Monday 5 December 2016

New Work, and a Bit Unusual, Too

I see that it's been a very long while since I posted anything here about my new work.

I can't write about everything that's gone on in the shop over the past year, but I want to give some highlights that will show the kind of work I've been up to and the kind of challenges my clients have set for me. I want to talk specifically about two people, both of them excellent musicians who have very clear ideas about the kind of music they want to play, the kind of performing circumstances they'll encounter, and the kind of lute they need to fit the bill.

First up is Evan Plommer, of Sarnia, Ontario. This is the second lute that I've made for him, and just like the first, with this one he set me an interesting task. Again, he was looking for a 12 course lute to explore the world of accords nouveaux or 'transitional' tunings; this time out, he wanted a larger-bodied lute with a longer string length and lower pitch level to explore some deeper sonorities. (The lute has a string length of 79cm.)

Mug shots!


I think the body itself may have been the germ of this idea for Evan. It is that of a bass lute originally designed by Ray Nurse--he built an 8 course version of it a number of years ago, which Evan admired very much, so he asked me to design a 12 course lute around it. (The design is from a lute body dated 1589 by Magno Tieffenbrucker, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) Ray kindly lent me the mold, and I completed the lute in the late autumn of 2015.

As you can see, the body has a quite flattened profile--Ray's concept in designing the bass lute with this shape was to enhance its projection. I think it works very well--the combination of string length, body shape, and the material of the back (11 ribs of honduras rosewood) give the lute a mellow yet robust tone.

One of the challenges of building a lute like this is the stepped extension. I've made a few of these lutes now, and I think I've found quite a secure way of attaching it--secure in the sense that it's not likely to separate from the neck unless there is some kind of impact (and let's just utter a small prayer right now that such an event will never come to pass), and secure in the sense that it doesn't bow an inordinate or unpredictable amount due to the tension of the strings. (I will share my method of attaching the extension in a future blog post, so stay tuned.)

I've found that this deflection due to string tension is more of a concern the bigger the lute gets. The string tension itself doesn't change much whether the lute is big or small. Instead, the problem seems to be that the longer the bass strings, the more room one must allow between the strings at the extension end of the lute so that they don't clash against each other when the basses are played.

The amount extra that one must allow between the courses is minute--less than 1mm extra for each course--but when it's added together over the four courses of the extension, it becomes a relatively substantial amount.  The main problem is that the more space there needs to be between courses, the more the extension must skew outward, that is, must point toward the bass side. The strings pull to the side, as well as forward, meaning there could be problems if the extension isn't built robustly and attached securely.

But everything seems fine so far, and the lute's been under tension for over a year. I hope to see it again sometime soon--I'd love to take some measurements and see how much the extension has deflected during that time.

On to the second player, and the second lute. The player is Ronn McFarlane, one of the best-known and best-loved lute players on the scene. I've been listening to Ronn for years, and enjoying his concerts and the classes on lute technique that he's taught at the Lute Society of America Summer Festivals. So it goes without saying that I was thrilled when he contacted me to see if I'd be interested in making him a new lute.

Now, I knew that Ronn had been playing one main lute for a lot of years--a 10 course that Ray Nurse built him I think in the early 2000s--and that it had been a long time since he'd commissioned a new lute. And indeed, once we started discussing the design features that Ronn wanted in this new lute, it became clear to me that he had done a lot of thinking about the kind of instrument that he would need in his career from this point forward. The result for me were a lot of small but crucial challenges in the design and the building of the lute.

Let's have a look first--then I'll tell you about some of those challenges.
This is a 10 course lute as well--I expect that this number of courses gives Ronn the maximum flexibility he needs to use the lute in all the different playing situations he encounters as a professional lutenist.

One of the main stipulations he had when we were initially talking about the design of the lute was the string length--59cm. As you may know, that is a fairly short string length for a 10 course lute. (My usual model for a 10 course lute tuned to g', a shrunken Tieffenbrucher C45, comes in at around 63-64cm.) Now, it's easy to find a model of renaissance lute with a string length of around 59cm--the 1592 Venere and the Hieber lute both come to mind--but a 10 course lute would not work on these models, for a couple of reasons. First, those bodies are a little too compact to handle 10 courses--they don't really have the resonant capacity to deal with all that sound. Second, their necks have room for only 8 tied frets--and Ronn was adamant that this 10 course lute have room for 9 tied frets (and he wanted the ninth to "tie easily," he said.)

So, that sent me back to the drawing board. The solution I came up with for a lute with a relatively large body, relatively long neck, and relatively short string length, was a Sellas archlute--the same small liuto attiorbato that I had used for the first 12 course lute that I made for Evan Plommer, in 2012.

As you can see in the pics above, the body of this lute is quite broad and short--almost as if the folks in the Sellas workshop in the early 17th century had taken the outline of a small-bodied 7 or 8 course lute, and just inserted a spacer or wedge in the middle to broaden it (Robert Lundberg talks about this  design concept in his book Historical Lute Construction.) At the same time, as you can see in this side view, the back of the body is quite flattened--which enhances sound projection, but also, fortunately, makes the lute more comfortable to hold and play.

Even with this rather squat body, however, getting the ninth fret to tie easily was a bit of a trick--I had to raise the position of the bridge by a few millimeters, and change slightly the profile of the lute's back, right where the middle ribs meet the back of the neck, making them gather in a slightly steeper curve. I got it to work, though--as you see here, a most relaxed ninth tied fret.
One other important design consideration was the peg box. Ronn is very much a travelling musician, and often that means he needs to be able to take his lute into the cabin of an airplane as hand luggage--and the case needs to fit into the overhead bin. A 10 course lute of the usual design has a long peg box, and a deep case to fit it--too deep for Ronn's needs. The solution: make a shorter peg box by having a chanterelle tuner, a main peg box that carries 7 double courses, and a bass overrider that carries courses 9 and 10.

As you may have noticed, the overrider is not based on any particular historical design. The idea of basing an overrider on some ancient 13 course lute where you'd normally find such a thing (an Edlinger, say, or JC Hoffmann) seemed quite anachronistic to me, so I followed Ray Nurse's lead in the lute that he build for Ronn in 2000: I designed a functional (and hopefully attractive and natural-looking) piece of equipment that will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Two final features to mention: I installed a set of Pegheds, the geared, mechanical tuning pegs; and I installed a K&K Pure Classic pickup inside the lute. Both were Ronn's special requests, and I consented to them without question.  The Pegheds make a lot of sense for Ronn's situation: I cannot imagine anyone playing a lute more, and needing to tune a lute more (and more quickly and accurately) than he does. As for the pickup, Ronn plays many gigs in many different situations--solo, with the Baltimore Consort, or with Ayreheart, electric or acoustic as the case may be. The pickup allows him maximum flexibility to use this new lute in any situation.

So that's it for me for this week. I 've suddenly realized that throughout this blog post I've been typing the words "Ray Nurse" quite a lot. Who is this mystery man, you may be asking? Well, I'm sure many of you have met him, or perhaps seen or heard his work--he's been an amazing lute maker, musician and scholar for many years. This is what he looks like, standing in the doorway of my little shop. Ladies and Gentlemen: Ray Nurse!

Tuesday 12 July 2016

The Backside of an Angel

Greetings! I was recently in Cleveland for the Lute Society of America Lute Fest, our biennial celebration of all things lute.  You may have seen photo and video highlights posted to the LSA Facebook group, or the LSA website. As always, a fantastic time was had by all--classes, concerts, lessons, lectures, much fellowship and affection all helped to create a beautiful world for a week on the Case Western Reserve University campus. If you haven't attended the LSA Fest, you should make plans to be there in 2018!

One thing that I've always loved about attending the LSA Festival at Case is the proximity to the Cleveland Museum of Art--it's literally a ten-minute walk from the dorm where the Lute people live. The last couple of times I've attended the Fest, I've elected to arrive a day early, just so I can go check out what's happening at the Museum.  In 2014, there was an amazing exhibition of prints by Albrecht Dürer, an artist who's dear to the heart of lute makers everywhere.  This time, there was something (dare I say) even better for a complete lute-nerd like me: a selection of single, large, illuminated vellum pages from Italian choir books of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Of course, when I learned about this exhibit, I headed straight there, looking for images of lutes (and other musical instruments)--and I found them.  I'm not sure how many individual pages were on display in the small gallery--maybe twenty at most--and probably a third of them had initial or marginal illuminations that included angel musicians.  Among those, there were at least three pictures of lutes, all very good, and one which I consider to be a iconographical discovery of some consequence--to me at least.  Let's have a  look!

First up: one that I think I've seen before, probably in Howard Mayer Brown's "Catalogus: A Corpus of Trecento Pictures with Musical Subject Matter," a series of articles published in the journal Imago Musicae in the mid-1980s.  (I discussed this article in a previous blog post, Designing a Medieval Lute.)  Here's a pic of the entire choir book page, whose origin is Bologna and which dates to 1408:

And here's a close-up of the illuminated initial E, showing King David playing a long necked lute.  There are a few things to note about the lute, even though not much detail can be seen in the photo: it probably has four courses; the neck is probably fretless; the bridge and rose are positioned low on the belly. The two main points of interest for me are the length of the neck in relation to the body, and the curved joint between the neck and the body. Of the latter point, I would also note that there appears to be a body-neck joint clearly marked on the lute, suggesting at least a separate fingerboard, if not an actual separate neck (which is joined to the body, rather than the body and neck being carved from a single piece of wood).

Moving on: a marginal illustration from a Mass of the Dead, from 1480s Ferrara, by Jacopo Filippo Argenta.  The entire page is magnificent, dominated by the large historiated R with a realistic scene of a priest and acolytes in a chapel, standing over the body of the deceased, reading the Office of the Dead.

One could get lost in the extraordinary detail of the entire work, but my eye moves almost automatically to the bottom margin, where we find two angel musicians, one with a lute.

What kind of lute is it? Hard to tell, but I would say it has four, perhaps five courses; the body-neck joint is blunt, suggesting that the neck is a separate piece joined onto the body; and the right hand position, while not exactly clear from my photograph, suggests the possibility that the angel might be playing with his fingertips, rather than with a plectrum. All of these features are what one might expect to find in a picture from the 1480s, a time of transition for the lute, when playing technique was evolving from single lines played with a plectrum to polyphonic music played with the fingertips.

And now to the third lute picture, my favourite, and to me the most exciting of the bunch.  It dates from the 1370s, and is the masterpiece of Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, a Camaldolese monk who produced this illumination for a multivolume set of choral books for his monastery of Santa Maria delgli Angeli in Florence.  Here it is, in all its splendour, a magnificent illuminated G (which would have introduced the text Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, "Let us rejoice in the Lord"):

Indeed, let us rejoice--and let us focus on the extraordinary depiction of the angel musicians at the bottom of the page.

What have we here? Five kneeling angels, with their backs turned to us, the two farthest away apparently without instruments (perhaps they are singers), the three nearest to us playing fiddle, portative organ, and lute.

It's a pretty common combination of instruments in pictures from this period, but what makes it extraordinary to me is the fact that the musicians are shown from the back side. Frontal depictions of such musical groups are (to put it crudely) a dime a dozen; this is the first one I've seen that shows the rear view of these instruments.  And to me, the depiction is (sorry!) highly illuminating.

I'm not sure what modern makers of medieval fiddles might have to say about this picture, but from what I've seen of modern recreations of this instrument, the depiction looks pretty accurate. The head stock appears quite clearly to be hollowed out from the back, which I think is the way most modern versions of this instrument are built. Why are they built this way? I don't know--maybe there is other iconographical evidence somewhere, or surviving historical instruments, that show this feature. (If there are any medieval fiddle makers reading this post who can comment, please do so at the bottom of the page. I'd appreciate it.) At the very least, I think the reasonable accuracy of the fiddle in this picture lends credence to the rest, including the lute, which is what I'm most interested in.

So let's have a look:

To me, this picture is a treasure trove of information.  The positions of both arms and hands suggest much about the playing technique being used: the left thumb wraps around the back of the neck, which I take as indicative of single line playing, 'ud-style, on an unfretted neck, while the right arm wraps around the very bottom end of the lute, bringing the right hand and forearm parallel to the strings, in perfect position for playing with a plectrum. In fact, to me this picture suggests a playing position very much like the one shown in another picture from roughly the same time period, the Coronation of the Virgin by Andrea Di Bartolo, from the Ca d'Oro in Venice.

Here's the big picture:

And here's the detail of the angel with the lute:

They could be the same angels--they could be the same lutes!

As some of you may know, I made a five course unfretted medieval lute based on this painting a couple of years ago--and I wrote about the process of designing and building it on this blog (as I mentioned above, the post is called "Designing a Medieval Lute"). To refresh your memory, here's what it looked like--from the front:

In my description of my process, I lamented the fact that when designing a three dimensional object using a two dimensional model like this painting, all you get is a plan view, without any information on things like the depth of the body, the materials used, how many ribs it has (if indeed it is built of ribs, and not carved out of a single block of wood). For my model, I chose to build lightly and simply, using nine ribs (the least number that's practical) and a semicircular cross section.  Here's what I got:

I thought this lute turned out really well as a musical instrument, and I've always felt that it was very plausible from a design point of view, but I've never had support for this opinion until now. I think the rear-view illumination that I found in the Cleveland Museum of Art confirms much of what I decided to do with this instrument. A direct comparison:

The bowls look very similar. You can't quite count the ribs on the lute in the painting--the angel's arm is in the way--but nine seems right. And even the shortened capping strip at the bottom of my lute seems to correspond to the painting.  As well, the overall rounded shape of the body seems very similar to me--I think they're near-twins.

The only real difference between them seems to be the peg box--mine is tapered and the back is closed (that is, it's covered with a plate), while the one in the painting is more square, and the back is open. It also appears to have 7 or possibly 8 pegs, which would make it a four course instrument. But I think the peg box in this painting matches very closely the one in the Di Bartolo painting, in the square-ish look, the number of pegs, and the style of the peg head (which to me looks sort of heart-shaped.)

So that's my story.  I realize that as a lute maker I get excited about things that probably don't matter much to the vast majority of humanity, but I guess that's one of the reasons why I make lutes! A little discovery like this pleases me much, and it's like a little miracle, one that's made possible by the fact that the Lute Society of America has its Lute Fest in Cleveland every two years.  Really, next time around you should come and join us. It will blow your mind!