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Stradofear inspired epiphany and a question...


robedney
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Yes, I call them "telephone violins"--as flawless as a $5 plastic telephone, and just as artistic.

The above quote from Stradofear comes from the thread on corners.

Being only part way through my morning coffee it took me a moment to figure out what Stradofear was talking about. However, persistence paid-off and I got it.

This seems to have set-off something of a personal epiphany, which goes something like this:

A violin can be built to near perfection (particularly with CNC gear) with all of its curves fair and the spiral of the peg head scroll meeting military specs. Unless I'm fully misinterpreting here, Stradofear's comment implies that such instruments are somewhat boring to look at, and I'd have to agree to a limited extent. One of the things that has always drawn me to fiddles is the inherent beauty and balance of the shape, which survives in a well-made nearly perfect instrument.

However, as my appreciation has grown the things that I really love to see are the artful variations from perfection. I say "artful", because there are also ugly variations. I'm not talking about variations in design, but variations that result from working the material. I think that this results from experience, endless practice and -- as a consequence -- a certain freedom in working. In other words, the sexiest and most appealing scrolls I've seen are not perfect (like a plastic telephone -- wherever that analogy came from). However, the variation from perfection is artful, in that it is not so much a mistake as a pleasing variation. It takes a good eye (both intrinsically and by training) to see these things as one is working. Do I go back and fair that curve, or is the variation from perfection pleasing and artful? It can take courage to deviate from perfection, and that kind of courage generally comes with experience.

Much of the violin is symmetrical -- one side being a mirror image of the other. Perfect symmetry, however, can be boring to look at. This reminds me of the (fun) experiment easily conducted in Photoshop. Photograph a face of someone you know, slice it down the middle, toss out the right side, copy the left side, flip it and merge the two. If our faces were truly symmetrical, the photo ought to look right. It never does. If we know the person in the photo it will look off -- maybe a little scary -- to us. It turns out that our faces are far from being genuinely symmetrical, yet we find beauty in faces.

In other words, one can visually mess with symmetry in a way that leaves an impression of symmetry, but where real symmetry is lacking. Most hand-made fiddles are not perfectly symmetrical. It strikes me that this can be visually pleasing and add interest, or it can just look wrong. Therein -- in part -- is the art of it.

Of course -- as I think Stradofear may have been implying -- it takes the practice eye of an artist to decide if something looks like a mistake or a pleasing imperfection. Ditto with tool marks. Some tool marks are pleasing and fascinating artifacts of the making, while others may simply look crude and unfinished.

Violins also age -- much like people. Some people age well, the lines and wrinkles adding character and interest. The same it true of fiddles. Wear marks, the patina of the finish, dents and dings are all things one comes to appreciate more with exposure and experience. Antiquing -- artificially aging -- a fiddle is really something of an art. When not done well it can look hideous.

It makes sense that as one starts out the emphasis is on perfection. Some stay within that structure, aiming for as much precision as can be achieved. Others develop a particular style that is artful and sometimes unique, allowing us to spot one of their instruments quickly.

So, Stradofear's remark got me to thinking and I realize that I very much fall into the camp of preferring instruments that reveal artful character -- but very well done. Perfectly made instruments, although I can appreciate the skill, leave me sort of cold.

What camp do you fall into?

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That's a wonderful riff, Robert, and you could take it farther, even, ignoring workmanship and perfection entirely. Art is an entirely different from technology, and exists independently of it.

We had a violin in our shop yesterday that I was absolutely convinced was a fake. The difference between the real thing and this violin was that the fake had many of the superficial nuances of the original, but still missed the casual comfort of the original. I see many makers these days trying to be "casual" by putting in scroll gouge marks laid in like fish scales (that, or painfully, intentionally not orderly), but they aren't showing truly free making: they've just added another layer of fastidious complexity and surface production technology. This "copy" was one of those.

The opposite, being sloppy, intentionally or otherwise, is no assurance of art, either. Where many of the old guys hit the target was how their work could be messy or neat, but beautiful in spite of that.

One of my favorite examples of this type of thing, where art transcends craft:

http://www.life.com/image/first/in-gallery...wing-with-light

One doesn't do something like this by setting out to do it flawlessly: perfection is irrelevant. My piano teacher gave me a copy of an article on stage performance that reflects the same idea: that the best artists give up control to trust and what's inside of them to come out. It comes out perfectly because they know what they're doing, but just hitting the right notes at the right time would be completely inadequate. We had a recent cello in our shop last fall from someone who's won a number of medals (and just another recently in Cremona, according to the last STRINGS mag). The instrument was perfectly constructed. . . and perfectly boring. . . it was all technology of the type that you could check off on a list and assign points to, and very little art. Maybe it was even asymmetrical, but that wasn't enough to make up for the life it didn't have. Tonally, it was the same: flawless; boring.

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It was my post that inspired the said "epiphany". I forget to mention that violin is a musical instrument and does not mean for interior decoration. If it does not sound good, it is useless, regardles how well it is made. Picasso's "guitar" in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC is a work of modern art, not a musical instrument. It is composed of a few broken strings and a scrap metal, but nice to look at it.

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In David Pye's book, the Nature and Art of Workmanship he talks about the idea of diversity and the essential quality of this in terms of beauty and design. The experiment mentioned in the initial post of taking 1/2 of a face of someone you know and using photoshop, this experiment has been carried out with faces of women that are universally condsidered attractive and the results of total symytry with the doctored photo is a significant decrease in attractiveness of the composed faces compared to the original.

I have wondered why many musicians perfered older instruments. The theory is that they sound better. This may indeed be the case in general, I really don't know for sure. but I wonder if part of this preference really involes an addititonal factor. The general preference (mayby unconsciously) for things that contain a level of diversity from a visual asthetic standpoint. It is well known that based on social psycology experiments that when you interect with people that are percieved as being attractive, you tend to want to stay with them longer and percieve them as having more and better qualities then someone who is less attractive. Older instrument , no matter how perfectly they were first made ( and alot of them were not made so perfectly to begin with) , have become more diverse in subtle and not so subtle ways over time. And it seems that modern makers probally spend much more time worrying about "perfection" in every aspect of making, (or at least perfection in a qualitatively different way) then many makers of 200 or 300 years ago. Is this an attitude of progress, I am not sure. I would be very interested in hearing from somebody who is familiar with the cultural mindset of a craftsman in the 16th and 17th century, how they thought about their work and how this relates to how they proceeded with their work.

The most respected furnituremakers of the 20th Century had a very human quality to their work that embraced subtle varriations as an essential aspect of the peice and in many cases this was purposefully put into the piece, or maybe a better to say it, destined to end up in the piece buy their methods of work (Krenov, Nakashma, Maloof). If you look at Nakashim'a dovetails, they are all done to a human level of perfection( not mecahnical perfection) but they are all different and that difference is what draws you to it. If they were completely done by a jig and router, they would immedialty become much less interesting and appealing. Even the work of Stradivari has subtle "imperfections". I have read articles that have the following sentiment: "Even Stradivari had subtle variations / mistakes in his work", as if even he didn't reach the level of perfection all the time. Maybe this is kind of a backwards way to see it, maybe the way to look at this is that the diversity that exists in Strads work is an imprortant aspect of it's appeal, of what in part draws people to these instruments. It is human perfection and not mechanical perfection, one drawing you to it and the other not as much so.

The article in the Strad on the Ole Bull project, where different makers talk about how they are addressing the "imperfections" in the originial Ole Bull and how they are apprachching this in their own work is very refreshing.

Just some crazy ideas from someone who is a relative newcommer to violinmaking.

-Peter

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Old Cremona offers inspiration for many different styles, from some of the neater work of Amati and Stradivari, to some of the more bizarre things from Del Gesu.

I think one can find that a particular style is a "best fit" when it comes to their own personal making, even if it goes outside and beyond the "best of Cremona" precedent, and still not lose appreciation for other styles. If the style used is truly what has come naturally to a maker, I don't think it would rely much on criticism, or dismissiveness, or lack of appreciation for other styles.

Did Guarneri make a deliberate decision,

"Hey, that Strad and Amati stuff is way too sterile, so I'll show people what personality is about"?

I doubt it. He just did what he did.

Some people like a woman with one eye an inch higher than the other, and some don't. Must either be wrong?

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I agree with these comments above. Ease and "comfort" of execution by a fine workman is pleasing to see. Difficult and "worked" efforts to antique instruments seems out of line with this sincere kind of workmanship.

I will admit that it is possible to do a skillful antiquing and make it look casual and natural. But isn't it different from the spirit that created a genuine old master? One has the paradox that a "bench copy" can look casual and natural even though it was thoroughly worked out and carefully executed, even labored.

I hear similar things with many new players. They have the bullet-proof execution of Heifetz, and maybe almost sound like JH. But there is that lack of gypsy fire. The flaws and noises in the Heifetz playing is not there. This kind of playing also sounds over-worked and artificial.

In the end, I suppose I am asking when people will start to make natural and sincere new violins. Does one make his violins or the public's perception of a violin? Is it possible to do the former? How does one reconcile these things? Make the violin in a natural way and then varnish in an un-natural way?

So what is to be done?

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isn't it in the making itself, where the art comes out? If you make it from your gut feeling ( and if you lucky enough to have experience to back up you gut) it shows up in your work. Whether it is an accepted art form or not. The violin has at least 2 sides, an instrument and a piece of woodwork. If I could make one out of a cereal box that sounded like a strad I would play it, for the sheer beauty of the sound, but it would be lacking in the visual aspect, maybe to the point of loss of enjoyment if you open your eyes.

At this point I make things for the enjoyment of making them, and some of them, people call "art" others are just practical< I don't really think about the art part just the making the idea a reality, but sometimes art comes out of the free form of creation.

as to you question I am not very good at perfectionism so I would fall into the other camp.

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David,

You are obviously correct that different people are drawn to different things and there is room for makers of different focus and mind set. , but it seems that the "gold standard" of modern violinmaking is in the direction of being more and more "perfect" in a particular way and maybe there is benefit to look in another directions as well. And I don't know of many people drawn to a woman with one eye an inch higher then the other, but reasearch does show that many people are more attracted to women that have "imperfection" in the symetry of facial features and maybe there is something about this that can be applied to violinmaking and is an alternative explaination ( or additional explaination) of why some people perfer older instrument. And there are obviously many who perfer new instruemnt that look new and there may be many intellectual and emotional reasons for this as well.

Since violins are made to make sounds, as part of this discussion it would be interesting to hear from expereinced makers in terms of how this theme of "imperfection" or diversity may influence the sound of the instrument.

-Peter

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Hmmm... my casual reading finds a different conclusion. Generally speaking, humans view high symmetry as more attractive in any research I have come across. Can you cite any actual study to support your statement?

Keep in mind, even the most symmetrical face will be asymetrical from the mathematical perspective. I don't think humans make the best analogy. There are too many problems, and I think it is best to stick to inanimate objects when considering aesthetics.

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After cruising a smathering of facial symmetry studies, I found this, which seems to sum up the situation nicely regarding humans:

http://www.uni-regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/p...e/symmetrie.htm

You can skip directly to the last paragraph. . . it would appear to back up what I was saying: that this type of easily-measured evaluation that you can do with a ruler and a checklist is essentially irrelevant.

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Take your favourite face or violin and look at it 'the right way up'.

Then turn it around 180 deg and wonder how could that be the same object.

The brain is programmed to process familiar objects in rather programmed ways. It is surprising how difficult it is to 'take in' the identity of a face presented horizontally.

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Hmmm... my casual reading finds a different conclusion. Generally speaking, humans view high symmetry as more attractive in any research I have come across. Can you cite any actual study to support your statement?

Keep in mind, even the most symmetrical face will be asymetrical from the mathematical perspective. I don't think humans make the best analogy. There are too many problems, and I think it is best to stick to inanimate objects when considering aesthetics.

Not as a challenge, but just out of curiosity, which of the two following images do you prefer:

circle_1.jpg

or

circle_2.jpg

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We had a recent cello in our shop last fall from someone who's won a number of medals (and just another recently in Cremona, according to the last STRINGS mag). The instrument was perfectly constructed. . . and perfectly boring. . . it was all technology of the type that you could check off on a list and assign points to, and very little art. Maybe it was even asymmetrical, but that wasn't enough to make up for the life it didn't have.

You have expressed a more organic bias, and this serves as good example of why it's important to select competition judges who aren't locked into a particular point of view. Should "clean" instruments be unworthy of awards? Some of us might wish to see more "organic" instruments represented amongst the awards, but remember, judges can only choose from what is entered. If someone implies that "clean" instruments are more likely to win awards, it only exacerbates the problem.

There are several threads on this, including one from people here who have actually judged competitions, attempting to dispel some of the myths.

HERE IS ONE

Despite an under-representation of such instruments, things in a looser style reminiscent of Techler or Del Gesu have won awards, probably in proportion to the number of skilled entries.

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I think one can find that a particular style is a "best fit" when it comes to their own personal making, even if it goes outside and beyond the "best of Cremona" precedent, and still not lose appreciation for other styles. If the style used is truly what has come naturally to a maker, I don't think it would rely much on criticism, or dismissiveness, or lack of appreciation for other styles.

Did Guarneri make a deliberate decision,

"Hey, that Strad and Amati stuff is way too sterile, so I'll show people what personality is about"?

I doubt it. He just did what he did.

That sums up my feelings too David. I've actually been having an emailed debate with a friend of mine about this topic just recently. I came to the conclusion that what is most important to me is a sort of honesty or integrity in the maker's approach. Having looked at a lot of amateur violins over the last few years I found I really started to appreciate the ones where you could read an honest story behind the result... like the one made by a coal miner for his daughter at midnight before he headed back down the mines at 6am.

I'm quite happy to see a careful and painstaking approach in making if that is the maker's intention and what they have decided is important to them. And I don't mind things to get rough and ready if, say, the maker had to work on it while the landlord was banging on the door trying to evict him and his wife was in the next room giving birth. I'm less convinced by those people who take the former approach to try and imitate the latter.

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After cruising a smathering of facial symmetry studies, I found this, which seems to sum up the situation nicely regarding humans:

http://www.uni-regensburg.de/Fakultaeten/p...e/symmetrie.htm

You can skip directly to the last paragraph. . . it would appear to back up what I was saying: that this type of easily-measured evaluation that you can do with a ruler and a checklist is essentially irrelevant.

Well I sure wouldn't want to argue the point too strongly. Indeed, the issue may be as suggested in the last sentence of the last paragraph: Therefore, the strong influence of symmetry that has been reported in the scientific literature over and over again is questionable.

But I still have not seen anything suggesting a preference for human asymmetry, which was Peter's point. I think human attractiveness is in a different category altogether, and has little relevence to violins, or other objects.

As far as the circles go, I am indifferent to both.

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I don't want to turn this into a "my research shows this vs that" and it is good to see the response by David about a looser style of instrument winning, that is quite exciting for me. I tried to look up research on this and it has been some years since grad school in neuropsychology but here is one referecne related to this that I found quickly on my tempermental internet conncetion. Yes symetry is importnat in attractiveness and sighs of health, but once a ceratin level of symetry is achived, a new variable takes over and subtle asymatry takes prescedence. This study doesn't address this directly, but gives you some idea. I guess it also has to do with human need for relationship and if something seems more human we are drawn to it in some evolutionalry way. It is interesting all the reference to the violin as a human like object (looks like a woman, sound like a human vioce, developing a relationship with your instrument etc.

Perception. 1994;23(7):823-31.

Facial aesthetics: babies prefer attractiveness to symmetry.

Samuels CA, Butterworth G, Roberts T, Graupner L, Hole G.

Department of Psychology, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia.

The visual preferences of human infants for faces that varied in their attractiveness and in their symmetry about the midline were explored. The aim was to establish whether infants' visual preference for attractive faces may be mediated by the vertical symmetry of the face. Chimeric faces, made from photographs of attractive and unattractive female faces, were produced by computer graphics. Babies looked longer at normal and at chimeric attractive faces than at normal and at chimeric unattractive faces. There were no developmental differences between the younger and older infants: all preferred to look at the attractive faces. Infants as young as 4 months showed similarity with adults in the 'aesthetic perception' of attractiveness and this preference was not based on the vertical symmetry of the face.

PMID: 7845772 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

-Peter

Great topic and discussion

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David,

You are obviously correct that different people are drawn to different things and there is room for makers of different focus and mind set. , but it seems that the "gold standard" of modern violinmaking is in the direction of being more and more "perfect" in a particular way and maybe there is benefit to look in another directions as well.

See my last post.

It's quite possible that consumer taste, and the bulk of violinmaker endeavors are moving in that direction. Is this a result of some kind of pressure from "inside the business"? Not that I can see. Could erroneous conclusions about competitions be a contributing factor? Possibly.

I've been doing some minor coaching with one violinmaker (if you could call it that, because he/she is probably more talented than I :) ), but there seems to be a natural personal approach which I'm trying to encourage.

And I don't know of many people drawn to a woman with one eye an inch higher then the other.....

I may not be aware of a conscious and thinking draw to it either, but haven't the works of Picasso achieved some broad appeal? :)

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If we're laying a sewer, I pick the bottom one. If it's for a t-shirt, the top.

Yes, grasshopper. As usual you've expressed yourself with intelligence, brevity and humor. One is technology (the lower image), the other a particular form of Japanese expression (as I'm sure you know) known as brush painting. They both succeed as representations of a circle. I find one infinitely (no pun intended) more pleasing to look at.

The point is that -- as ink on paper (or pixels on your screen) both images succeed in the purpose of conveying a circle. The top one -- asymmetrical and imperfect -- also succeeds (to me, at least) as being aesthetically far more pleasing pleasing, despite the plumbing implications of the open form.

Why not both in a fiddle? I'm not really debating here so much as I'm noticing clearly my own preference. I've known this all along when it comes to ceramics. Perfectly made Wedgewood leaves me cold, whereas a wood-fired or raku tea bowl can be very satisfying to look at, hold and use. Both are functional.

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But more importantly, one has to ask if there is an answer to the question. I have regard for both schools of thought, depending on circumstances. I have seen things I appreciated because of the remarkable precision of execution, and then I have seen things I appreciated for their raw organic character. Although, I must confess I can only work in the manner of the former. I like high precision, but I like asymmetry too. It is worth noting there are several kinds of asymmetries. One might need to make the distinction of which kind in order to say anything meaningful.

Mind you, the new line of discussion does make one thing very clear to me. Competitions should have subcategories. I do not see any way to compare a super clean violin with one of a more carefree inspiration. They are really two different animals, that are appreciated for very different reasons.

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