The Evolution of the Bow

 

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In Fall of 2015 I flew to London to learn more about the evolution of the bow by attending a week-long series of lectures, performances and masterclasses sponsored by Tarisio called, “L’Archet Revolutionnaire”.  Following the series an exhibition of baroque and transitional bows of all kinds by some of the world’s most famous makers was hosted at the Tarisio offices.  At the time I did post some videos on my shop’s Facebook page, but I never did get around to writing anything coherent on the matter.  The fact is that is was a unique event because it combined issues of playability and function with historical information as well as concepts of construction.  This union of form and function, informed by political, artistic, as well as economic history is sorely lacking in our field, especially in the US.  So this is my optimistic take on the program.  My cynical take?  A way to boost the value of baroque and transitional bows, which currently are underappreciated and underpriced, timed to coincide with the Fall violin auction season in London…

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An exhibition highlight catalog was published and a two-volume book set was sold including pictures of all the bows as well as some very interesting essays.  Some of these essays were later published on the Tarisio site.  I will include links to these at the end of this post.

I took some videos as I mentioned, but I also jotted down a series of very interesting notes over the week that I just re-discovered, which I will post below.  They are raw, but worth reading!  I hope you enjoy them:

Lully – regimented bowing. Heavily drilled and uniform

Corelli – looser bowing technique, less focus on actual bowing, but on sound. Long sustained sounds, difficult on bows of the time.

Bach – bowing is speech. Making words, not bowings.

Tourte family bows hug the string. Stay on the string and wrap around it. This era of bow is less articulate than preceding styles, but louder and broader musical vocabulary.

Idea that one could recognize text purely from the bowing(!). The text, then, creates the feeling of the music. The music duplicates speech.

Early symphonies – a more driving sound but with parts of baroque-like articulation. (Richter, Stamitz)

More strokes for the top third of the bow

Cramer bow would have been played with the stick totally straight. Lots of tension.

Larger sound – Salomon & Haydn – the bow more as a sound producing machine. More
volume. The drama is more inside the sound.

Beethoven – emphasizes rather “violent” strokes/accents on the bow. Invention of the ferrule, without which the hair near the frog is much more unstable and doesn’t speak as quickly.

Music developing from imitating the spoken word to more of a singing voice.

Leopold Mozart refers to the art of rhetoric when he writes about learning to play violin. He doesn’t explain this, but refers to the world of academia at the time. The rules of giving a speech (apparently quite specific and regimented), were clearly set down and he expected that these were widely known.

Cramer style bows, circa 1760s

Leonard Tourte Cramer style bow, Paris ca. 1775

Mannheim Orchestra would have used these types of bows. Mozart knew this orchestra and composed for them.

Need for heavier, higher tip. Italian style had these qualities. More power, semi quavers. Cramer was first evolution from earlier style baroque bows with small, low heads.

Cramer became obsolete in France, but continued to be popular for decades in Germany, with variations.

When bows got longer, teachers began to speak more about the fingers. Leopold Mozart, with shorter bows, writes only about the wrist.

The longer stick speaks more to the “authority of the individual”, especially in post revolution France.

In discussing the four main types of bow holds in use during the 18th century, there is a concept of trying to develop a more universal set of rules in this era, where the different styles of playing and holding the bow come together into some kind of more modern “school” which takes from the best attributes of its predecessors but creates something new. The desire was to improve performance more so than creating uniformity. Leopold Mozart complains about the quality of violins in his era and encourages mathematicians or other experts to find better principles with which to construct superior instruments.

There is no real focus on the art of public speech in the modern era. Things are heard in short clips etc., but very few modern examples of “rhetorical moments”. The idea of listening to classic speeches as way of improving ones playing. In order to move an audience, you must move yourself.

Metallic strings require more hair in order to play

Idea that Tourte bows were not meant to be used with springing strokes and have been recambered later accommodate modern playing styles. The stick was meant to be straight. Springing strokes were associated with outdated Cramer bows and that style was out of fashion by the time of FX Tourte.

Idea: since violin and bow makers seek to always test musicians or use them for testing, musicians should test bow makers & experts. Have a table of bows that have been rated by a group of professional musicians and see if the “experts” can choose the best bows, using any method other than playing.

 

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List of interesting articles associated with the Exhibition:

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/historical-introduction/

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/kai-koepp-french-or-german-bows-for-beethoven/

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/parisian-bow-makers-bernard-gaudfroy/

The shop’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/Workshop-of-Eric-Swanson-695438740547547/

Warped, Bent, and Twisted

bent-bow

Recently a spate of customers have been tightening up my bows, holding the frog end up to their eyes and squinting skeptically down their lengths.  A couple bow shoppers have even told me they really liked the bows they were trying, but were “concerned about warping”.  Is it a mini-epidemic, the vector being a teacher, an old wives tale or maybe some other shop filling their heads with semi-truths in order to get them to buy something else?  It’s hard to say, but the truth is that questions of straightness and twist are serious and can sometimes cause performance problems in bows.  However, not all issues of warping need to be addressed, because the bow plays just fine as is.  So how does one tell if they have a real concern or not?

Bows begin life as square tapered sticks that are planed by hand so that the shaft is as straight as possible.  Next, the corners of the square are knocked down and an octagon is formed.  The bowmaker can sight down each facet of the octagon to check if the bow is bent or twisted.  The bow is still oversized, so that after it is heated over an open flame or other heat source and bent into its proper camber, the maker can plane out any deformities created in the process.  If the stick is still too heavy or too stiff, the octagon is then rounded from the handle on.  The end goal is a strong yet flexible bow that is sprung into a powerful curve, yet is straight and not twisted.

However, I see bows that never started out life perfectly straight, where the facets of the octagon undulate like waves down the length of the stick while others have distinct kinks in them and many that are simply gently curved to one side or the other.  If the bow was made crooked, meaning the defect is actually carved into the wood, it will be impossible to ever straighten it completely.  However, it still may play beautifully!

Wood reacts to repeated usage as well as its surrounding climate.  Over time many bows end up with a gentle curve into the string due to the way they are used.  Violin and viola bows are generally pushed away from the player as and can develop a mild right hand bend, whereas cello bows are pulled towards the player and move to the left.  Many rehairers also put more hair and slightly greater hair tension on the playing side of bows for better performance.   Some bows are therefor completely straight with no hair tension, but have tips that move towards their playing sides when tightened.   Humidity and dryness play an important role as well.  With greater dampness in the air the bow tends to droop and the hair gets loose.  In drier climates, the bow curves upwards and the hair can get too tight.  Bows can also lose straightness or become twisted in such situations.

 

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Violin bow bent into the string.   Not necessarily a problem.

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Violin bow bent away from the string.   Potential problem.

Twist is when the bow is out of alignment with itself.  The bottom of the frog and the bottom facet of the stick need to be on the same plane as the bottom surface of the tip.  If you put a bow on a flat surface, so that the bottom of the frog is touching, take a look at how the tip is touching.  Is is flat, in full contact with the surface or is only a corner touching?   Bows can twist into or away from the string.  Over time it is more natural for the head to twist slightly into the playing side.  Another way to check for twist is to hold the handle of the bow so you can look down at the top of the stick above the frog.  Center the wood of the stick on the black ebony of the frog then look up at the tip without moving your hands.  You will see if the head is twisted on way or the other.

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Checking for twist, step one.

 

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Looking up at the tip, checking for twist part two. Tip twisted to the right or into the string.

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A bow with no twist.

When trying a bow for sale, the first and most important thing to do is check is the bow’s playability and tone-compatibility with you and your instrument.  I’ve outlined in previous essays how to test for a bow’s ability to perform a smooth draw from tip to frog as well as its ability to jump up off the string and return.  Also a consideration of weight, balance and condition (hidden damage, cracks etc) must be undertaken –  covered in other essays on this blog as well.   If you note a playing issue and you’ve eliminated other considerations, then take a look down the stick to check for warping.   If you detect no performance issues in the bow and really like it, don’t fixate on whether the shaft is perfectly straight.  Don’t fix what isn’t broken.  If you do detect a playing issue you suspect is due to a bend or kink, realize that a competent bow person can straighten your bow for you with relative ease – ask to have the issue fixed and try it again before you reject the bow completely.  Pernambuco was chosen as the best wood for making bows not only due to its tonal quality and strength, but because it is easy to heat the wood, bend it and have it remain quite stable over time.

My bottom line:  A crooked bow is not always a problem and is certainly not the end of the world!

 

State of the Craft

Eric Swanson - BowmakerEric Swanson – Bowmaker

The latest issue of Strings Magazine (Dec 2016) has an article called, “State of the Craft – Contemporary makers on the trade today, how it relates to the past, and the way forward“, with Jonathan Cooper, Yung Chin, Peg Baumgartel, Joesph Curtain and others answering the same series of questions.  I found their answers to be interesting and valid, but just a little bit too much on the positive, boosterism side of the equation, so I decided to answer the same questions more weighted on the realist, cynical side!  Enjoy.


Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?

First of all I reject the premise of your question. If you are asking what it’s like to be a bow maker and violin shop owner in 21st century America, I can only say that it’s challenging more than exciting. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 15 years now and went to violin making school over 20 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of attitudes in this trade stay the same rather than evolve. Oftentimes the changes pointed out by my colleagues are nothing more than the consolidation and codification of a kind of groupthink which has narrowed our field rather than expanded it. In terms of facts on the ground, there has been an atomization in the violin business. There are more shops and makers than ever, but they are all reaching for a slice of a shrinking pie. I believe it’s harder than ever for new entrants into the field to gain quality education and experience due to a number of factors including the demise of the large shop based workshops and an absence of any kind of business training. There is almost zero analysis of the current national and global economy much less our trade’s micro economy, but we’ve all felt the pressure created by increasing overhead at our shops and homes, and there’s no doubt that our customers are feeling the same squeeze. For new members of the trade, there aren’t a lot of shop based jobs where one can earn a living wage, much less learn anything of worth. I’m not so optimistic about the condition of the American violin making schools either, as their original founders have passed away or retired. Into this breach has stepped the Oberlin workshops which have been a tremendous resource for practical technical information, but at the expense of a deeper, more complete education. I believe that Oberlin has served makers and restores well, but it has also created an almost cult like sameness amongst its attendants and its organizing and leadership are opaque at best. Makers especially need to do more to show their differences from one another. It’s also harder than ever to sell new instruments, and I’ve seen a distinct rise in new maker prices that I believe is not due to supply and demand but the fact that when new makers do, in fact, sell a violin or bow they need to get as much money from the sale as possible due to financial necessity. The business seems to be continuously obsessed with its own self importance at the expense of looking at meta-issues of market practices, pricing, and industry self-regulation. I’m sure plenty of your respondents will extol the wonderful new era of communication and cooperation, but this is usually related to issues such as which plane to use, or a preferred drillbit or repair technique, not practical, moral and ethical questions related to actually making a living in this trade.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

The reality of bow making is that we are mainly trying to reproduce what we perceive to be the finest examples of historical bow making, namely 19th-century French work. We may have modern machinery and other materials available to us, but we’re really not doing anything groundbreaking. This is a craft based in tradition, but it does reflect our modern culture insofar that we are obsessed with mechanics and perfection over other issues.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Depends on what kind of player you’re dealing with and at what level they are performing. One of the main issues with younger players is that they are not quite sure what a good bow actually is. There’s a lot of myth and unexplored concepts around how people actually shop for a bow. Due to economic circumstances, I think a lot of modern players are more open to new bow makers, however they still buy strongly into the concept that the older and more expensive a bow is, the better it must be. I think also the heavily promoted idea of bow or violin ownership as a means of investment has also made players more nervous about buying new bows, because they understand that that resale value just isn’t there for the most part. I think players want modern bows that makers have made with an eye on function over details like modeling. If a bow performs well as a music making tool, they will buy it, regardless of whether it would win a medal at the VSA competition.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years?

I think the main issue for bow makers specifically, is materials. Pernambuco and ebony are, without a doubt going to become harder and harder to use legally, much less sell or transport. Other materials such as mother of pearl, abalone and ivory will also be affected more and more. If I’m going to be completely realistic about this, there’s a good chance that we are seeing the last few generations of makers who will be able to legally ply this craft and have access to these materials in any kind of meaningful way. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for bows, it just means that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make, buy and sell traditional wooden bows. New materials are already becoming more and more acceptable amongst professional musicians. The second issue is our culture and our economies. Professional symphony orchestras are under greater threat from management than ever and schools and conservatories are minting more and more new performance majors with greater and greater levels of student debt. As a trade we need to confront these realities in a forthright and logical manner.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

I’m concerned that makers spend more time talking amongst themselves rather than with musicians. With bows especially I feel there is an over-emphasis on technical excellence. It is true that American bows are better made, by individual craftsman, from scratch, than ever in history. However these bows are not tested for playability in one of our largest making competitions, sponsored by the VSA. In order for a violin to win a gold medal it must get the highest marks from maker judges as well as accomplished player judges.  The bows are never touched by musicians in the judging process and are simply graded on their craftsmanship. I believe this is a major hurdle that must be overcome for the betterment of our craft. My other big concern is the issue of fraud and criminality, mainly in the dealing side of the business. I’m convinced that many players (and makers) have lost confidence in their local shops and dealers and are less willing or able to discern the good actors from the bad. There is very little being done within the trade to address these issues. We ignore these challenges at our peril.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

That there is no quick way to success in this craft and trade. When I first started out with my own business I was given the advice that it would take a good ten years before I could be financially comfortable and confident that I’d have enough work coming through the door day after day. Also that you create your own reputation and reality by meeting the needs of your customers and standing behind your work. If you take your time, always striving to improve, and build a customer base that trusts you, it doesn’t matter what your colleagues or competition might say of you. There are those in this trade that have a certain amount of celebrity – amongst their peers mainly. Celebrity is really nothing more than being known for being well-known. Don’t try to be famous within the field, do your job well and earn a good reputation amongst your customer base.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow that you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

I don’t know that I would want to keep anything, but my musician wife and I love going to auctions or checking over collections for amazing bows that just have unique and beautiful playing qualities. One such item we have in the shop is a 7/8th violin bow, nickel mounted with a swan head, made by Prosper Colas circa 1900 according to its Millant certificate. It’s a cleaner example of the makers work, but it wouldn’t win a VSA beauty competition. However it is such a live, agile and lyrical bow. It drives with the sure footedness of a classic European sports car, leaps like a panther, and runs through the obstacle course of performance like a ninja!  

 

“Good Repairers are like Gold”

       One of my Bridges

“Good repairers are like gold, often scarce, always wanted, and much abused.  They are often abused, forsooth, because they cannot perform miracles, and transform wretched old fiddles with broken voices into seraphic Cremonas.

Repairing, I need hardly tell my readers, is a special art, requiring much skill, great patience, and a double portion of the spirit of self-effacement and of reverence of the old work.

The bane of the fiddle world is the quack repairer, with his ‘patent’ nostrums for this, that, and the other violin ailment.  If you value your old instrument, avoid him as you would a pestilence.”

W. Meredith Morris, B.A.,  British Violin Makers, 1920