Sunday, 14 May 2017

Calling All Lute Makers, 2017, or: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table



Hey everybody--what are you up to this coming August? If you're itching to do some lute making, I've got just the thing for you....

I will again be teaching the lute building class at the LSA Festival West (AKA WestFest), this year in its new location, the campus of the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, August 6-11 2017. I'm really excited about the move--Victoria is a beautiful and very musical city, and the UVic campus will be a lovely location for our classes and concerts. Full details of faculty, courses, accommodations, etc, may be found at the website of the Lute Society of America. Today, I want to tell you a little about what I have in mind for the lute building class.

As in years past, I'll be bringing tools and materials to a classroom on campus, where I will set up a fully operational lute making workshop. The difference, this time around, is that I'll be a little bit farther away from the comforts of my home workshop than I've been before. When the LSA Festival was held in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia (just down the street from my workshop), I could basically toss every tool, jig, and piece of wood I owned into a moving van and haul it out there, but now that it's in Victoria--a two-hour ferry ride away--I will have to be much more selective about what I bring. The new rule is that whatever comes with me must fit into the trunk of my car. So there, I guess, will be the first lesson of this lute building class: how little do you need, in terms of tools, equipment, and materials, to get a workshop working, and put together a lute? It's an important question for folks just starting out in instrument making, or who otherwise have limited space and resources to do so. Hence the subtitle for today's post, which has been the experience of many first time lute makers I've known: Building a Lute at the Kitchen Table.

As in years past, I want to touch on all the main lute building techniques:
--looking at historical evidence, and designing a lute;
--building a workable mold;
--choosing and thicknessing materials;
--bending and fitting ribs;
--joining and thicknessing the belly, and carving the rose;
--barring the belly;
--making the bridge;
--controlling the action (i.e., neck angle and string height) throughout the building process;
--and (as we say in the used-car business) much much more!!!

So, the course will be a mix of theoretical stuff and hands-on work, both for me and for class participants. I want this to be a hands-on course, so depending on your experience, skill level and comfort, I want you to try out the techniques of lute making.

There will also be a special emphasis this time out on how to do a final setup on a just-finished lute. For the last couple of years, the very talented emerging lute maker Wilma Van Berkel of London, Ontario, has been making regular visits to my Vancouver workshop to study with me.
Wilma, hard at work gluing on the belly
During those visits, she has worked on a single project: a 6 course lute, based on the small Frei (C34 in the Vienna KHM). Right now, she is working on the last couple of stages in her own workshop, varnishing the back and installing a peg box. If everything goes according to plan, she'll bring this lute with her to the WestFest, and there we'll work on the final-final steps in the class:
--fitting pegs;
--fitting a nut;
--filing string grooves and adjusting string heights;
--tying a set of gut frets;
--stringing up.

I think it'll be an exciting finish to Wilma's project--playing the first notes on a brand new instrument, in front of some of the best and brightest lute makers, players and teachers in the world. Not much pressure at all!

For the main part of the class, I want to work again with one particular model of lute: the 1592 Venere. You might remember that we worked with a 7 course, 13 rib version of this instrument in the 2015 building class in Vancouver. I think it makes a good model for two reasons: one, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning players, and two, because it makes an excellent lute for beginning makers (though of course it's great for more experienced makers and players too.) As in the 2015 class, I will offer a technical drawing of the lute, and a packet of other information, free to all class participants.

Here are a few pics of the lute that began life during that class, that I and some of my lute making colleagues here in Vancouver gradually put together over the months following the course.
The back, of 13 ribs of dark yew with sycamore spacers, was built by me and Wilma van Berkel.
This lovely bridge was made by Grant Tomlinson (Grant also kindly supplied the soundboard.)
Grant also made a set of pegs for the lute. Ray Nurse made (and fitted, and glued) the peg box, and made and fitted the nut.

I did most of the rest of the work on this lute--the neck, the fingerboard, thicknessing and barring the belly, finishing and varnishing, stringing, etc. Since it was already the product of a number of hands, I decided to include work by another emerging lute maker--Travis Carey. This is a rose that I carved for a lute that never quite got made, circa 2003. I'd kept it around for years as a demonstration piece, but Grant Tomlinson suggested that I inlay it in the new belly of this lute. I think it looks good--it adds a patina of instant age and respectability to a freshly-made lute, and it was certainly less work to inlay the old one than to cut a new rose! (By the way, recycling like this was commonly done in the workshops of the old master makers.)
Before I glued the belly in, I had all the makers involved write their initials on the maker's label that's glued on the inside of the lute's back, visible through the rose. (My darling wife Julia hand-lettered the label for us.)
So there we are: Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, Wilma van Berkel, and me, Travis Carey: the Commonwealth of Vancouver Lute Makers. I would again like to thank everybody who participated in making the lute--many hands made lighter work for all, and I do appreciate the efforts. (I would also like to thank the Lute Society of America for covering the cost of a hardshell Kingham case.) The instrument was always intended to be used as a loaner or rental lute for a deserving student within Canada, and so it is: it's on loan to a student of music at the University of Victoria. (Perhaps it will make an appearance at the upcoming Lute Fest...)
Just as we did in the 2015 class, I want to start building another one of these lutes in August, again as (eventually) a loaner or rental for a deserving student or player here in Canada. We may not be able to build an entire lute in one week, but I want to make a good start--and I want the participants of the lute making class to lend a hand. I invite you to come to the class ready to give things a try--to bend a rib, fit a rib, glue a rib, help to carve the rose, carve a bridge, shape the neck, or make the peg-box--any of the thousand and one tasks involved building a lute. And, as is the custom for those who've worked on the lute, be ready to sign your initials on the maker's label.

I hope to see you there!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

In Which I Open My Mouth and Speak

In November 2016 I was invited to present a talk at a TEDx event in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada. What was my topic? You guessed it, lutes! The event was live-streamed, and then later, the talks were edited and uploaded to YouTube. Here's mine:




It's not often that I'm asked to organize my thoughts on lute making coherently for presentation to a general audience, but I think it's a good thing to do every once in a while. I enjoy telling people about what I do, and introducing them to the beautiful musical instrument to which I have devoted my working life. My thanks to Brian Hughes, who organized the event, and to the Lakeshore Resort in Penticton for the lovely accommodations.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

'A Modest Gluing Surface,' or, Attaching a 12 course Ladder Extension

Today I want to talk about my method for fitting and gluing a ladder extension on a 12 course "double headed" lute. I've made three of these lutes now, the oldest one being I think almost five years old; the extensions are still firmly attached to all three, so I'm fairly certain that my method is a good one, and I can confidently share it with the wide world of the lute.

For those of you who don't know what a 12 course lute with a ladder extension looks like, here are a couple of photos of the finished product. These are shots of my latest one, a 12 course bass-baroque lute for Evan Plommer, completed in late 2015.



So what's the big deal with this joint? Well, the main problem is that the extension attaches to a very tiny corner of the bent back peg box, and that's almost all the support it gets. The extension, as you can see, carries a fair load of tension from the four bass courses strung to it, which pull it both forward and to the bass side. So the extension has to be well made, and the joint has to be well fitted and well glued; there is very little room for error here.

Let's have a look at the neck-pegbox area before the joint is fitted to see what the issues are.

Here's what the area looks like, once the bent-back peg box has been fitted and glued into place. See that little pink corner of the peg box? That's it.


As you can see, a small corner of the neck and fingerboard have been cut away on the bass side to accommodate the "root" of the extension. Just a quick word about layout: the neck is designed with the width of a 10 course lute, and the edge of the cutout is just a couple of millimeters to the bass side of the fundamental of the eight course. (By the way, the width of the bent-back peg box is determined by the position of the 8th course fundamental too, since that string must thread inside the peg box. Therefore, the edge of the cutout, and the inside edge of the peg box cheek, are virtually aligned.)

Confused yet? Try building one of these things. I remember making the first one of them and being just barely able to comprehend how all of this would align and fit together. I've found that the only solution when you feel this way is make accurate drawings, keep careful notes, and proceed slowly, one step at a time.

Here is a photo that shows some of the layout work I did on the fingerboard before making the cutout.


 And here's a shot of me holding my breath, and plunging in, saw-first.


This was the result--an accurate cutout on the corner of the neck and fingerboard. The back of the cutaway follows the plane of the back of the rebate for the bent-back peg box.



Once that was done, I fit and glued the bent-back peg box--and there I was, looking at that tiny pink pegbox corner, wondering how on earth I could get an extension to stick on that.

Last year, when Evan's bass lute was just finished, I posted some of these pictures to Facebook. One of our eminent lute makers of an earlier generation commented, upon looking at this photo: "A modest gluing surface." He then went on to tell a rather gut-wrenching tale (no pun intended) of having one of these extensions shear off, just as he was delivering it to his client.

I had visions of that very thing happening to me when I was making and fitting this extension for the first time (really, it haunted me in my sleep), and for a long time I racked my brain to find a solution, some way to lock the thing in place. I could just fit the extension and glue it and then... what? reinforce it with a wood screw? drill a hole and insert a dowel? wrap it in duct tape? None of these ideas seemed effective or plausible, let alone elegant. I was stumped.

So I decided to do what I normally do in situations like these, which is just go ahead and work one step at a time, and see what inspiration might come along during the process.

The first step seemed to be just to fit the extension--cut a matching notch in the end of it to fit onto the tiny corner of the pegbox.



There it is marked out. I cut the notch with chisels, and checked the goodness of the fit often. I checked the orientation of the extension by holding it in place with clamps and stretching fishing line from the bridge out to the end of the extension. I had worked out (on my layout drawing) the spaces between all the strings, going both to the main nut and to the extension: this gave me the horizontal orientation of the extension. I also had a clear idea how far forward I wanted the extension to tilt, and I used the same fishing lines to orient it in that axis too.

Here's a look at my clamping setup--I used it to check the fit and orientation of the extension, and later on, to glue the extension in place. This photo shows how I achieved clamping pressure across (note the shaped caul I've placed on the treble side of the neck and peg box).


And this photo shows how I achieved clamping pressure downward. Since there is only a small surface on top of the pegbox to apply pressure, I devised a kind of screw clamp (made with an old piece of threaded rod), with a very small foot below it, to get pressure on that very specific point. This whole rig needed to be clamped securely to the top of the fingerboard--that's why you see the wooden cam clamps in the background. It may look complicated, but in fact it's quite a simple and effective jig for holding and gluing the extension.


So the extension was fitted--now what?

Well, it seemed to me that there were still two problems with this joint. First, there just wasn't a very big gluing surface. Second, there was no real integration--no real link--between the extension and the peg box. I felt that, once string tension was applied, there was too great a chance that the extension would just shear off, and I'd be back at square one.

So, here's the solution I came up with: an internal tenon.


I think that's what it's called, anyway. I cut a small mortise in the inside of the rebate, parallel with its top surface; I fitted and glued a small tenon of pear wood into that mortise; and then I trimmed the tenon so that about 3mm or so of it stuck out.

Then I cut a corresponding slot for this tenon in the side of the peg box.


Once the slot was cut, I could slip the extension into place easily.


After clamping and checking the alignment one more time, I went ahead and glued the extension.


And that was it. Next morning, when the glue was dry, I unclamped and had a look. The fit was tight everywhere, and the alignment still looked good; but more important than that, the joint felt strong to me. I took the extension in hand and carefully flexed it, testing it for strength, listening with my ears and my hands for any tiny fractures, any weaknesses, and I detected none. I was pretty sure I had found a solution to the problems with the joint--the internal tenon gave an increased gluing surface, but more importantly it linked and locked the extension to the peg box.

So, I carried on and finished the instrument, strung it up, brought the strings to tension, and... the extension held. Five years later, it's still holding strong. And as I said, I've used it twice since then, and those lutes are holding strong too--so I'm satisfied that I've found a reliable solution to the problem of attaching a ladder extension to the teeny corner of the peg box on a 12 course lute.

Of course, the joint is still very vulnerable to damage--not from string tension, I think, but from impact. (I would be very careful when walking through doorways carrying a 12 course lute!) But I feel that it would take quite a substantial impact to separate the extension from the peg box. And if that did happen, the extension would not simply shear off--instead, the extension might break, or the corner of the peg box would. That's how well integrated the two pieces are on these lutes.

So that's it for this time out. I must confess that I debated for a long time about whether I should share this little insight I had into how to join this extension. One part of me felt like it was a trade secret, and if I gave it away freely, I might be doing myself or my livelihood some harm. However, I've come to the conclusion that it's best to share these insights when one can. After all, everything I know about lute making came from many people who have shared, and to this day still share, their knowledge generously with me.

And what's the worst that could happen? That there's a sudden rash of 12 course lutes being made with secure extensions? That a lute maker somewhere sees my solution to this problem and uses the concept in some new way to tackle a whole other problem? Or that I see some other maker's solution to a different problem, and apply it in a new way in my work? I'd be pleased with any of those outcomes. Happy lute making--and happy sharing, everyone.




Monday, 5 December 2016

New Work, and a Bit Unusual, Too

I see that it's been a very long while since I posted anything here about my new work.

I can't write about everything that's gone on in the shop over the past year, but I want to give some highlights that will show the kind of work I've been up to and the kind of challenges my clients have set for me. I want to talk specifically about two people, both of them excellent musicians who have very clear ideas about the kind of music they want to play, the kind of performing circumstances they'll encounter, and the kind of lute they need to fit the bill.

First up is Evan Plommer, of Sarnia, Ontario. This is the second lute that I've made for him, and just like the first, with this one he set me an interesting task. Again, he was looking for a 12 course lute to explore the world of accords nouveaux or 'transitional' tunings; this time out, he wanted a larger-bodied lute with a longer string length and lower pitch level to explore some deeper sonorities. (The lute has a string length of 79cm.)

Mug shots!

 

I think the body itself may have been the germ of this idea for Evan. It is that of a bass lute originally designed by Ray Nurse--he built an 8 course version of it a number of years ago, which Evan admired very much, so he asked me to design a 12 course lute around it. (The design is from a lute body dated 1589 by Magno Tieffenbrucker, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) Ray kindly lent me the mold, and I completed the lute in the late autumn of 2015.

As you can see, the body has a quite flattened profile--Ray's concept in designing the bass lute with this shape was to enhance its projection. I think it works very well--the combination of string length, body shape, and the material of the back (11 ribs of honduras rosewood) give the lute a mellow yet robust tone.

One of the challenges of building a lute like this is the stepped extension. I've made a few of these lutes now, and I think I've found quite a secure way of attaching it--secure in the sense that it's not likely to separate from the neck unless there is some kind of impact (and let's just utter a small prayer right now that such an event will never come to pass), and secure in the sense that it doesn't bow an inordinate or unpredictable amount due to the tension of the strings. (I will share my method of attaching the extension in a future blog post, so stay tuned.)

I've found that this deflection due to string tension is more of a concern the bigger the lute gets. The string tension itself doesn't change much whether the lute is big or small. Instead, the problem seems to be that the longer the bass strings, the more room one must allow between the strings at the extension end of the lute so that they don't clash against each other when the basses are played.

The amount extra that one must allow between the courses is minute--less than 1mm extra for each course--but when it's added together over the four courses of the extension, it becomes a relatively substantial amount.  The main problem is that the more space there needs to be between courses, the more the extension must skew outward, that is, must point toward the bass side. The strings pull to the side, as well as forward, meaning there could be problems if the extension isn't built robustly and attached securely.

But everything seems fine so far, and the lute's been under tension for over a year. I hope to see it again sometime soon--I'd love to take some measurements and see how much the extension has deflected during that time.

On to the second player, and the second lute. The player is Ronn McFarlane, one of the best-known and best-loved lute players on the scene. I've been listening to Ronn for years, and enjoying his concerts and the classes on lute technique that he's taught at the Lute Society of America Summer Festivals. So it goes without saying that I was thrilled when he contacted me to see if I'd be interested in making him a new lute.

Now, I knew that Ronn had been playing one main lute for a lot of years--a 10 course that Ray Nurse built him I think in the early 2000s--and that it had been a long time since he'd commissioned a new lute. And indeed, once we started discussing the design features that Ronn wanted in this new lute, it became clear to me that he had done a lot of thinking about the kind of instrument that he would need in his career from this point forward. The result for me were a lot of small but crucial challenges in the design and the building of the lute.

Let's have a look first--then I'll tell you about some of those challenges.
 
This is a 10 course lute as well--I expect that this number of courses gives Ronn the maximum flexibility he needs to use the lute in all the different playing situations he encounters as a professional lutenist.

One of the main stipulations he had when we were initially talking about the design of the lute was the string length--59cm. As you may know, that is a fairly short string length for a 10 course lute. (My usual model for a 10 course lute tuned to g', a shrunken Tieffenbrucher C45, comes in at around 63-64cm.) Now, it's easy to find a model of renaissance lute with a string length of around 59cm--the 1592 Venere and the Hieber lute both come to mind--but a 10 course lute would not work on these models, for a couple of reasons. First, those bodies are a little too compact to handle 10 courses--they don't really have the resonant capacity to deal with all that sound. Second, their necks have room for only 8 tied frets--and Ronn was adamant that this 10 course lute have room for 9 tied frets (and he wanted the ninth to "tie easily," he said.)

So, that sent me back to the drawing board. The solution I came up with for a lute with a relatively large body, relatively long neck, and relatively short string length, was a Sellas archlute--the same small liuto attiorbato that I had used for the first 12 course lute that I made for Evan Plommer, in 2012.

As you can see in the pics above, the body of this lute is quite broad and short--almost as if the folks in the Sellas workshop in the early 17th century had taken the outline of a small-bodied 7 or 8 course lute, and just inserted a spacer or wedge in the middle to broaden it (Robert Lundberg talks about this  design concept in his book Historical Lute Construction.) At the same time, as you can see in this side view, the back of the body is quite flattened--which enhances sound projection, but also, fortunately, makes the lute more comfortable to hold and play.

Even with this rather squat body, however, getting the ninth fret to tie easily was a bit of a trick--I had to raise the position of the bridge by a few millimeters, and change slightly the profile of the lute's back, right where the middle ribs meet the back of the neck, making them gather in a slightly steeper curve. I got it to work, though--as you see here, a most relaxed ninth tied fret.
One other important design consideration was the peg box. Ronn is very much a travelling musician, and often that means he needs to be able to take his lute into the cabin of an airplane as hand luggage--and the case needs to fit into the overhead bin. A 10 course lute of the usual design has a long peg box, and a deep case to fit it--too deep for Ronn's needs. The solution: make a shorter peg box by having a chanterelle tuner, a main peg box that carries 7 double courses, and a bass overrider that carries courses 9 and 10.





As you may have noticed, the overrider is not based on any particular historical design. The idea of basing an overrider on some ancient 13 course lute where you'd normally find such a thing (an Edlinger, say, or JC Hoffmann) seemed quite anachronistic to me, so I followed Ray Nurse's lead in the lute that he build for Ronn in 2000: I designed a functional (and hopefully attractive and natural-looking) piece of equipment that will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Two final features to mention: I installed a set of Pegheds, the geared, mechanical tuning pegs; and I installed a K&K Pure Classic pickup inside the lute. Both were Ronn's special requests, and I consented to them without question.  The Pegheds make a lot of sense for Ronn's situation: I cannot imagine anyone playing a lute more, and needing to tune a lute more (and more quickly and accurately) than he does. As for the pickup, Ronn plays many gigs in many different situations--solo, with the Baltimore Consort, or with Ayreheart, electric or acoustic as the case may be. The pickup allows him maximum flexibility to use this new lute in any situation.

So that's it for me for this week. I 've suddenly realized that throughout this blog post I've been typing the words "Ray Nurse" quite a lot. Who is this mystery man, you may be asking? Well, I'm sure many of you have met him, or perhaps seen or heard his work--he's been an amazing lute maker, musician and scholar for many years. This is what he looks like, standing in the doorway of my little shop. Ladies and Gentlemen: Ray Nurse!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Backside of an Angel

Greetings! I was recently in Cleveland for the Lute Society of America Lute Fest, our biennial celebration of all things lute.  You may have seen photo and video highlights posted to the LSA Facebook group, or the LSA website. As always, a fantastic time was had by all--classes, concerts, lessons, lectures, much fellowship and affection all helped to create a beautiful world for a week on the Case Western Reserve University campus. If you haven't attended the LSA Fest, you should make plans to be there in 2018!

One thing that I've always loved about attending the LSA Festival at Case is the proximity to the Cleveland Museum of Art--it's literally a ten-minute walk from the dorm where the Lute people live. The last couple of times I've attended the Fest, I've elected to arrive a day early, just so I can go check out what's happening at the Museum.  In 2014, there was an amazing exhibition of prints by Albrecht Dürer, an artist who's dear to the heart of lute makers everywhere.  This time, there was something (dare I say) even better for a complete lute-nerd like me: a selection of single, large, illuminated vellum pages from Italian choir books of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Of course, when I learned about this exhibit, I headed straight there, looking for images of lutes (and other musical instruments)--and I found them.  I'm not sure how many individual pages were on display in the small gallery--maybe twenty at most--and probably a third of them had initial or marginal illuminations that included angel musicians.  Among those, there were at least three pictures of lutes, all very good, and one which I consider to be a iconographical discovery of some consequence--to me at least.  Let's have a  look!

First up: one that I think I've seen before, probably in Howard Mayer Brown's "Catalogus: A Corpus of Trecento Pictures with Musical Subject Matter," a series of articles published in the journal Imago Musicae in the mid-1980s.  (I discussed this article in a previous blog post, Designing a Medieval Lute.)  Here's a pic of the entire choir book page, whose origin is Bologna and which dates to 1408:



And here's a close-up of the illuminated initial E, showing King David playing a long necked lute.  There are a few things to note about the lute, even though not much detail can be seen in the photo: it probably has four courses; the neck is probably fretless; the bridge and rose are positioned low on the belly. The two main points of interest for me are the length of the neck in relation to the body, and the curved joint between the neck and the body. Of the latter point, I would also note that there appears to be a body-neck joint clearly marked on the lute, suggesting at least a separate fingerboard, if not an actual separate neck (which is joined to the body, rather than the body and neck being carved from a single piece of wood).


Moving on: a marginal illustration from a Mass of the Dead, from 1480s Ferrara, by Jacopo Filippo Argenta.  The entire page is magnificent, dominated by the large historiated R with a realistic scene of a priest and acolytes in a chapel, standing over the body of the deceased, reading the Office of the Dead.


One could get lost in the extraordinary detail of the entire work, but my eye moves almost automatically to the bottom margin, where we find two angel musicians, one with a lute.


What kind of lute is it? Hard to tell, but I would say it has four, perhaps five courses; the body-neck joint is blunt, suggesting that the neck is a separate piece joined onto the body; and the right hand position, while not exactly clear from my photograph, suggests the possibility that the angel might be playing with his fingertips, rather than with a plectrum. All of these features are what one might expect to find in a picture from the 1480s, a time of transition for the lute, when playing technique was evolving from single lines played with a plectrum to polyphonic music played with the fingertips.

And now to the third lute picture, my favourite, and to me the most exciting of the bunch.  It dates from the 1370s, and is the masterpiece of Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, a Camaldolese monk who produced this illumination for a multivolume set of choral books for his monastery of Santa Maria delgli Angeli in Florence.  Here it is, in all its splendour, a magnificent illuminated G (which would have introduced the text Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, "Let us rejoice in the Lord"):


Indeed, let us rejoice--and let us focus on the extraordinary depiction of the angel musicians at the bottom of the page.


What have we here? Five kneeling angels, with their backs turned to us, the two farthest away apparently without instruments (perhaps they are singers), the three nearest to us playing fiddle, portative organ, and lute.

It's a pretty common combination of instruments in pictures from this period, but what makes it extraordinary to me is the fact that the musicians are shown from the back side. Frontal depictions of such musical groups are (to put it crudely) a dime a dozen; this is the first one I've seen that shows the rear view of these instruments.  And to me, the depiction is (sorry!) highly illuminating.

I'm not sure what modern makers of medieval fiddles might have to say about this picture, but from what I've seen of modern recreations of this instrument, the depiction looks pretty accurate. The head stock appears quite clearly to be hollowed out from the back, which I think is the way most modern versions of this instrument are built. Why are they built this way? I don't know--maybe there is other iconographical evidence somewhere, or surviving historical instruments, that show this feature. (If there are any medieval fiddle makers reading this post who can comment, please do so at the bottom of the page. I'd appreciate it.) At the very least, I think the reasonable accuracy of the fiddle in this picture lends credence to the rest, including the lute, which is what I'm most interested in.

So let's have a look:


To me, this picture is a treasure trove of information.  The positions of both arms and hands suggest much about the playing technique being used: the left thumb wraps around the back of the neck, which I take as indicative of single line playing, 'ud-style, on an unfretted neck, while the right arm wraps around the very bottom end of the lute, bringing the right hand and forearm parallel to the strings, in perfect position for playing with a plectrum. In fact, to me this picture suggests a playing position very much like the one shown in another picture from roughly the same time period, the Coronation of the Virgin by Andrea Di Bartolo, from the Ca d'Oro in Venice.

Here's the big picture:



And here's the detail of the angel with the lute:


They could be the same angels--they could be the same lutes!

As some of you may know, I made a five course unfretted medieval lute based on this painting a couple of years ago--and I wrote about the process of designing and building it on this blog (as I mentioned above, the post is called "Designing a Medieval Lute"). To refresh your memory, here's what it looked like--from the front:



In my description of my process, I lamented the fact that when designing a three dimensional object using a two dimensional model like this painting, all you get is a plan view, without any information on things like the depth of the body, the materials used, how many ribs it has (if indeed it is built of ribs, and not carved out of a single block of wood). For my model, I chose to build lightly and simply, using nine ribs (the least number that's practical) and a semicircular cross section.  Here's what I got:



I thought this lute turned out really well as a musical instrument, and I've always felt that it was very plausible from a design point of view, but I've never had support for this opinion until now. I think the rear-view illumination that I found in the Cleveland Museum of Art confirms much of what I decided to do with this instrument. A direct comparison:



The bowls look very similar. You can't quite count the ribs on the lute in the painting--the angel's arm is in the way--but nine seems right. And even the shortened capping strip at the bottom of my lute seems to correspond to the painting.  As well, the overall rounded shape of the body seems very similar to me--I think they're near-twins.

The only real difference between them seems to be the peg box--mine is tapered and the back is closed (that is, it's covered with a plate), while the one in the painting is more square, and the back is open. It also appears to have 7 or possibly 8 pegs, which would make it a four course instrument. But I think the peg box in this painting matches very closely the one in the Di Bartolo painting, in the square-ish look, the number of pegs, and the style of the peg head (which to me looks sort of heart-shaped.)

So that's my story.  I realize that as a lute maker I get excited about things that probably don't matter much to the vast majority of humanity, but I guess that's one of the reasons why I make lutes! A little discovery like this pleases me much, and it's like a little miracle, one that's made possible by the fact that the Lute Society of America has its Lute Fest in Cleveland every two years.  Really, next time around you should come and join us. It will blow your mind!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

On the Proper Method of Pruning a Rose (or, My Adventures in Copyrightland)

I recently received a pleasant surprise, a message in my newfangled electronic-mail inbox.  "Dear Mr. Carey," it began, "Here's a kind of request you may not have encountered before."  Indeed, I had not.  The message was from Barbara Newman, a professor of English, Religious Studies and Classics at Northwestern University.  It was a request to use an image of a lute rose that I had carved, photographed and posted on my blog a couple of years back, for the cover of her forthcoming book, an edition of a set of 12th century Latin love letters, possibly written by Heloise and Abelard.  The book is scheduled for publication by Penn (the University of Pennsylvania Press) in the spring of 2016. 

As Professor Newman explained, "Finding good cover art was a challenge; all the great medieval paintings of lovers are later than my letters, and I wanted to avoid anachronism.  But then I stumbled on your blog, with the photo of your lute rose adapted from a 1592 Venere instrument.  I sent it to my editor, who had already rejected several of my suggestions, and he liked it a lot.  Below you'll see what the designer did with it, turning the rose into a window through which we glimpse a distant landscape."


Of course, I immediately gave permission to use my photo of my rose carving.  The project seemed so worthy, the jacket design so tasteful, and the request so gracious--how could I possibly refuse?  Additional incentives were that I would be given a credit line (to be written by me), and that I would receive a free copy of the book.  Pushing my luck, I asked for two copies--one for me, which I will treasure, and one for the client for whose lute I carved this rose.  I'm sure he'll be thrilled to receive it.  I remember him telling me when he requested this design, out of all the possible historical examples I had shown him, that he had just fallen in love with the pattern.  I know the feeling, and I'm sure many of you do as well.

Here's the photo of the original rose I carved in 2014, which was used for the jacket design.


Most of you will know that I love to carve lute roses, love to photograph the carvings, and love to post those photos on this blog.  It's a bit of advertising, sure, but it's really mostly just a way for me to celebrate and share the work I do and the beauty I live for.  It makes me happy when I learn that other people take pleasure in my words and images, and to receive a request like Professor Newman's is gratifying and very flattering indeed.

Sometimes, though, I'm a bit more... ambivalent about such attention.

Take, for instance, that morning in the spring of 2014 when, over my bowl of porridge, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and this popped up:


Neat poster, I thought, cool program, great line-up of players, but that rose photo looks pretty familiar... now where have I seen that before?  Oh yeah--on my blog!  I carved it, I photo'd it, I posted it, and there it was, looking right back at me, a friend and a stranger at the same time.  Odd feeling.  A bit, I suppose, like watching somebody drive by in your stolen car, or walk your stolen dog down the sidewalk in front of your house, or play your stolen guitar from the stage.  Alienating.

The original photo:


I can see why the music school would want to use this for their poster--it's one of the best carvings of this pattern (from the Warwick Frei) that I've done, and it's certainly the best rose photo that I've ever taken.  I remember the morning I took it: I'd finished the carving and set it in the window, and the light was beautiful, the air so soft, a mist coming up from the river, the sun breaking through the clouds of late-winter rain... the carving glowed, lit up from the inside.  It was kind of a miraculous moment.

Obviously, somebody else felt the same way.

Mightily annoyed, I climbed up on my very highest horse and fired off a tersely worded email to the offending institution, requesting, nay demanding, that the poster be taken down, expunged from the internet, cast into the depths, etc., etc.  Further, I shamed them, shamed them with my wagging, nagging finger that as an educational institution they should know better than to thieve so blatantly.  Then I hit send, sat back, and waited for my satisfaction to come rolling back to me through the transatlantic wires.

And even before it did--long before it did, actually, before I received their complete and abject apology for having used my precious photo without asking--I felt like a total jerk.  Who on earth did I think I was?  What possible difference did it make that they'd used my photo?  The concert was free--I'm sure nobody was paid anything for participating--and the only reason the school and the players put on the show was to share some beautiful music, and spread the good word about the lute, the instrument I most love and that I've devoted my working life to.  Why wouldn't I support that?

Confused and a bit guilt-ridden, I went to Facebook, told my friends and acquaintances about the situation, and asked the collected wisdom to speak its mind.  I got a lot of responses, some of them helpful, some not.  Don't worry about it, some said, it's just a little free show.  You should be happy your work got shown around--it's exposure!  (No matter that my name and the source of the photo were nowhere attached to the poster.)  Others said, hey, it's a real problem, but there's not much to be done, unless you want to start watermarking your photos.  It's the internet!  Stuff gets used everywhere, all the time, everything's up for grabs.  It's the future, and you might as well learn to live with it, old man.

Time passed.  I felt less bad for giving the music school such pure, unadulterated heck for their misdemeanor.  They even sent me a DVD of their 2009 production of Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea." It was nice of them--they didn't have to do that.  Bad feelings went away, and were replaced with a kind of rueful forgiveness.  I hoped that we'd both learned a valuable lesson.

But I have to say that for me, things still felt a little unresolved--until, that is, I got that email request from Professor Newman.  There's one sentence in it that really made my heart sing: "Since the photo is under copyright," she wrote, "I'm writing now to ask if we might have your permission to adapt it."

For me, that's the whole issue in a nutshell.  As I understand it, the copyright of all the words and pics I post on this blog belongs to me, without my having to do anything else to assert it.  The phrase that appears at the end of this post, down at the bottom of the page, "Copyright 2011-2015 by Travis Carey," is a courtesy, a reminder to anyone reading the blog that to borrow, adapt, or otherwise re-use anything on it should be done only after asking my permission.  For Professor Newman, coming from an academic background, asking permission and giving credit where it's due is a professional imperative; but to me, it's also, generally, just good manners.

But I hear the objection: what about re-posting?  What about social media?  What about sharing?  All of those are fine, and I welcome them, but I must insist that my name travel along with any of the images or words that get passed along.  I don't like the idea of having to electronically watermark my photos, because in a way that just assumes the worst in people, which I prefer not to do (if I were a professional photographer and made my living from my images, I might feel otherwise).  At the same time, I realize that mistakes are easily made, and I am willing to forgive an error, or ask that an oversight be corrected.  And I ask that the same courtesy be extended to me: I occasionally use images from other sources on this blog, and I try my best to track down their owners and ask permission to use them, but sometimes it's just not possible.  If I've committed an error, or made an oversight, please let me know, and I will correct it. 

If anyone is ever in doubt about whether she or he should ask permission to use my words or photos in another context, I would say that you should let that doubt be your guide, and ask permission.  Leave a message for me on the blog; message me on Facebook; send me an email.  Chances are that unless you are planning to do something morally or politically objectionable with my words or images, I will say yes to your request.

All you have to do is ask.