Sunday 16 February 2014

Work in Progress, February 2014

Three lutes are underway right now, an 8 course, 6 course and 5 course, and each presents unique design and construction challenges.   The 8 course lute is a version of the reduced Tieffenbrucher C45 model I've made many times, but with some very specific features requested by the client; the 5 and 6 course lutes are wholly new models for me, and in many ways take me into some rather interesting and uncharted territory.  

First to the 8 course: this lute has a back of Honduras rosewood, a material that I haven't used on this model before.  Other specific features of the lute arise from the fact that the client plans to play this lute with fingernails.  In response, I've made the bridge slightly taller than normal (to provide a bit more clearance of the strings above the belly); the string spacing at the bridge is a little narrower than my shop standard; and the second course will be single-strung.  One other unique feature of this lute is that the client has asked me to install a set of mechanical pegs.

This group of lutes is pretty far along in the construction schedule, and in fact, I glued the bellies into the bodies of all three last week.   Here's a shot of the 8 course just before gluing in.
Next up is the 5 course, a fretless, plectrum-style medieval lute.  It's based on a late-14th century painting, which I'll talk about in a future post.  For now, I'll just point out some features that make this lute unlike any I've built before.  It's more like an 'ud, in many ways--
As you can see, the belly has two roses, a pretty common feature in pre-16th century lutes, judging by surviving iconography.   It also has a 'scratch plate'--an 'ud-like feature--between the bridge and the main rose, to guard against damage from the plectrum, as well as a wide bridge, mosaic inlays, and rose patterns that are very simple in comparison to the kind of roses one sees on most Renaissance lutes.  (The simplicity of the roses is more than compensated for by the overall busyness of the belly's design, which you'll see better when I post pics of the finished instrument.)   The lute also has a curved neck joint, which is covered by the belly in this photograph (but you can see the shape of the joint by looking at the top of the belly, in the area of the upper rose).

The main difference between this lute and any other I've built is the soundboard thicknessing and barring.  Making mainly Renaissance lutes, one gets rather accustomed to building in a certain style, with a certain pattern of thicknessing and barring which, though it varies somewhat from model to model, is fairly well-defined both by the old treatises and by examples from historical instruments in museums.  That pattern looks a lot like this, which is the one on the 8 course lute shown above:
This is called a "seven-bar" pattern: there are three main bars across the belly below the rose, and three main bars above it, while the three small bars across the rose are counted as one.  There are also small bars at the bottom of the belly: two "treble bars" that poke in from the corner (that help to focus and support the sound of the higher-pitched courses) and the "j-bar" (that helps to control the lute's bass response.)

It's a pretty complicated system, well-suited to the sonic complexities of the late-16th century lute and its music.  But what kind of barring system should we use for a 5 course lute?  Besides all the structural differences (two roses, inlays, scratch plate, etc.), the origins of this lute lay at least 200 years earlier than the 8 course, in a vastly different musical culture.  And, unfortunately, there are no late-14th century lutes lying to hand for us to x-ray or pry apart to see how they built them back then.  For this lute, we are in the realm of educated guess work.

But we do have a guide... and his name is Ray Nurse.   Ray's well-known as a musician, teacher, lute maker, musicologist, and all-round giant brain (he's also my close neighbour here in East Vancouver).   In 1988 Ray wrote a paper called "Design and Structural Development of the Lute in the Renaissance," which, among other things, outlines a tantalizingly plausible line of development for lute belly thicknesses and barring systems.  I won't rehearse Ray's whole argument here (the article is available for download--just do a google search), but suffice it to say that, generally, the further back in time we go, the fewer the bars, and the thicker the soundboard.  How few the bars, and how thick the belly, are a matter judgment, and a reading of (admittedly scant) historical evidence.  Here's what I used for the 5 course:
A four-bar pattern--and a reasonably thick soundboard too.  Notice that on this lute, there are no treble bars, and no j-bar.  I'm banking a bit on the likelihood that there won't be much to differentiate the treble and bass responses of this lute, and therefore the small bars that 'balance' the sound in the 8 course lute won't be necessary.  (I'll let you know how this all works out when I string up the lute!)

Now on to the 6 course.

This one is based on the lute by Hans Frei in the Warwick County Museum, otherwise known as the Warwick Frei.  The Warwick Frei's present configuration is as an 11 course (which is how I've built it previously), but it would have started life somewhere in the early-to-mid 16th century as a 6 or 7 course lute (the conversion to 11 courses happened in the 17th century).  It's a reasonably easy task to figure out what the overall shape of the original instrument might have been--neck length, number of frets, string length, etc.--but as with the 5 course lute above, figuring out a plausible "original" belly and barring for this lute is a quite a different matter.

There is some evidence, though, of what these things might have looked like 'under the hood' in the 16th century.  The soundboard, for instance, appears to be original, and, especially in the lower half of the belly, from about the rose down, it is quite thick--as much as 2.5 mm at the very bottom.   As for the barring, what's on the belly now is not original, and is likely a part of the 17th century conversion (it's a pattern somewhat like the one on the 8 course lute, above).  However, glue marks on the underside of the belly show pretty clearly where an earlier set of bars (the originals?) were located.
For my version of this lute, I decided to believe the evidence: I used the thicker soundboard measurements, and the earlier barring pattern.  It's a five-bar pattern, as you can see, but there's another feature I've taken from the original: a j-bar that spans the whole width of the belly.  It's very unusual--I've never seen evidence of such a thing on another historical lute belly--and I'm quite interested to find out if I've been able to balance treble and bass responses without the aid of the little treble bars.

So that's the lute's progress for now.  Much work has been done, and there's much more still to come, but for now, with the bellies glued in place, it's a good time to stop and reflect.   All the thinking I can do, all the planning and testing, have been done, and there's nothing left but to say a little prayer for luck as I seal up my hopes inside each lute.  Every lute is, in a sense, a leap into the unknown, but that's true for these ones especially.  I really feel like I'm pushing at the boundaries of my knowledge with them.  Hopefully I'll make some useful discoveries--and the lutes will make some beautiful sounds.

Until next time....