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8 February 2012

How to make a violoncello da spalla.

This article is my response to the frequent question from music lovers and violin- makers regarding the story behind the fascinating story of violoncello da spalla. It describes how I reconstructed the violoncello da spalla and demonstrates the essential steps which would be needed in any similar endeavour.

So, how to make a violoncello da spalla or, indeed, how to re-create any other musical instrument - not only stringed - towards which history has been unjustly forgetful?

What does an instrument-maker do when a very famous musician asks him or her to do the work? A maker does what the players do when asked by an orchestra for a solo performance : study, practice and then perform. Simple. You really want to get it done well because there is rarely such a thing as "second chance" and because it's just natural for some of us to do things well.

Well, for that reason I could not have just said, "Of course I can make a violoncello da spalla, what's the problem!" when in 2002 Sigiswald Kuijken asked me if such a project was feasible at all and if I would like to try to make the first one for him.

Badiarov Violoncellos da spalla

Adventure is an important element in the alchemy of Early Music and I, feeling ready for the adventure and after thinking a moment (see step 1 below) said it must be possible. The violoncello da spalla adventure was then launched.

Below are the steps I took in order to re-create the first violoncello da spalla.

This work was based on my earlier experience with violins, and on the knowledge acquired from a whole range of different experience and influences. I feel it might have been more difficult without my background in music and life-long passion for fine arts, specially painting and lately photography, as well as regular sculpture lessons which I have taken since the age of 7. At a certain moment I almost ended up at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in addition or instead of St. Petersburg Conservatory as a modern violinist. I also graduated from Brussels Royal Conservatory where I went to learn all about the origins of the violin and violin performance practices from their origins - under Sigiswald Kuijken.

It seems important to draw attention to the following words by the Japanese philosopher Kukai for they do still make sense!

Do not try to find the footprints of the ancestors, search for what they were searching for.

The steps described below are certainly not the best but they reflect certain time- honoured professional practices. Leonardo da Vinci warned against copying because he saw the art of painting declining and perishing in those painters who had no other source of inspiration than paintings already created. I think it is possible to replace "painters" with "violin-makers" and "paintings" with "violins". I trust surviving instruments are an important source of information, but they are still the result of a much larger ambiance, their surrounding culture, of which it is necessary to be aware.

The 12 steps.
  1. Think whether it is feasible or not. Brain-storm about historical evidence, ideas, music. If the instrument existed in the past it may still be possible to make it come back today. Not always, though...  
  2. If step 1 is OK with you then tell the client you will give it a try. Tell them the work shall be completed in such and such month of such and such year. Make sure to take at least one or two months extra for unforeseen circumstances or blame the varnish for not drying - it is a well known historical excuse. Musicians love it and feel themselves Monteverdis waiting for their violins delayed because of non-drying varnish.
  3. Prepare thoroughly. Invest a generous amount of time in libraries, museums and perhaps a few trips across Europe should it happen that some bits of important information are not available where you live. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the music which shall be performed on the instrument. There can never be over-investment in your own education: should you fail, musicians will remember you as not such a good maker for the next ten years. Terrible! Unfair!.. but, so some say, c'est la vie. N.B. After all, musicians do not need to know that producing an instrument is some sort of effort. Let them think it takes no more than one sunny afternoon. Sprezzatura.
  4. Collect and systemize all that information in order to produce a credible model. That information and the model are your departure point. 
  5. Make sure you know what strings you will mount on your instrument and make sure that they are available or can be reproduced by someone with formidable expertise in that field. When the experts say you are crazy - don't panic, you are not crazy : it is normal that not every string-expert spent as much time as you thinking about the instrument you desire to produce. We had the luxurious position of relying on the expertise of Aquila Corde, the maker of the first concert- quality strings for the instrument. Now there are, naturally, many.
  6. Produce a design like the one in the picture (taped to the door). Design is everything. "A work of art which lacks design lacks everything" -- Giorgio Vasari. Design is a necessity even in case of such "simple" things as violins, especially baroque violins or their minute details... Commercial solution: you can purchase commercially available instrument plans, but I am yet to see those without large errors and approximations. In any case, it may be hard to achieve the real integrity and completeness in the final result if it is not made after a design produced by yourself.
  7. Should the instrument be somewhat uncommon or totally unknown, make a real-size foam mock-up just like the one in the funny photograph. It may take an hour to build, but it will potentially save a fortune and months of work later. You will see and measure a few surviving specimens in museums, but most of the time it is impossible to try their sound, playability, etc. Regarding the size: mark the position of the notes; otherwise, you might later discover that the fingers are too short or the arms are too long, or the legs are too short, or - much worse - errors which are much too common: the strings just can't be tuned to the desired pitch or the wood is less resistant than it has been hoped for! Think Nature.
  8. Run through points 1 to 7 to make sure nothing has been skipped, including the minute detail - this is where God's fantasy for all sorts of traps is infinite.
  9. Once everything is clear in your head, put on the paper and models it will be easy to make it in wood, and the result will be predictable and perfectly controllable, both esthetically and acoustically. Make it well!  
  10. Get the custom-made strings and string the instrument. Play it. It will be a good idea to visit the string-maker and have some more strings produced - better strings. Perhaps a couple of visits to the string-maker will suffice, but not visiting the string-maker at all is not serious. After all of the above effort such a visit may feel like a holiday, so, take a rest and enjoy the reward.
  11. String the instrument with the best possible strings and play it, if possible, for a few hours or days. You should know the sound of every note on the instrument. Invite the client for the grand -presentation. Take note of every comment.
  12. Watch constantly how the instrument evolves. If the instrument is novel, such as was the case with the violoncello da spalla, every player will develop his or her own technique. Learn from these: they may affect the minute details of your future instruments. Ryo Terakado and Sigiswald Kuijken, for example, have developed different techniques of holding the instrument, and now Sergey Malov is developing his own - using special custom-made strings by Thomastic close in feeling to their "Vision" strings for the violin. I have been watching these developments closely since the moment of the first concert in 2004.

More on violoncello da spalla can be found on its website and on its FB fun page dedicated to the instrument and the people playing it. Its repertoire is limited to what one thinks of as a limit. Steps 3 and 4 are described in my scientific articles published by the Galpin Society - the links are on my website.

Come to The Hague to play one of my violoncellos da spalla or to try the violins, modern or baroque, as well as my historical bows which I make in my spare time, between making new instruments.

Dmitry Badiarov

Badiarov Violins

P.S. B&W photograph : Sigiswald Kuijken at my studio in Brussels

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