Monday, January 11, 2021

What Would Dieffopruchar Do?

For the namesake entry to this blog, I'd like to ponder;  If the old masters were around today, how would they build a lute?


The man, the myth, the legend… the beard

OK, first we have to clarify- exactly WHICH Dieffopruchar are we talking about???  The “D” family (or “T” if you want to include the Tiefenbrucker spelling in the dozen or more variants)

Tieffenbrucker, Tiefenbrugger, Tiefenbrucker, Teufenbrugger, Tuiffenbrugger, Deuffenbrugger, Dieffopruchar, Dieffoprughar, Duyfautbrocard, Duiffopruggar, Duiffoprugcar, Dubrocard, Dieffoprukhar, Diafurgopruchar, Thabiphobrucar

All that and a bag of chips.  Can we include these as well?

Sorry, I got distracted.  Anyway, the Dieffopruchar’s had a dynasty that lasted generations, and they made the early classic 6-course lutes to baroque beasties.  So, “What would Dieffopruchar do” might make a nice moniker for a bracelet, t-shirt or a bumper sticker but we can include all of the masters of that age- Maler, Rauwolf, Unverdorben, Railich, Buchenberg, Tesler, etc. 

OK, so what would they do?

To the question, I am wondering what their operations would look like if they were to produce lutes and the like today.  To paraphrase 20th-century master lute maker Stephen Gottlieb, unless you use the traditional materials you end up with something that’s not really a lute.

Following the parameters and recipe to make something that resembles a lute- looks like a lute, plays like a lute, and sounds like a lute… how much leeway do we have?  Good old “Grandpa D” didn’t live in the mass-production age that we do, but his shop turned out thousands of lutes in an efficient way.  Demand was high enough that everyone wanted one and had to get one.

The reason I bring this up at all is that today, as those relative few who are trying to study drawings, stay within the tolerances, tapping on soundboards… when “Gaspar D” or one of his factory workers tapped on a finished soundboard with bars and bridge in place… what did HE hear?  The same thing as us.  

Uh, maybe…  

The other thing is, looking at historical lutes, I am struck at how (from a purely aesthetic point of view), the old masters' work might be looked at today with our eyes that are accustomed to mass produced goods.  Even the cheapest guitar today has a level of perfection the old renaissance masters wouldn’t dream of… even if that modern guitar sounds like a shoe box with strings.  For us modern folk, we hear with our eyes.

OK, I realize that I’m kind of chasing my tail here with unanswerable questions and hypotheticals.  

In application, as a modern maker, every time I reach for _______ (fill in the blank with a modern substance) am I violating some sort of unwritten early music / Historically Informed code of ethics?   Should I be concerned that somehow it might imperceptibly influence the audience’s enjoyment in hearing a performance on the instrument in question?  How dogmatic do we get?  

For instance, some modern makers have sworn off modern inventions such as sandpaper and shellac altogether.  Interesting to note that in Lundberg’s book he doesn’t use sandpaper but then finishes the renaissance lute in a 19th Century French Polish.  From a practical point of view, the results are beautiful, and that type of finish can be applied in a fraction of the time of an oil varnish.  So, how do we balance historical authenticity and modern pragmatism.

My feeling is that good old Dieffopruchar today would use whatever he deemed appropriate and efficient while maintaining the end result of a lute that looks like a lute, plays like a lute and sounds like a lute.  So, would Gasparo have used modern glues, finishes, strings?  

Uh, maybe…

From a musical perspective, it’s like asking what did Dowland sound like?  Or what exactly were Francesco Da Milano’s "silver finger tips"? 

Sorry to stir the pot so vigorously.  When thinking about this, it seems a relatively small matter to simply perform early music in an appropriate way that is accepted in these times.  (It's not!)  The additional complexity comes when creating the objects that will be the vehicles for such a performance.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Journey from Lute Player to Lute Maker

From Lute Player to Lute Maker...

My own background comes from working in my teens as a draftsman, designing and creating crude musical objects since my childhood.  Starting off as a drummer and guitarist, I was transfixed by the sound of classical guitar which led to the lute many years ago.  

As a player of the lute, theorbo and baroque guitar, I have been afforded playing opportunities with many excellent musicians and ensembles.  Several years ago, in a rush of creative energy and dearth of immediate gigs, I made myself a crude medieval instrument, which led to another instrument, which led to another…  I seemed to have a nascent aptitude for it but more significantly, I had been bitten by the bug.   

Imposter Syndrome


Coming at it relatively late in life, (I started building in my 40's) there is a bit of feeling “impostor syndrome”.  After all, I didn't go to school for this or even apprentice with anyone, so I'll never be "legit".  Also, having played the lute and played/owned some really fine instruments, I could never build as well as they do.  All this said, I enjoy working with my hands, it’s indescribable feeling to hear the instrument that you created in the hands of a musician making beautiful music with it.  I learn something new every day (even if it's what NOT to do)

One thing is certain- that this would never have happened if it weren’t for those who have generously and patiently given advice, given feedback and responded to questions and emails.  I am truly thankful!

I encourage other lute players to try their hand at making a lute.  David Van Edwards offers two CD-ROM’s: “Build A Your Own Renaissance Lute” and “Build Your Own Baroque Lute”.  These offer excellent, step-by-step instructions for almost anyone to build these complex machines.

The late Robert Lundberg published a series of articles for the Guild of American Luthiers in the 1980’s that was posthumously compiled into the book, Historical Lute Construction which I would highly recommend.

It should come as no surprise that experienced players have valuable insight on what works and what doesn't when it comes to action, set up, string spacing and sound.  You can literally build yourself a custom instrument exactly the way you way it.  But when it comes to building instruments for others, it's important to have some objectivity.  A well-known lute maker asked me early into my building endeavors, "can you divorce yourself from your own preferences?"  

Understandably, players can be understandably skittish when it comes to using sharp tools but with proper training and caution the dangers can be minimized.  I encourage you to give it a try!