Though wood, because of over-use, cost, and the inherent difficulties of working with an unpredictable natural substance, is being replaced in many applications by metal or synthetic materials, the use of wood in stringed musical instruments is not likely to end. The physical properties of wood, from its density to its grain pattern, make it an ideal resonant material. By selecting for species and grain, and employing construction techniques that have been perfected over hundreds of generations, an already effective material can be transformed into a resonant body of surprising strength and clarity of tone. Though plastics and metals have indeed been used for guitars and the like, they create a sound that is distinct and not always pleasant. But when knowledge of wood is combined with great construction skills, the result is an object of visual and aural beauty.
Like any woodworker, an instrument maker must be well versed in both materials and techniques. The great challenge in crafting an instrument, though, is that its ultimate purpose – smoothly amplifying sound – cannot be tested until the object is done. Just as there is little use in a beautifully crafted canoe that doesn’t float, a visually impressive mandolin that does not make pretty music is not living up to its purpose. Thus, the instrument craftsperson – often called a luthier, a term derived from the 16th century makers of Italian lutes – has many factors to consider during the construction process.
Though joinery and skill are essential in creating a functional instrument, it can be argued that the wood itself is the most important element. Though sound can be transmitted through all media – stone, metal, air, cucumbers – it travels best through dense materials. As less dense materials are uses, and porosity increases, sound becomes dampened as it is absorbed by empty space in the material. Wood itself, varies quite a bit in density, and the varying cellular structure in different species affects its effectiveness as a resonator. Spruce, for example, is a traditional material for the soundboards in instruments such as guitars and pianos, as it has a very high strength to weight ratio. (Siminoff and Wagner, The Art of Tap Tuning, Hal Leonard). Walnut is another instrumental wood that is used for its high sustain (length of time a note resonates). Different woods are also selected for different instruments (e.g., classical guitar versus violin or lute), as their physical properties add to the desired sound.
In the hands of an untrained instrument builder, the quality and character of the wood make little difference. Indeed, an individual luthier’s process can have such an impact on the eventual sound of the instrument that he or she can be identified from its tone. The classic example of this impact is violin maker Antonin Stradivari, 17th century maker of the Stradivarius violin. The mystery of Stradivarius violins is legendary – some say the magnificent tone came from the wood, others the assembly process, and many believe Stradivari’s proprietary varnish – made varyingly from honey, egg whites, gum Arabic, and various salts and metals – bore responsibility for the famous sound. What is clear, after years of investigation, is that Stradivari built his instruments with an innate knowledge of physics and acoustics that was well in advance of the science of the time. Physicist George Bissinger, who has studied the composition of antique violins, says “He had some kind of conceptual understanding of the science behind what he was doing, even though physics technically wasn’t around yet” (Ouellette, “Anatomy of a Stradivarius,” Scientific American, 12/5/11).
It is impossible to convey the complex methods involved in instrument making in such a short blog. For those of you who are interested in trying their hand at constructing a guitar, I came across a blog that demystifies this process “Building An Acoustic Guitar In Your Kitchen” And I thought gluing up a table took a lot of clamps!
Traditional Japanese joinery enjoys a long and complex history, one which I cannot do justice in a short blog entry. However, one facet of this time-honored tradition that is of particular interest to me is the Shinto shrine builders and more specifically the Grand Shrine of Ise.
The Grand Shrine at Ise was originally constructed in the 3rd century CE to honor the sun goddess and the ancestor of the Japanese Emperors Amaterasu-ōmikami.
Shinto or “divine way” was born out of agrarian Japan. Because of this, Shinto is a lifestyle that preserves traditional values and respect for nature. The integral Shinto concept of Wabi (purity and humility)-Sabi (stillness and rusticity) dictates the simplicity and elegance of the shrine’s construction. Also integral to this agrarian-based philosophy is the idea of the cyclical nature of things: the cycle of death and rebirth of all living things. Every 20 years and at great expense, the Shrine of Ise is ritualistically dismantled, destroyed, and rebuilt in the tradition of the first structure. By doing so, the shrine remains ancient yet forever new. This rebirth and structural metaphor for the impermanence of life (wabi-sabi) also plays an important role in preserving traditional joinery techniques and construction methods that would have otherwise been lost centuries ago, serving no practical purpose in modern building construction.
The dichotomy created by this traditional respect for craft and nature while also consuming and destroying a continually shrinking resource in Japan, the prized Japanese cypress, is perplexing. Without the tradition of the ritualistic dismantling, destroying and recreation of the Grand Shrine of Ise, an ancient skill passed down for many generations from master to apprentice, could be lost. However, with such a fast-shrinking resource and enormous expense one wonders how long this tradition can continue. The 61st iteration of the shrine is scheduled to begin in 2013.
While doing some research for this post I came across a startling article headline in Bussinessweek
“There is mystery in the creative process and its relation to craft; the infinite moves into dark waters. To find an answer to problems as we see them, to seek solutions and produce objects in space, to fulfill man’s needs with a touch of beauty, to use materials dear to nature, making small answers with useful things- since my earliest experience as a woodworker, all this has been my destiny.”
-George Nakashima, At One With Nature
Following the industrial revolution, the fine line between what was handmade and what was mass-produced became blurred. The craftsman’s connection with material and process became distanced. Technological advances in machinery could be seen as progress, allowing goods to be made quicker and cheaper than ever before, or they could be seen as a breaking our vital link with nature and respect for its resources. To George Nakashima, the latter was true. After World War I, small workshops where failing as factories of mass-production took their place. George Nakashima was careful throughout his career to maintain an intimate relationship with the work being produced in his workshop. He would personally select each individual piece of timber for it’s unique characteristics, and he would be the one who would decide its destiny. For Nakashima, it was the responsibility of the woodworker to honor the soul of the tree, an ancient noble specimen that had given its life in order to live on with dignity not to become some common mass-produced trinket. Following in the footsteps of the fathers of the Arts and Crafts movement, Nakashima saw the role of machines “as an adjunct to handcraftsmanship.”
Recognizing the hostel environment in Japan and China, Nakashima decided to return to the United States just a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In 1942 He and his wife were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Hunt, Idaho where he met a nisei, or second generation Japanese-American, woodworker. Much of his knowledge of the nature of wood was gained through this short encounter. Nakashima and his family, now a father of an infant girl, were sponsored for release by Antonin Raymond and were invited to stay on his farm in New Hope, Pennsilvaynia. New Hope became their new home and George established a modest workshop in an open shed on the farm and began his new career as a woodworker.