Lutherie = Alchemy?

What I like most about musical instrument making is the fact that it’s probably the only trade left in which somebody can still become a true “Homo Universalis”.

More than any other professions Luthiers are totally absorbed by their craft. To me lutherie is the one craft in which all arts find a place and complement each other. A luthier is never done learning. The best craftsmen I know are always on the mover, exploring new fields, experimenting with techniques and materials, or reviving old ones.

To me all arts and crafts are interesting. When I walk into the workshop of another craftsman all my senses open up; I refer the things I see to at I already know and wonder about the things that are new to me. Many are the times that my wife impatiently waits for me to come along when we visit a museum, craft fair or workshop. I just always want to know how something was made, what techniques and tools were used, and what’s the idea behind it. The history of the artifact, and what the modern equivalent would be. Acquiring minds want to know…

A while ago I came across this print of an alchemist laboratorium, by Hans Vredeman de Vries (ca. 1595). We see symbols of the craft; books, writing equipment, an altar glass instruments to boil and destill. At the table is a little group of instruments; harp, cittern, lute, fiddle, along with what looks like a music book, probably as a symbol of harmony and the ‘music of the spheres’.

You probably heard the popular tales of alchemists who tried to find the “Philosopher’s stone” in order to brew the elixr of life and turn lead or other cheap metals into gold.

The idea that metals could be changed was inspired by the teachings of Aristotle. He described the four elements (Air, Fire, Earth, Water), which came forth of the combination of four qualities (Warm, Humid, Cool, Dry). These elements also correspondended with the four human temperaments.

Air – (warm+humid) – Sangiune
Fire – (warm+dry) – Choleric
Earth – (cold+dry) – Melancholic
Water – (cold+wet) – Phlegmatic

Trough combining these elements and characteristics all matter could be constructed. Alchemy balanced on the edge between magic and science.

Although we now know teir attempts were futile at best (it is impossible to turn metals into other metals trough chemistry only), it lay the fondations for modern science. Some alchemists discovered new medicine, distillation and even black powder as lucky catches along the way. After the middle ages faded ito the renaissance, the period of enlightment began. More modern scientific methods became common and the practical side of alchemy subsided. But the idea, transformation, the dream of turning cheap materials into something more precious, lived on. It morphed into a philosophical idea of personal change. This concept was adopted by various (semi-)religious groups (like the freemasons) as ideal of self-realisation to strive for.

In todays world most alchemy books could be found in esoteric bookshops. Modern science doesnt take it serious and the early attempts are viewed with contempt. But it’s too easy to feel superior and ridiculise or make fun of the old Alchemists. Back in the day it was as close to science as they could get. Our modern scientific methods were a result of various big and small intellectual revolutions and accumulated knowledge. Every generation tries to grasp and understand the world, but also thinks they are at the peak of scientific knowledge. The probability that furure generations will be even more advanced is evident. But somehow it is hard to imagine that there willl be a society different from the one we’re living in now. Like a sort of blind spot we all have, which let’s us look at both the past as the future with a slight arrogance. We tend to feel superior when seeing the ‘primitive’ world of our forefathers, but also don’t believe that coming geerations will advance even further (and will be looking at us feeling the same pity).

Modern Alchemists

In our modern society there are no alchemists anymore. Or are there?

One of my most cherished book fragments goes like this:

“Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle and there never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying round the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental.

– Robert M. Pirsig –
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974)

The idea Pirsig poses here is quite universal for people who MAKE (create or repair) something. You can just as well read “guitar”, “longbow” or “surfboard” where he says “motorcycle” (just be creative to find something to replace “countryside”, other wise it still becomes weird).

Every guitarist is on the look out for that guitar. That one special instrument that plays and sounds better than any other guitar you’ve ever played. It gives you the feeling that it plays itself, that you’re just the one holding it, like something suddenly takes over. A feeling that you can fly. It inspires you to play your best work, things just seem to flow out from itself. You can’t put into words what it is, or how to find it. But you will know whe you do; everything suddenly makes sense, like all the planets line up and all is in balance. A feeling of ‘magic’.

As an instrument maker you’re in a constant conversation with your tools and materials. Combining wood, hardware, strings, lacquer, physics, design, technology, art, theory, music, practice and visual elements, through a combination of experience, knowledge and careful experimentation.

In his book “The Violin Maker” John Marchese gives the following description:

“Consequently, a luthier, a really good one, is at once a woodworker, an engineer, an historian, a mechanic, and a shaman. What kind of person takes on this trade?”

– John Marchese –
“The Violin Maker”

It’s hard to descibe all the factors involved in instrument making, especially to people who never make something themselves. Maybe that’s the irony or paradox in this; that the makers among the readers will probably know what I mean, while the rest has no clue.
Pirsig ells about this phenomenon when he continues the fragment;

“John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in varous shapes and he turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of steel now, and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts

He uses this description to divide mankind in two types of people: the “Classical” (rational, scientific) and the “Romantic” (sensitive, artistic). I remember being completely outraged about this very rough distinction when reading the book for the first time. Because it seemed unjust. Yes, a lot of people fit in just one of the categories. But some people don’t fit. The categories are just to narrow for them, they combine them, like having two souls in one body. (Fortunately Pirsig makes it up in chapter 25)

It’s a very small group, but they are there. Artists and artisans who integrate theory and practice, history and present, art and technology. Taking something made by nature, and transforming it into something we can use, combining beauty and quality. Wherether it’s a guitar, motorcycle or stoneware. They are the true alchemists of our time…

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