Thursday, June 23, 2011

'Tis the Season For Not Making

Hello. My name is Robert and I'm a recovering boat-builder.
I have to repress the need to make lists of things to order.
I have small notepads next to every chair in case I need to draw some solution to a joint or a sub-assembly. They are all far.
The shed calls me repeatedly, and I wander up there to rearrange some tools, or clean up some remaining off-cuts, but I just come back to the house with an armful of firewood. To-day I mixed some two-stroke fuel, even though I never seem to need much, especially when the weather combines with middle-age to conspire to make sailing intermittent at best.

I am like the worst of us in that having boats doesn't seem to be enough- there needs to be something in the pipeline.
The damn pipeline. I'm trying to act like a non-builder.
There are things proper people do, and I'm going to get me some of those.

I'm not worried. Lots of people aren't making a boat at the moment. Why, I can think of seventeen on our road alone that aren't actually making one at the moment. Maybe eighteen if you include teen-agers. Or twenty-three if you include dogs.
I could go shopping.

Or I could just tidy up all the plans that I have accumulated by accident, and make a tidy pile. Or two.
I could roll them up into a nice tube, or flatten them so that they form a nice stack.
I could feel like a publisher and look at the stack and reject them all- maybe even write to the designers and say that I'm grateful for their work, but there really isn't a market for their particular design at the moment, and good luck with the other rejections and my isn't the market tight at the minute you just wonder if anyone reads plans anymore, what with the strength of the dollar and the Chinese you know, they can do it so much cheaper. Oh, my, is that the time?

Or I could just sneak another look at The Maid of Endor, while no-one else is in the house except Billy, but he's a dog, and he doesn't mind.
And he did have quite a nice time lying on the Melonseed skiff plans last week. He looked quite decorative on the off-sets page, with all those lovely numbers in the table by his head.

But going to the Paul Gartside new web page is certainly off-limits. I draw the line at that.
Or I will, after I just make sure that that trailerable double-endered cutter is way too much of a life-style change for a confirmed dinghy man.

And I'm not having a bar of all that talk of a slightly bigger Pilgrim from JW. That would be a bridge too far, with a pair of boats already in the shed. A good capacity there though, purposeful little hull with a juicy stay-sail tucked in there behind the jib. But there'll be none of that sort of thinking, I'm sensible now. Going straight.

Keep it simple. That's the plan.
The house. I'll work on the house and all my blogger friends will be so grateful that I'm thinking about windows and glazing, and getting drawings approved by council. They'll like that, bored with boats and little dreams of pieces of string.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Australian Fur Seals, Cowes Victoria

These flat-topped rocks are home for several thousand Australian fur seals- all descended from the hundred or two that remained when hunting was finally stopped. I guess in their survival they descend from the quickest, or the most fearful or some other quirk of genetics, and I wonder if such a small genetic base will enable them to adapt and survive a warming and acidifying ocean. Our reduction of their gene pool will have severely reduced their capacity to adapt to future catastrophes. On the other hand, the reduced food that they have available to them in a heavily fished environment is somewhat off-set by our continued depletion of their predators too.
So we really appreciated being able to observe these beautiful creatures as they carry on without regard for the challenges that we will all have to face. They continue just to fit into a gap and play their role, with no expectations of more, or better. Less and worse is down to us, not them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Artefact As Enigma

I know that two of my friends online are interested in violins, so I include a small article I wrote a while ago for general interest, as an extension of some points that arose out of a previous post. I hope my other reader doesn't get too bored.
All of the pictures are of instruments that I have made, or shots from my workshop.

A  R  T  E  F  A  C  T  
A S   
To many of us, the violin family remains unsurpassed as an expression of  technological achievement  but...
Your violin means even more than it says...
  Unlike most technical achievements, this one also embraces beauty, mathematics, and human cultural traditions. It has been in constant use for centuries and remains a delight to hold, hear, touch and  look upon. The violin is enigmatic in the iconic status it has achieved and yet after all these years so many of the judgements we make about it are subjective despite lively debate. 
      Refinement of the violin family  mirrored movements in art and architecture as idealistic explorations of our relationship to the cosmos, but it now stands much more alone in still  sometimes being made in the traditional way, and sometimes upon the same conceptual basis as it was centuries ago. As an artefact it is a perfect expression of the diverse influences which have been woven into our culture.
     We can see in many artefacts a metaphorical  likeness to the famous decoding machine ‘Enigma” in that they hold within them the essence of  cultural language. In the case of the violin family these codes come  from  an interplay of  ideas from the Greco-Roman world and the cultures of the East. At a more obvious level, violins  are also code carriers   for  music written over centuries from an even greater variety of sources.

Artefacts resonate with an ongoing story;  and are reflections of the long term collective personality of a culture. It will be shown that the marvellous diversity that developed in the craft of violin making did so after first benefiting from  periods of rationalization. Let’s explore how.
     It was in the 15th century that philosophy and theology re-collided with numbers. Part of this was in the re-emergence of Greek scholarship  after the fall of Constantinople, part was the emergence of humanism and part was western theology re-examining the world’s relationship with God in those terms.
     The theologian Cusanus (1410-64) argued that Man can find God  or the traces of Him (vestigia Dei) in the creatures and the things of the world and indeed must strive to, in order to understand God fully. Thus when people saw nature they learned about God.  Humanists converged on this idea when for the first time they were able to read ( in Greek) those previously unavailable texts of Plato, particularly where he described the world as a living organism, the soul of which can be conceived as God.
     For the thinkers of the renaissance, beauty was to be the measure and symbol of the divine essence, as it had been in the classical period. The key to this view was that  beauty was in the organic whole and  the interrelationship of  individual parts. The concept of wholeness implied that any work of art had to be a microcosmic representation of the entire universe and incidentally, that Man and his creations were too. 
     The forces and laws of growth in nature are therefore seen not only as organic but also Divine. To have any social or religious validity  artefacts needed to be approached in that context and some of the popular objects and instruments which had been made in dozens of variations over centuries were standardized by entrepreneurial artisans to bring them into line with current thinking, demand and markets. 
Moses built the tabernacle as described in the Bible to proportions which reflect the “golden division” which was seen again in Greek arts and architecture. This ratio (1.618..) is the one which generates nature’s spirals like the nautilus shell and many flower petal arrangements. Even the flight path of many insects landing describe the same spiral when looked at in plan view. This ratio also produces rectangles, subdivisions and spaces which people feel as innately beautiful. It is also to be found in the Greek musical scales and harmonies which have been refined on their way to our score sheets. (see end note 1)
     When the renaissance began, artists and architects were seen simply as  practitioners of the manual arts, but music was seen as an expression of higher mathematics. There was an unbroken tradition coming down from antiquity in which arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music formed the quadrivium of the mathematical ‘arts’. The provision of a firm theoretical (mathematical) foundation to the ‘lesser’ arts saw a rise into prominence for the architects and painters. (This may be comparable to the aristocratic legacy left by Stradivari for a trade which before him was certainly less prominent than many.)
     Anyway the trend was such a prevalent one that  music theory became essential for any artistic education. Increasingly, buildings were discussed in terms of their harmonies and were designed on proportional models  like the subdivisions of musical theory. ‘Octaves’,’fifths, fourths’, ‘diapason’ were all in use as terms describing spatial relationships. This work perhaps reached a crescendo in the buildings of Palladio. The incredible development of musical theory, especially in Northern Italy during the C16th provided a suitably complex, almost magical  framework for all areas of spatial design. 
      This was the time of the Amatis and their various members had absorbed  much of this ,  but it also seems their work continued to  engage with Byzantine traditions and  materials common to other trades  from the “exotic” east. Nearly all that they had gathered  was passed on to us through successors, one of whom applied to it an even more rational  structure, while keeping  all of the alchemical and medieval links to other trades particularly with regard to the finishing system. When Stradivari searched for acoustic improvement he did so using methods common to mathematicians and architects.
   On the streets of Florence in Leonardo’s time  the violin ancestors were rough, knockabout tools on the one hand and quite  sophisticated instruments of  more varied and well documented shape on the other.   We can only  speculate about the transformation from this to the time of Gasparo da Salo, but the effect of that transformation was rational , formal and conceptual and more so between Gasparo and the Cremonese.(See End note 2) 
     Indeed the purposeful rationalisation by  gifted individuals created “nodal” areas  of  achievement . What appears in retrospect as a mass of individual’s work is probably partly that but also the work of many others under  close direction. Roger Hargraves (2002) explores this brilliantly.
     In the case of the violin family it is useful to look at the work of the great makers  conceptually as well as in human terms. Conceptually because they refined the proportions and perhaps provided the structure for an ideal enduring instrument, and in doing so there is no doubt that they were aware of the precepts current in arts and architecture. 
     We should resist looking at makers like Stradivari in that abstract way for too long because to do so is to lose sight of the craftsman ; restless and searching, with each instrument a considered  statement  of materials and ideas, tempered by a deft hand and an exquisite eye. Antonio never made ‘Strad copies” nor did any of the artisans working under his direction ( and possibly his label). They made “Strads”. The form, concepts and craft skills are those laid out and expected by the master.
     By the end of Stradivari’s life the formal harmonic adventure in the arts was more than a little challenged. What can be done by artists whose teachers had already achieved perfection? Mannerism and the Baroque had redefined human relationships with the world and with the divine well before then. The English painter Hogarth was to give voice to a growing suspicion about links between mathematics and beauty. The individual eye was to gain the ascendant and by the mid 1700’s Burke(1757) was to describe his exultation of  his sensual and emotional conception of proportion in his Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful  He denied any relationship between geometry, proportion and beauty.

     Romanticism was in the air, the enlightenment opened thinkers to pan- European ideas, and interestingly, the technologies of China and Japan were set to make their mark as Koen Padding (2002) credibly argues, on the rise in fashion for shiny, hard ‘Japanned’  coatings  and the subsequent loss of interest in manufacturing the soft stuff used by many trades before this. He notes that it is increasingly difficult to find “classical varnish” after about 1750. (see End note 3)
     Every time a luthier fits a bass bar he is conceptually linked to the renaissance architect Alberti,  and through him and before him, to Pythagorus. A parallel link exists to the tribal instrument makers who  made rudimentary , vernacular bowed instruments in desert communities. In placing and spacing the bass bar the luthier is affirming the proportions of some great and gorgeous architectural spaces as well as the ratios which govern string lengths and musical theory. He/she is also applying the same logic which generated the scroll. In this article, no attempt is made to discuss the specific ratios and proportions utilized in the design of the violin. Some wonderful work has been done on that and we are concerned  more here with the influence and the motivations for there being any special proportions at all.
     Having said all that we must acknowledge that the vast majority of instruments have been assembled by people and/or machines who have held not the slightest interest in or knowledge of these traditions.  The knowledge doesn’t guarantee good craftsmanship, but I think that most really fine instruments contain something of the search  for both conceptual and  craft skills.  Making a fine instrument seems to be more about a preoccupation with cause than with effect. 

     When one reads an analysis of a fine instrument there is often a sense of reverence for the coherence and confident unity of the whole with its parts. I would go further and say that all objects, systems and even people which have that effortless  quality of being that seems balanced, complete and alive, do so because they are without  apparent  inner contradictions.
 The conception of a fine instrument is much more than an accurate outline. A beautiful varnish is more than a pleasant colour. Successful arching can only function in a direct relationship to  the thicknessing and the varnish. A well cut f hole is conceived with reference to arch, outline, body length and placement. Masterful work holds these things and others in harmonic balance. Understanding this enables us to appreciate the work of makers like del Gesu whose unity, physicality and boldness might otherwise seem simply clumsy against even the most ordinary C19th factory fiddle, at least in appearance.
     While we are with this maker, is it just coincidence that  Paganini found his most prolific voice on a violin conceived as European culture was discarding  harmonies based on ratios in favour of more lyrical, sensual styles? I suspect not, but I recognize a delicious irony there, because although Guarneri’s instruments look  to be from a divergent tradition it seems that  his instruments begin from an Amati structure of proportions (possibly all of the same mould), but more freely and robustly developed. Same conception, different sensibility.
     Luthiers and players are code carriers for our culture and in being so they participate in a story which exploded into a major cultural form in the C16th, but which has combined technological and theoretical roots which come from Greece, Byzantium and the middle east. These sources were to interact  in all aspects of the instrument  leading to a standardized refinement of what was a tribal, folk instrument.
     How reassuring it is to ponder these links and  find meaning in this work by having some understanding of the reasons and  cultural frameworks behind the methods,  ratios and proportions which underpin a day of work for many of us.
 (1)Before the renaissance  theorists tended to measure geometrically in a reductionist way, seeing the natural world as expressions of development from geometric patterns such as equilateral triangles and pentagrams from the framework of Pythagorus. This was to develop into a fascination with rational measurement: which  cannot be expressed as whole numbers,  and literally the ratios and proportions which were found to generate nature. Having said that, luthiers were to come to rely more on the related 5/4 proportion because it was more practical to apply.
(2)  While in many trades the renaissance had little impact in methods and procedures, it still remains true that it is unwise to try to understand an artefact from this period without seeing all of its parts in their relationship to each other and to the whole, and to the meaning or context of the object. The average artisan then, as now would just make to order as he was taught, but from time to time the artefact became redefined by an artisan of restless intellectual spirit and the bar would be raised because the work had a conceptual relationship to the cultural parameters of the time.
(3)  Of course the loss of the old varnishing system is noteworthy also in that it represents the dying throes of a Byzantine subculture which had existed in Italy for centuries, remembering especially that the continuing Greek community in Northern Italy  had a huge impact on the establishment of the guild system.
I find quite poignant, the waning  European interest  in the interrelatedness of everything,  at a time of  increased influence from an Eastern culture which had nurtured Taoism. Some Masters of Taoism as I understand the gist of it  developed the notion that through meditation we can see the nature of everything in everything else. 
Burke,  (1757)  Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful  
Decker, Heinrich (1967) The Renaissance in Italy, London: Thames and Hudson##
Hargraves, Roger (2002)  The Strad, October.pp-1104-1109
Padding, Koen (2002) British Violin Makers Association Newsletter, Spring,
Wittkower, Rudolf (1967) Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism: London, Alec Tiranti

Western Port, Victoria

From Churchill Island (above)

The Nobbies and Seal Rocks

Thursday, June 9, 2011

the disappearing luthier (and the disappearing clients)

French violin from the 1820's. You may be surprised if you knew what it looked like this morning. While it is still a mess, the new pieces of wood have melted into the old and mostly disappeared. Another four or five hours and it will all appear to be the same age, but in better condition than it seems now.

This is the dilemma for the restorer. Your work has to disappear. There is no room for ego in restoration and when a job is done properly there should be a huge let-down for the restorer and the client, because the trouble has all disappeared. What was the fuss about? It looks fine, why is the bill so big? It doesn't look damaged at all....

This work is the antithesis of making an instrument. When you make, it is all about your vision, and your combined ideas for tone and style and outline and chroma and nuance and character. These things will all combine in the mind as you will the instrument into being. And there it will be, an expression of your vision and the limitations in your realisation of it.

A factory or even an amateur instrument (and some 'professional' ones too) will just be the physical combination of a bunch of bits made in isolation, without a central idea wedding them to each other. Some may sound fine and look good, but they are just industrial objects. A really fine instrument will be the result of some educated decisions based upon experience aimed at a particular outcome and put out there to be judged as such.

So when it comes time to restore an instrument of this calibre there is no room for the personality or the inclinations of the restorer. You only succeed if your work becomes invisible and reveals the vision of the original maker. I believe very strongly that makers who don't restore and restorers who don't make miss out substantially in the two aspects of the workers ego. To be able to be 'present' or 'absent' is to know much more about what works. This is a further reflection of the metaphor of the reflex curve mentioned in a previous post.

So, happily, to-day I disappeared and felt the better for it. But I was also aware that there has been less of this to be done lately. I deal with people's discretionary income and there is less to be had of that for instruments lately, than I have known for twenty years. In another sense also, I felt an absence to-day, contemplating the death of another long-term client.

I looked after his violin for 15 years or so (not the one pictured here), but it has a wonderful story that begins with a family escaping 'cleansing' in Europe in the 1930's. It is a challenging story, but ultimately a happy one for those that lived through it. The violin has moved on, and as it happens its new owner is also a client of mine. But I will miss M.- a lovely man and a fine music educator, and the world is a little diminished without him.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

talking with strangers

magic winter moment, originally uploaded by robert.ditterich.
When was the last good conversation you had with a stranger? It's a pretty rare thing in the modern world, but every time I take Annie for a sail I know I'll have at least one good conversation, generally when I'm rigging or de-rigging. In fact if middle-aged women want to meet really nice middle-aged men, the best thing for them to do would be to make or buy a Navigator and spend a while rigging it....I'm not in the market, but I do meet some lovely chaps and it's nice to have a yarn and swap a story or two.

Sometimes the stories are even based on truth, if not entirely true, but that is the nature of stories. Connecting is the thing, and the flow of ideas and words comes from the presence of the boat as the ice-breaker, the meeting point of dreams and aspirations; maybe even secret desires for irrational things made solid and readable and tangible, and capable of vague justification.

Mostly these men fish and have an aluminium boat that costs more than I earn in a year, but their tone is dreamy and enquiring, as if making something beautiful is way beyond what the world expects of them, or would allow them. I feel very lucky, but confused at the same time because beauty is cheap if you're prepared to turn up to the process of learning how to make it.

Well to-day I had a conversation of an altogether different order with a creature that lives the beauty that we can only work at strapping ourselves to, and he or she did me the honour of spending some time looking Annie and me over, without the usual questions and comments because it was generally agreed between us that, of the two of us he/she was the true possessor of a beauty that I can only scratch at the edges of.

And I think it was the silent greyness of Annie that caused him to give me the time of day because he carries a few scars from other encounters of a much less friendly nature I think.

I saw him at a distance and ghosted in his direction in a piffling breeze (which turned out as a blessing because I could leave the sheets and tiller to their own devices while I sat on the foredeck and communed with a stranger) and we cruised and bobbed to nowhere in particular while he showed me what it really means to breath and curl the toes. And there's me sitting in pale awkward imitation of a creature trying desperately to find peace and space in a peaceful and spacious place.

He bobbed and weaved and stayed within visible distance and twirled and showed me bits that I never knew dolfins possessed while I sat on the foredeck with a silly grin on my face and a phone in my hand, but blissfully, nowhere to be in a hurry.

After more than 30 minutes of this intercourse the jib creaked, and on the second day of Winter the tell-tales told me to sit up and notice the wind-change slicing across the bay and it was three sheets in hand while I made sense of the wind and away we went at speed. The change brought a 3ft chop and not a small bit of adrenalin as I made sense of it all, hardly turning to say farewell to my new friend, without a hope of writing down his email. I tacked for some miles then jibed in the waves because home was starting to look like the sort of place where a man might comfortably be, and the jibe took me to surfing downhill, weaving and surging before the growing wind.

I had some moments of thoughtfulness but none of the thoughts involved doubting the boat, feeling safe and capable with options before me if things escalated further. Pointing at the headland, bucking and rearing I turned into the wind and furled the jib and dropped the main and surged into the little St.Helens marina on a swell and very, very happy.

Another video of my encounter is on Flickr. I took lots of videos, but will spare my reader the details....