Wood, Knife, & Sound

Notes from the workshop of Jedidjah de Vries.

Archive for March, 2022

Tradition & Innovation

Saturday, March 26th, 2022

When I tell people that I make violins they often reply “I didn’t know people still do that!” as though suddenly sighting a species thought extinct in the present era. So alien is violin making’s craft mode of production in our capitalist dominant system that to find a place for it in their understanding people will either sublimate it into Art, thus removing it from “regular” “work”—which I hate—or else, relegate it to the past in the form of Tradition. But that leaves a tension. I don’t work in a living history museum. If the conversation goes on long enough this inevitably leads to questions about how closely do I cleave to historical tradition? Are the violins the same? Is my working method the same? Is it because the past was better, or is it stubborn (but quaint) cultural convention? What about science1Which didn’t exist in the past?? What about the future? And since I usually end up giving more or less the same answer I figured I would try to type it up, and share it here

My answer has three parts: [I] Current innovation. [II] Historical innovation. [III] What is (the role of) innovation anyway?

Current Innovation

The most direct answer is to point out all of the things that we do differently from Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737), who for better or worse is usually taken as the implied crystalized form of True Tradition. First there is the category of changes that have become standard and universal:

  • We don’t attach the neck in the baroque manner anymore.
  • Fingerboards are longer.
  • We use solid ebony for fingerboards.
  • Longer bass bar.
  • Strings are rarely gut, but synthetic core with metal windings.
  • Tailguts are synthetic (plastic or kevlar-like, usually).
  • Fine-tuners for the E string.
  • Different bridge design.
  • We use chin rests.
  • Many (most?) use shoulder rests.
  • We have a very different bow design.
  • We use some electric powered tools (grinders, bandsaw, lamps!).
  • Varnish can be dried in a UV-light box.
  • And maybe a few other small things…

It is important to emphasize that those changes didn’t show up all at once. Most of them are from the later 19th or early 20th century. Some came a bit sooner, and some a bit later. At this point we don’t really think of any of any of these as new or innovative. But, to Antonio Stradivari, they would be utterly strange. Even to violinist from a few generations ago, some items on that list would seem the norm while others would be like flying cars. Also, some of these are purely procedural, some structural, some acoustic, and many a mix of all three. Some solved a problem, others take advantage of changing technology, and some are just changes in convention.

Then there is the second category: the stuff that some current violin makers do, but would likely still be considered innovative, at least to many other makers and musicians. For example I laser cut my molds and templates, I put a carbon fiber rod in the neck, and I use a preventative sound post veneer on the inside of the top. Here again, procedure, structure, and acoustics are all mixed, both in my motivations and in their consequences. You can argue about how big or small these changes are, but they are “innovations”. There has also been a lot of work and progress in the science of violin acoustics, that has been incorporated into how some makers work and think. And lastly, there is also greater access to resources such CT scans and 3D models of old instruments that inform the work of contemporary makers.

I guess there are also electric violins; you can decide for yourself where they fit in, but for my purposes here, just for today, I’m going to ignore them.

Historical Innovation

But what if we didn’t take Stradivari as the crystalized form of True Tradition? If we take a step back we can see that Stradivari was, for his own time, quite innovative! The first instruments that we would probably consider proper violins show up at the beginning of the 1500s. Antonio Stradivari was working in the late 16– early 1700s. So that’s already 150, or more, years of change and evolution. The size, arching, design, ff-holes etc. of his violins are all quite different from much of what came before him. To the extent that he now represents to us the end of an evolutionary line, it’s partly because he was very (very!) good and partly because after him came the beginning of industrial revolution. In the late 17– early 1800s violin making shifts from primarily craft manufacturing to a putting-out system, that later because even more factory-like. This was first primarily in southern Germany, and these days is now continued in China.

Much of our current back-to-(S)trad obsession is less a desire to recreate a specific moment in time, and more a (surprisingly successful, I would say) project of picking up where he left off. Instead of focusing only on reproducing the final form of Stradivari’s instruments, by trying to also reproduce his method we gain better insight into his ideas. Which isn’t to say, of course, that there is no romantic nostalgia in the violin world. There is. A lot of it. And we can talk more about it and how it’s tied to value-making and prestige and more another time. What I’m trying to point to here, though, is that a more nuanced relationship with tradition is not only possible but also exists—not as calcified living tradition but in the daily practice of craft that is violin making.

What is innovation, anyway?

First, a quick aside: there are also many, many, ideas and “innovations” that just never caught on. If you can think of it, there is a decent chance that someone has tried it. Folks have been making violins for nearly 300 years now so there have been many opportunities to try less successful, and even plain bad, ideas. Violins are, both as functional use objects and in terms of their physics/acoustics, complex. It may be that we have only found a local maximum (for some abstract scale of optimization), but it’s very unlikely that any one small change to one part of the instrument is going to yield an improvement from where are now. And changing many things at once will just quickly land you in that morass of complexity.

To be honest the question of innovation makes violin makers feel a bit defensive. On the one hand we want to prove that we take pride in our craft and are trying to improve, and on the other we want to defend the time tested and honored violin from vulgar modernism’s need to upgrade everything all the time. I think the part that is missing from this line of questions is that—despite what some violin makers want to believe—we don’t actually make violins for their own sake. We make them for musicians. And those musicians want violins to play certain kinds of music as composed by composers and demanded by audiences and as shaped by society and culture etc.2I will have much more to say about this in a future blog post, hopefully soon.

So we can innovate all we want, but our job isn’t to come up with the platonic ideal of the future violin, but to serve the music. If a contemporary composer starts writing for a new violin-like instrument we’ll start making them. In the mean time we will of course evolve and improve and innovate, because that is the way of craft and we like trying new stuff. But, it’s a non-linear non-teleological evolution in very small steps that is entwined with the humans who make and play these instruments and the social conditions they play them in…not a search for the breakthrough that will result in violin 2.0.

References & Notes

References & Notes
1 Which didn’t exist in the past?
2 I will have much more to say about this in a future blog post, hopefully soon.