Violin Perfection

May 26, 2023 | Welcome Column

Editor’s note: I searched the archives for a good article by Charles Brady, who passed away recently. I didn’t have to go very far. Here is the very last welcome column Charles published, at the age of 89!

“I have given up the pursuit of perfection; I shall instead just seek to have both my shoes tied at the same time.”
– Charles Brady to his daughter, Kate.

I used to think that it was the job of the writer to seek perfection in his or her task and to remain unsatisfied until that state is reached. Then, with age and a bit more wisdom, I realized that SEEKING is OK but EXPECTING TO FIND is something else.

Long ago I figured out for myself that there had to be an entry into a work of art…there had to be SOME …what I call a creative flaw… in a poem of mine for example, to allow the reader to get in and explore. For me, and I have not seen it expressed this way by another, a so-called “perfectly made poem” would be like a stainless steel ball-bearing….so hard and perfectly formed that no person nor thing can ever touch any part but the hard and slippery surface.

Sure didn’t want that in any of my poems.
Even in the visual arts – and I have several artist friends who tell me this – the painter, by composition, guides the eye of the viewer into a further exploration. First is the entry then the painting takes over and interacts with the viewer.

A “perfectly created” painting would not allow entry.
However, and fortunately, in the world of OBJECTS, one can seek and hope to find something closer to perfection…at least close enough for our needs. I think I have found one such object, and it is not a poem or composition but something to hold and something over which we may ooh and aah as we fondle it.

I’ll explain. For those things I have known about, touched and studied for many years, I have mostly a general understanding of how they came to be what they are. However, that does not mean I understand the thing or how and why it came to be.

A couple days ago my watery brain took in two or three things at once and suddenly I found myself saying (to myself), “There is simply no way those primitive walking erect man-apes could have drawn those horses and other animals on that cave in France (Lascaux) …..thousands of years ago!”

Then my shifty brain went into a long-time secret corner of my near-empty cavity and I found myself thinking (maybe saying), Also, the VIOLIN could not possibly have been invented by a human being back ….however many years ago…. (I think it may be five hundred years.)…it just couldn’t have been initially crafted to such perfection!

That the perfect instrument was ever invented in the first places is a miracle, and that the instrument has not been, nor can it apparently be, improved upon is even more miraculous. Today’s violin, as much as is humanly possible with current skills and costs, looks and feels the same as the originals we find from early descriptions and paintings. But apparently, the quality of sound is way different.

I’m a dud at explaining how and why the violin is what it is and just as dumb about other stringed instruments that followed, so maybe I should try to talk about the subject by discussing something else and THEN, sneaking back with my music stories.

Take automobiles, for example. I was driving ancient John Deeres when I was twelve and under-powered pickup trucks at about the same age – on the farm yes, but I was driving VEHICLES. On the farm, my twin uncles my age and I started “buying” ancient wrecks and fixing them up to get from here to there (Actually we would negotiate for abandoned autos and pay nothing and then negotiate for free tires good enough for a dozen miles or so, and fill the crankshafts with oil that had been drained from newer cars.And “Uncle “ Walt (four months younger than I) would get them running. He was a mechanic from birth! Wilt and I were more the clean-hands kind of guys.

In about 1947, we three took off to the County Seat for the weekly visit by the Georgia Highway Patrol Officer who was to test us. We took the driving test (No written one required at the time) in a 1935 Ford Convertible with NO top and NO ignition…we twisted wires together….and with a foggy windshield through which we three but nobody else could see. The mechanical brakes promised to stop us sooner or later.

The Highway Patrolman, knowing that we farmers had to drive something, NEVER got into our “car.” He watched as we negotiated the square around the Evans County Courthouse and OK’d us. That was the setting for me, and from that time until now is a thousand years in terms of automobile progress!

As I write this: This coming Friday, we will pack our new Subaru Forester All-Wheel Drive auto, with its fifty thousand mile tires and drive to Ashland, Oregon, for the Winter openings. The rear-view screen will beep to alert me if kids or autos are behind or alongside. The heater will keep us as warm as we want to be or the heated seats and seatbacks will do the job. The automated windows will keep out the unpleasant sounds, the automatic shift and Cruise Control will do the driving for me (Remember clutches and keeping your foot on the gas petal for every mile driven?) The brakes will bring us to a quick but controlled stop in no time.

And riding in that beautiful Blue Carriage will be like the best Greyhound can offer. But, the difference between the advanced auto of today and the one of my youth is seen as the result of slow but steady progress. That seems opposite to the development of the Violin. Where is the “progress” in that development? It seems to have started off perfect and remained unchanged!

Now, I know that those who have spent lives and academic careers tracing the development of stringed instruments from pre-history, can come up with logic supported reasons for the Violin, but can they answer that basic question? Why is the best violin today an imperfect attempt to reproduce the violin of centuries ago? A few years ago, I asked myself what I was doing in a group of six invited by the Hambidge Creative Residency in North Georgia to work on our art.

I felt intimidated from day one! There were two classical music composers with their big Apple Computers, one photographer, one established painter from New York, one poet named me, and a wonderfully gifted university professor who made and played most any stringed instrument you could imagine.

Over several conversations with this lady and at sharing sessions among those at the Retreat, I learned that she had devoted her life to the study of musical instruments. She provided us with the histories of the instruments she had brought along, spoke about her hands (beautifully callused) and how they had crafted the various works. I discovered a lot about the selection and aging of woods…and then we had the pleasure of listening to her as she beautifully played each in her collection. Her Violin sounded to my alien ear just about perfect, but her cello was her favorite, she said, the one most like the finest ones produced by professionals.

Anyhow, she explained, and I could follow her, as she spoke of the improvement of materials and skills needed in the craft. But, as to questions about the perfect violins of long ago Italy, she could only speak of the skill of the builders and some special, long-forgotten, ingredients applied by Masters to carefully selected woods.

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