Sign in to follow this  
nathan slobodkin

Value of originality

Recommended Posts

I have been primarily making instruments for many years and am just now getting into more repairs and having to make decisions about when to "fix" stuff and when to leave it alone.

In the recent thread about stripping varnish my thought was  just don't. However some one asked if the replacement of necks and bars should be thought of  in the same way and of course this was and is done fairly often in order to allow an instrument to play evolving music which didn't exist when the instrument was made.

There are many times when one is repairing obvious damage but when faced with original features which are "wrong" for today's requirements these decisions create a dilemma. In the past month I have been faced with a decent French fiddle where the grads were thick and the bar small which I decided to leave as it was until I have had a chance to set it up and hear it and a historically important and very nice looking American violin which had a neck length of 135 mm with a slightly short stop which I elected to shorten to a more reasonable length for today's players by making an extended nut. In the past I have been guided by whether it was possible to modify an instrument in a way which matched modern specs but have also had times when achieving modern specs was impossible and I have elected to leave pretty outlandish stuff alone.  At times I been very pleasantly surprised. In particular I was doing some crack repairs and set up work on a Pollastri violin years ago which had what seem like ridiculous grads which I am remembering as over 4 mm in the centre of the top and about 1.5 around the perimeter. Since the only way to achieve "correct" grads would have been have been incredibly invasive and expensive I suggested to the dealer who  owned  it that it was worth hearing before making such radical changes. As it turned out Mr. Pollastri apparently had his own ideas about sound as the instrument was quite adequate in the bass but had an amazing singing quality to the upper strings which had one of the violin teachers down the hall running into my shop to ask what kind of violin I was playing.

So the discussion about revarnishing has got me thinking about when to do what. As a maker I would love to say just preserve all the old stuff as historical examples and buy a new violin to play on but something tells me that isn't going to work. Comments please?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It mostly applies in the mid-range stuff.

Meaning, the cheap stuff nobody much cares about as long as it plays/sounds well, isn't off-puttingly ugly and is affordable.

On the other end, how much in the way of cosmetic disguise/enhancement have most of the 7-figures fiddles undergone that have been in more-or-less continuous use for 200 years ?  Especially the resurrected salvage jobs. There aren't many Lady Blunts out there . . .

And for that matter, how many 19th-20th century Italians were routinely re-graduated ?  Add that all but a small handful of better  fiddles -- Strads & Guarneris included were -- also routinely -- rape-&scrape "tonally improved," starting with having passed through the Montegazza shop before they even left Italy ?  Nearly all.

If consideration of "originality" is pretty much confined to the basic box, head & varnish, as a commercial barometer, fine. But if you add being thickly coated in un-removable-except-with-emory-paper French polish, even that's tough to support.

In short, while the principle is certainly valid, it seems to me that over-emphasis on it is either not well informed or facetious.

Since you asked.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, Mark Norfleet said:

There are of course so many things to contemplate here Nathan..  I look forward to seeing if this discussion goes on for years, or fizzles...

Yeah I thought I'd be starting a war here but perhaps people are afraid to commit themselves or more hopefully taking time to think.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A432,

What you say about past practice is true which makes what we do now even more important. Some instruments which  don't seem to matter today may be more appreciated in the future either as musical tools or works of art.

There is an American violin which I have seen that has some  beautiful carving around the perimeter of the plates and an extraordinary women's head for a scroll. Definitely a particular person much loved by the carver. However the instrument sounds horrendous. It could be regraduated for use but should it be? Luckily that one is in a museum and so far remains as made but if some one needed to sell it there would be some temptation to say that working on the inside was only making it better and more people would enjoy it if that was done.   

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

For me it comes down to art vs tool. Is the violin in question an object of art to be preserved and admired or is it a tool for musicians to use? For all but a few instruments on either end of the spectrum it is some combination of the two. Although on the bottom end I might substitute "trash" for "tool".

It also depends on what you consider to be an artist's expression. While there is an "art" too fitting pegs, a well fit set of pegs is not art. The same could be said for graduations and bass bars and fingerboards. In Nathan's example of the terrible sounding American violin, if it is not made to sound "better" it will be relegated to "art" status only. If it is regraduated it could be a violin fulfilling its purpose: making music. To my mind, altering the interior work, or the exterior playability, does not impact the artists statement.

There are of course as many exceptions as there are violins and each is a case by case basis. One that comes to mind would be continuous lining that are placed over the blocks. I would not alter that interior work. To me that speaks very strongly of the makers intent. But what is the difference between that and a bass bar? I don't know, aside from a bass bar having much more impact on the sound.

I had an Asa White violin open in front of me. Mr White had written very clearly on and around the bass bar Do Not Alter! A later, though contemporary, repair person had written next to it "Very well Mr. White. Here your violin will sit as it was made. Out of sorts and singing a bad tune." Paraphrasing, but you get the idea. This is not a question unique to our time.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In my few years'experience early British violins of decent but not outstanding quality turn up fairly frequently at auctions. They don't seem to be of much interest to professional players or dealers; this is great for relatively impecunious player/enthusiast/collectors like me who can afford to put together a bit of a stable. I read that since 1998 many of the best have been acquired by the Royal Academy of Music's Historical Performance department, forming their Becket Collection which is available on loan. Restoration or conservation yes, modernisation no!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I discussed regraduating a very thick-plated bench-made violin with my luthier one time. He said that he won't regraduate violins by makers because he believes that it destroys their original work. Furthermore, in general, he won't regraduate clients' violins because it is irreversible and he cannot predict how the client will react to the tone afterward.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As for the art vs. tool issue, are we talking about the "art" of crafting the object or are we discussing the appearance of the object? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Nathan, 

restorers are being paid to 'live the dilemma'. We can't do it right for everyone. 

Speaking about a general idea how to approach the dilemma I see it more or less like this: 

Study the work of the maker first as good as you can. It will tell you if he/she cared about the details even if it doesn't follow modern ideas. The example by Pollastri is very good in those terms. The dealer wanted an old violin with a modernized engine. But I am sure that if you made a pattern of the thicknesses that you would have found some idea behind it. This shouldn't be touched. 

On the other hand there are makers who simply dont care at all when they make an instrument. if such a thing sounds well we know at least that the maker was able to make a useful tool. If not, we should think about some measures with thought and diligence to put it in service. Maybe Testore wouldn't have become a name without the Wurlitzer shop. Luiz Bellini told me that Wurlitzer bought tons of cheap Testores from the Hills. The guys in the workshop, including Bellini, took them apart regraduated them and rebuild them with modern corner blocks. God knows how they sounded before, but the Hills called Testore (I assume C.A. Testore and his brother) the cheap jacks. On those terms I think the effort of the restores at Wurltzer brought the name of Testore to life.

Sure, times have changed since then.

Another thought is that we are only executors for the owner of the instrument. We have the right to refuse to do work if we think that is ethically incorrect. But even there we have to live the dilemma because we know that the owner will find someone to do as he wants. And more than often we know who will be the executor, some Mr. Joe the violin crusher.

We have always choices and different options to be weighted carefully to preserve what violin makers inherited to us. Is it better to change a bass bar or rather alter the neck angle? Can just a new bridge do the job? 

I once had a nice almost pristine condition Lejeune viola which didn't sound. After resetting the grafted neck, the low strings still were muted and rough. So I opened it to find a bass bar in a horrible shape in a horrible position. The next sound check was already better but not good enough for a professional player. So next I reviewed the bridge sound post, strings, tailpiece, tailgut and so on. As I couldn't make it work I spent a sleepless night thinking what to do next. I decided to open it again and look at the thicknesses! But at the end I told myself what if I just go over the edge of the plate as if the viola had reopened a few times? Actually a kind angel must have guided me because this measure  worked and the viola started to sing again. I didn't regret what I had done because it landed it the safe hands of a caring musician.

I could probably make an endless list of stories here, so I would put my summary on living the dilemma like this:

Our respect to the work of a maker  of the past expresses itself in what we can avoid doing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
16 hours ago, nathan slobodkin said:

I have been primarily making instruments for many years and am just now getting into more repairs and having to make decisions about when to "fix" stuff and when to leave it alone........................At times I been very pleasantly surprised. In particular I was doing some crack repairs and set up work on a Pollastri violin years ago which had what seem like ridiculous grads which I am remembering as over 4 mm in the centre of the top and about 1.5 around the perimeter. Since the only way to achieve "correct" grads would have been have been incredibly invasive and expensive I suggested to the dealer who  owned  it that it was worth hearing before making such radical changes. As it turned out Mr. Pollastri apparently had his own ideas about sound as the instrument was quite adequate in the bass but had an amazing singing quality to the upper strings which had one of the violin teachers down the hall running into my shop to ask what kind of violin I was playing.

So the discussion about revarnishing has got me thinking about when to do what. As a maker I would love to say just preserve all the old stuff as historical examples and buy a new violin to play on but something tells me that isn't going to work. Comments please?

Your Pollastri story, IMHO, should be read and reflected on by all here.  I prefer to set something up and try playing it (with several different bows) before I consider meddling with the interior.  I've stumbled on some ugly ducklings that sing quite nicely.  OTOH, I don't consider regraduating a half-finished "beaver-chewed" top with a "fool-the-eye" submarine conning tower looking integral bass bar to be any sort of vandalism, once it's failed the play test.

3 hours ago, arglebargle said:

.......One that comes to mind would be continuous lining that are placed over the blocks. I would not alter that interior work. To me that speaks very strongly of the makers intent. But what is the difference between that and a bass bar? I don't know, aside from a bass bar having much more impact on the sound.-------------

How would continuous lining interfere with anything?  I have some with that, they sound fine, and it's a sign of the maker having used an outside mold.  I'd be loath to tamper with that, any more than I'd seriously consider asymmetrically reblocking a Markie. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
34 minutes ago, Violadamore said:

 

How would continuous lining interfere with anything?  I have some with that, they sound fine, and it's a sign of the maker having used an outside mold.  I'd be loath to tamper with that, any more than I'd seriously consider asymmetrically reblocking a Markie. 

I don't think they do, and as I said I wouldn't mess with them. It was just an example of interior work that popped into my head.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Great subject, Nathan.

I'll be watching this, as I believe we can all do with some healthy introspection.

Andreas mentioned "Restorers are being paid to 'live the dilemma'. We can't do it right for everyone." Even though we may try to select the "best" road to follow when we take on a project, there are many factors that can get in the way.

What's acceptable, in terms of intervention, has changed significantly in the almost 4 decades I've been working... and there's that blasted budget thing (will the owner pay for what's really needed to safeguard what's original).  We can try and educate owners, but we can't force them to do what we think is "right"... and even if we could, we need to safeguard we ourselves don't suffer from hubris.

The three volumes of "The Conservation, Restoration, and Repair of Stringed Instruments and Their Bows" is a excellent snapshot of where we were at the time, but snapshot it is. Just as some of  procedures in the  Weisshaar book have fallen out of favor, some of the contributors to the Conservation trilogy have modified their techniques since it was released.  Natural course of events, I think.  We build on the shoulders of those who worked before us and try what seems to be the best choice at the time.

Technology has produced a number of promising improvements in terms of equipment and materials (laser scanners and heavy bed cutters for matching tear outs, less invasive & effective surfactants, clay gels, etc.).  Some equipment is still out of reach for the average restorer, but things are getting cheaper.  In the meantime, some of those who can afford the tech scan and cut for hire.

Then there's profit motive.  Those selling instruments (not only recognized dealers) often choose the attempt to "improve" the performance of the instrument rather than leave it be... One prominent shop referred to adjusting thicknesses as "sending the instrument back to college". This is one of those subjects that could probably benefit with frank and open discussion... When are "adjustments" of this type acceptable, or when can they be justified?

There are still a great number of areas in restoration and conservation that differ... especially when it comes to museum level conservation (I worked for a conservator when I was in school).  I believe, in great part (and considering other motives), this stems from the fact that these instruments, even 300 or 400+ year old ones, are used on a daily basis for modern playing... not just displayed.

The following quote has helped me over the hump more than once... though admittedly it leaves much to the individual to interpret: 

In his paper “Considerations for the Ethical Conservation of Historic Musical Instruments”, John Sinclair Willis wrote: “No historical object should be restored to a state of functional operation unless there is a reasonable prospect that the result will meet with the minimum standard of its original maker, or of a competent historical user, and that it will be properly maintained thereafter.”

I do hope that this discussion continues of (as Mark said) for years... if not here, somewhere. We do our best to keep it going in Oberlin each summer.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Good topic to think about. If the values have always been to preserve original makers specs, and to only use new instruments when the musical trends change, then there would be a lot of unused historical instruments laying around.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

OK I will take the plunge and share some experiences, and let burning oil and brimstone rain down upon me!

But it will have to wait until tomorrow ...

For me the most important thing is to have thought out the issues carefully, and to have some sort of guidelines. I'm not sure we have always done the right thing, but no decision has been taken lightly or irresponsibly.

Equally, I have great respect for people who prefer to leave everything as it is.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I find myself conflicted, on occasion. I will string something up and let it enter the market. If it gets played and is coming along sound-wise, I leave it. If it simply clear that it isn't going anywhere, I'll use the Magic Probe or open it up. Recently, I finally opened a Scottish viola, smallish, and found it to be 7 in the center and 5 in the flanks. Top and back. It sold rather promptly after graduation. I'd had it for years.

Most of what we deal with are tools of the trade and they need to work for the players. Too thick, as above. or too thin, you either have to graduate, add wood, or sell it on to someone else wholesale if you don't want to go though it.

I was also at pains to have to consider the removal of a Melegari brand in the center of the top of a 100 year old violin that still didn't sound. I considered having a brand made to replace the one that I was considering removing. In the end, after discussion with the owner, we decided to move forward and the violin sounded wonderful after the work. But did I do the correct thing? Don't know. Not really sure, but the violin now sounds wonderful and the owner is happy, but the Brothers Melegari are probably cursing me.

I have wondered what happened to Sergiu Luca's Serafin fiddle. Orig. neck, orig bar, worth considerably more in the market as a modernized instrument but exceedingly well preserved in it's baroque form. Where did that go and what work was done after Sergiu passed?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
37 minutes ago, duane88 said:

Most of what we deal with are tools of the trade and they need to work for the players. Too thick, as above. or too thin, you either have to graduate, add wood, or sell it on to someone else wholesale if you don't want to go though it.

Agreed. I think the landscape (and therefore the decision that is made) can be affected by perception, however. I doubt Scarampella violins would sit near the top of the Modern Italian heap if so many had not been re-graduated and "corrected" (sometimes cosmetically).  So many have, though, that I've seen few in original condition... I bought the last one I saw, kept it around for a while, and decided to leave it alone and sell on as-is at auction. Like to think someone bought it who appreciated it for what it was, but of course I have no idea if that's the case.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 hours ago, Jeffrey Holmes said:

I bought the last one I saw, kept it around for a while, and decided to leave it alone and sell on as-is at auction. Like to think someone bought it who appreciated it for what it was, but of course I have no idea if that's the case.

I believe this illustrates a problem with this ideal. In order for this instrument to be preserved as original somebody is ultimately going to have to appreciate it enough to hang on to it and eat potential value.  I suppose we could expect museums to keep taking instruments, but how much public treasure should be spent?

There's a cost that somebody has to pay.

Fortunately when it comes to early instruments there seems to be enough players and other interested people that there is more economic incentive to keep them original. But You still hear about people cutting instruments down an changing neck dimensions (even esteemed members of this message board).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, duane88 said:

I was also at pains to have to consider the removal of a Melegari brand in the center of the top of a 100 year old violin that still didn't sound. I considered having a brand made to replace the one that I was considering removing. In the end, after discussion with the owner, we decided to move forward and the violin sounded wonderful after the work. But did I do the correct thing? Don't know. Not really sure, but the violin now sounds wonderful and the owner is happy, but the Brothers Melegari are probably cursing me.

There will be always the conflict of sound against originality. IMO we have to take the fact that some makers simply didn't make the tool work properly and (dead or alive) they have to live with it. We could curse them for not having done a good job from the beginning. 

However, as a compromise I would have saved the area of the original brandstamp. -_-

Time will judge if we have done right. As Jeffrey Holmes mentioned many makers wouldn't have entered the hall of fame without the diligent work of later restorers. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
11 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

Our respect to the work of a maker  of the past expresses itself in what we can avoid doing.

Well said, Andreas.

Great topic, Nate. 

Just for the record, I personally won't be bent out of shape if someone in the future replaces a bar or regraduates a violin that I've made.  In the end it's a group project. I just hope they give things the proper consideration  (and help raise the price) :).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 minutes ago, Kevin Kelly said:

Just for the record, I personally won't be bent out of shape if someone in the future replaces a bar or regraduates a violin that I've made.  In the end it's a group project. I just hope they give things the proper consideration  (and help raise the price) :).

Kevin,

in case your statement will be preserved on the net in 100 years from now, you will be remembered as the one maker who relieved restorers of the dilemma factor!:D

My position is that I certainly try to give each instrument the final thicknessing which should in my personal view not altered, but once I am not walking around on this planet any more I can't get angry at anyone with an egocentric view on my instruments. And this applies as well to angry spouses kicking my instrument into the fire. I trust that anyone owning one of my creations will take the respect from what they are.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
21 hours ago, Andreas Preuss said:

There will be always the conflict of sound against originality. IMO we have to take the fact that some makers simply didn't make the tool work properly and (dead or alive) they have to live with it. We could curse them for not having done a good job from the beginning. 

However, as a compromise I would have saved the area of the original brandstamp. -_-

Time will judge if we have done right. As Jeffrey Holmes mentioned many makers wouldn't have entered the hall of fame without the diligent work of later restorers. 

It was branded on the back and at the endbutton as well, so it was just one of three! I tried to leave the brand, but it was in excess of 5mm at that spot, and that seemed excessive between the upper eyes of the f-holes.

One shop I kow will lift those out with a broad, flat gouge and glue them back in as a surface intervention.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
3 minutes ago, violguy said:

My shop motto: "If it ain't broke...don't fix it!"

My shop motto:  "If it ain't mine... don't fix it."  

Saves me from "living the dilemma".  The posts in this thread reinforce my choice to avoid repair work.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
5 hours ago, Don Noon said:

My shop motto:  "If it ain't mine... don't fix it."  

Saves me from "living the dilemma".  The posts in this thread reinforce my choice to avoid repair work.

So....why chime in? 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.