mar 29

Q & A with Anthony Lane

The following is a question and answer exchange with master violin maker, Anthony Lane. Lane works & and lives just north of San Francisco, in bucolic Petaluma. He takes his craft as seriously as I do, and I thought it would be illuminating to bring a handful of questions to a maker as thoughtful and dedicated as him.

A world of thanks to Anthony Lane for taking time to engage with me.

Nato: High-level players seem to have secrets that support their abilities, and that always drives me forward — uncovering such secrets. For you, are there secrets remaining to be discovered in your craft, or is it more about maturing and enjoying the process?

Anthony: There are many unknowns surrounding the violin. Of course there are. These unknowns are make the craft of making a violin complex and compelling. If there were no unknowns everyone would be playing a ‘Stradivari…’ (because anyone would be able to make one.)

Today we understand a lot about how a violin works in terms of physics, but there is much more that we don’t know. The violin is a highly complex acoustical system wherein each part plays a role in the final outcome. Some parts play a larger roll, but no part is not without its own importance. Moreover, each of these ‘parts’ interacts with all the others compounding the system’s complexity and the task at hand: building a great violin. To oversee and manage all of this is an overwhelming — indeed, impossible task.

Imagine the many variables involved in building a violin such as wood, design, archings, graduations, f-holes, varnish, and set-up to name a few. One does one’s best, but never reaches the ‘finish line.’ The finish line just keeps moving forward aling with one’s own efforts. The fun (and the agony) lie in the chase.

Here is another way to look at it: when we measure the acoustical output of a great violin we can see what we are listening to, but we cannot decipher fully how to recreate that particular acoustical signature or reengineer it. We can get close, but never account for all of it. It’s far too complex.

So the maker seeks to unravel ever more along the way. When someone asks me how long it takes to build a violin I always answer, a lifetime — each new violin the result of every one that came before — and then some.

Nato: I love some the lore that violin making has. From wood of the ‘little ice age,’ to varnish. It’s endless. What’s a piece of lore from the mystical Cremona era that you find quite fantastic?

Anthony: Violin-making lore can be quite fun! But I’m not sure it’s very helpful to the maker. It suggests that there are secrets out there that keep us from realizing what others have realized or simply stumbled upon before. Think of all the mythical reverence around Antonio Stradivari…

Specifically, the idea that the great makers of Cremona had special wood from a mini ice age at their disposal has been debunked. We all have access today to the same quality wood they did.

There are also other ideas floating around about their wood and the organisms that may have beneficially altered it before it got to the workshop. For example, what happened to the wood while bringing it across the Adriatic and up the river to Cremona or ponding it in Alpine lakes after felling it? Salts and mold have been suggested as possible, positive agents of change… Science, however, has uncovered nothing definitive either.

In regards to infamous ‘secret’ of Stradivari’s varnish I would add that the apothecary guild in Cremona made the Cremonese makers’ varnish. Each maker surely had his own particular wishes, but in general, Cremonese varnish is/was Cremonese varnish. During that time each trade or guild in each town closely guarded its secrets. Consequently, for a long while after the Cremonese Golden Period violin-makers did not understand how to recreate that particular varnish. Today we know how to thanks again to science. If there is perhaps one unknown left, it lies in the ground used by the Cremonese makers. The ground refers to what one puts in and seals the wood with before applying varnish — similar to techniques used in oil painting. But many in the field believe that this question too has been resolved.

What actually fascinates me more is the high level of achievement reached by craftsmen living centuries ago under third world conditions. Imagine creating such wonderful instruments for generations with no modern plumbing, no electricity, no telephones, no antibiotics, etc, along with vagaries of war, famine, plague, and disease. That is truly remarkable! Our fascination with violin-making lore can distract from these makers’ actual achievements.

Nato: We all the heros in each of our trades. Who were the makers that continue to inspire you, and tell us what it is about them that does that?

Anthony: I don’t feel I have any heroes in the trade at this point. But there are a number of beautiful looking and sounding instruments I have come across that have made lasting impressions on me. What I find in these instruments that catches my attention is a high level of craftsmanship combined with a unique visual and tonal quality that brings the maker to life: something identifiable, unique, and individual. I ask myself, in what world was the instrument made? How long ago? Under what conditions? Plague? Famine? War? Good times? Bad times? Rich? Poor? What did the maker face and how did the maker respond? How did beauty come forth?

One making family comes to mind: the Rugeri family — understated elegance and design combined with luscious sound. Heironymous Amati II also comes to mind. In the midst of the Cremonese heyday he extended his family’s legacy and worked not to copy others, but to realize his own voice. One sees the influences and the individuality in his work.

So I am inspired by individual makers who are true to their own muse in a shared calling: a tireless, masterful devotion to the compliment of sound, beauty, and design that can sometimes be realized in the pursuit of instrument making.

Nato: In making a fine instrument, is there any part of your approach that other makers would shake their heads about, but you take the road, all the same?

Anthony: Not particularly. I suppose there are some makers left out there who frown upon the application or use of our current knowledge regarding how the violin actually works i.e. the window physics has opened into the world of violin acoustics. Such willful ignorance hinders rather than helps.

The use of computers, sound analysis apps, signal generators, impact hammer rigs, and other tools do help the modern maker propel the craft forward. The false assumption by some is that the makers who utilize these tools rely solely upon them and not upon the time-tested ways of the past, which is, of course, not the case. These tools like any others simply give the maker a better vantage point from which to build an instrument. I use some of these tools, but do not rely solely upon them. They are not a substitute for hard won traditional knowledge and intuition. Most modern makers recognize this and remain curious and open to growth.

Nato: As a player, I feel there’s a duality where on one hand I’m and artist, and on the other hand, a technician. If this is the case for makers, can you describe these two areas and how they interplay?

Anthony: For the violin-maker violin making is first and foremost a craft. Form and function must unite to create a violin. To create a truly beautiful looking and sounding violin the maker must transcend the craft and reach something more. That is the work of a life-time.

The maker works to overcome and understand all the technical challenges: the wood, the tools, the engineering and physics, the varnish process, and the set-up. These must be made one’s own.

At the same time, the deeper search is happening. What is beauty? Where do I find it in my heart, my hands, my ears, and my eyes? How do I get there? What is keeping me from getting there? And will what I seek find a home in others’ hearts? Will my work become an irresistible invitation?

The left and the right hand must work together. Neither can succeed without the other. With time and effort the work becomes a dance. The duality drops away.

Nato: Finally, what are some low-hanging fruit us string players should keep in mind regarding caring for our instruments?

Anthony: Do not adjust or clean your violin yourself. When finished playing the violin wipe the rosin off the surface off the top by the bridge. With another rag wipe the parts of the violin that your body (and breath) have come in contact with.

When changing strings change one at a time. Play a little before moving on to the next string. Find a violin good violin-maker to partner with in the care and maintenance of your instrument — an extension of your heart and the world that brought the two of you together.