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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 11/16/2018

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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 5:37 PM Pacific


  11:39 PM

Sarah recently got me a copy of The Violin Maker, a book about (what else) making violins, and one of a series of books I seem to have read on the craft of instrument making.[1] John Marchese, who is himself a trumpeter, watches the Brooklyn violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz make a violin, a Guarneri copy, for Gene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet.

As always, there are many keen meta-observations about music and craft. Here are two that I liked. In the first, he quotes Zygmuntowicz:
"If I may be so obnoxious as to say so--violin-making is a kind of un-American activity. It goes against one of our fundamental beliefs, which is that things always get better and the new replaces the old--Progress.

"[...] Violin making has been immune to mechanization and standardization ... it's a very foreign idea that violin making is not all that mysterious, but it is one of those things where the basic way it works best was stumbled onto a long time ago. The requirements haven't changed, and therefore the results haven't changed and therefore it's a very complex custom that is only learned through long application and a great deal of knowledge. It's not arcane knowledge; it's something any guy can learn--if you spend thirty years doing it."
Later on, Marchese observes that Zygmuntowicz has measured and recorded, perhaps obsessively, details about the size and thickness of every part of a violin. "Does every violin maker do this?" he asks Zygmuntowicz. The response:
"No. Some guys take two measurements and that's it. I think I'm a kind of maniac. [...] But it's all part of a process of becoming -- I don't know what you'd call it -- I guess a more subtle worker. The thing is that you start to care more and more about less and less."
Marchese continues:
What is the essence of craftsmanship? Often, our romantic notion is that it is unnameable, unquantifiable -- that certain je ne sais quoi. But perhaps the opposite is true, that the beating heart of excellence longs to measure and quantify, to continually care more and more about less and less.
Drucker has commissioned the violin at the center of the book as a companion for his Stradivarius, which is of course old, and which for example does not do well during the kind of travel that the Emerson typically does. A thread that runs through the book, therefore, is how well a brand-new Zygmuntowicz violin (carefully modeled on an old design) holds up to a 300-year-old Strad. The answer is ... well, it's hard to tell. Marchese flirts pretty blatantly with the idea that virtually no one -- except the player -- can usually tell the difference between a Strad and a new violin. At one point a violinist asks about a Strad:
"Does it sound like it's worth four million dollars more"? No one in the room dared to answer the question.
Marchese is a good, clear writer, who manages to braid together the story of the new violin, the mysteries of world-class violin playing, and the lore of violin making into a compact, highly readable book. For those who like violins, or violin making, or instrument making, or woodworking, or instruments, or music, or writing -- recommended.[2]


[1] Others include Guitar: An American Life (mentioned before) and The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier.

[2] I have one minor beef, which is that I wish they'd included an illustration of the parts of a violin, especially the inside parts that you don't normally see. Marchese describes the work that goes into some of these parts, and it would be great to be able to see exactly what it is he's describing. Like this or this.

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