin shop on the third floor of an old building in downtown St. Paul. There's an art studio down the hallway and a big ballroom adjacent to that where people come to learn Aikido. Downstairs are some law offices and an antique shop where I bought an old #5 jack plane for only twelve dollars.

Something like chaos is happening around me. There's a thunderstorm rumbling above the cavernous ceiling of the room where I'm learning to make a violin. A student is standing apart from the workbench and he's playing on one of the recently completed instruments. The instrument and the music are both masterpieces; the musician--an aspiring violin maker who has been thrown out of every pub on 7th street--once studied at Juiliard, and he plays more beautifully than anyone I have ever heard. It's difficult for me to focus on what I'm doing.

There is a school of violin making in my home town, as well as numerous violin makers, but I've traveled a thousand miles to learn the trade in Minnesota. Although he doesn't realize it, my teacher reminds me why: "The violins they make are so clean," he tells me, "and boring as shit."

This is coming from a man who attended a funeral almost every week for fifteen years during a time when he cared for AIDS patients who had been thrown away by their families and friends. Now he's making a violin from the floor of a house that burned to the ground, and you can still smell the smoke in the wood. He's also teaching me and a few others the art that he continues to perfect after 45 years of practice.

I'm making a copy of the 1742 Guarnerius Del Gesù violin that was once owned by Ferdinand David and later by Jascha Heifetz. The original is in a museum in San Francisco when it isn't on loan to the Concert Master there. I've been told that it's priceless.

Although I've already made a couple of violins over the past several years, I'm discovering once again that it isn't easy to do, and there is a lot of controversy about the proper way to do it. Can I use sandpaper? The old maker's didn't have it. What about the band saw or the purfling router? We used modern rubber bands and dowels to clamp the ribs onto the mold; sometimes we use whatever is convenient. We aren't purists in this shop.

Other makers are equally concerned about particular aesthetic results. Some think that each instrument ought to be factory-perfect. Their scroll work is flawless and perfectly symmetrical; there are no tool marks to be found anywhere. The corner purflings all end in elegant bee-stings and the back always arches in a precise curtate cycloid. The coloration of these instruments are even and deliberate, rubbed to a lustrous finish. It's as if "Violin" were some abstract Platonic Form that perhaps Stradivari once achieved in concrete, and all proper violins must now approach this perfection or be deemed inferior. This, however, is not the school of thought pursued at the shop where I am learning.

"You must always stay within the parameters of the instrument," my teacher tells me. He is looking at a tear-out on my scroll work. My pencil line from the template has been compromised, and I wonder if the piece will need to be repaired before I can continue, or if it is already ruined. "But," he continues after some thought, "Del Gesù did whatever the hell he wanted." I re-draw the lines on my scroll to avoid the mistake; the parameters have changed. Sometimes that is the best way to fix a problem.

I think of the different kinds of work I have done, outside of the workshop. It is all artifice, to be sure; but is it all art? On the most artistic end of the spectrum are those projects that have no rules at all. What is art anyway? I have painted, I have drawn; some of it has been good but most of it bad. Why? Maybe that's hard to answer.

On the opposite, utilitarian side of the spectrum, you just don't fool around. Not ever. I once worked at the bank, and we had Sarbanes Oxley to deal with. Nobody ever examined my work and said, "I like it." No, either it worked according to exact specifications or I changed it until it did. There was only one "right."

Violins exist somewhere between pure art and pure utility. Where I learn to make them, they tend slightly to the artistic side. There are exact parameters that cannot be changed, it is true; but we avoid "factory-perfect" like the plague.

It occurs to me, as I write this, that our lives are things we make. Where do lives fit on the spectrum from art to utility? Some lives are chaotic and full of surprises, others are predictable in their attempts to approach some popular interpretation of a Jesus or a Buddha. Just like with violin making, there are schools of thought about the right way to live a life.

I got into violin making because I wanted to play a violin, but I couldn't bring myself to buy something made by a machine, even a human one. Machines achieve perfection so cheaply and predictably. Thorsten Veblen once claimed that probably these cheap and perfect things are just as good as their expensive counterparts, labored over by imperfect people. I have no doubt that Veblen was thinking only of utility when he wrote that. How boring! We can't help putting who we are into what we make. Will my instruments be clean and boring? Or can I see beauty and potential in a nail-hole-riddled plank of a barn, or in a piece of a burned-down house, or in the mark of a tool? Does it make a difference to anything? I like to think that it does.

I am learning a different meaning of perfection. My copy of the 1742 David Heifetz Del Gesù won't be exact, but I'm certain that it will be a sort of perfect. I'll give it to my wife, who also wants to learn to play, and we can take lessons together. As for the factory-perfect fiddles made back home--let them be played by machines.