Building instruments that release the music in the wood
By Dave Kline - The Reading Eagle, Berks Country, Mountain Folklore - 11/1/2017
Part one of two.
For you to fully appreciate this column over the next two weeks, I need to share three contributing factors that inspired me to write it. I'll share two here, and the third next week.
The first inspiration is a discussion I had a few months ago with Irish author Kevin Martin in one of the back rooms of the venerable labyrinth of the establishment known as Matt Molloy's Pub in Westport, Ireland. Kevin's latest book "The History of the Irish Pub - Have Ye No Homes to Go To," has a wonderful section devoted to explaining why bards, or those who could convey stories and legends through music and storytelling, were once held in high esteem in the courts of kings, queens and gentry.
Before the written word was common, bards conveyed stories and history through music. The skill was held in high regard and bards were paid very handsomely and also received generous benefits.
My second inspiration for this week's column comes from a song written by Al Parrish. I first met Al years ago when I hired the band he was performing with, Tanglefoot, from Ontario, to play the Reading Riverfest on Riverfront Drive along the Schuylkill River. I wonder if any of you remember those wonderful days.
Anyway, Al wrote and recorded a powerful bard-like story song called "The Music in the Wood." He told about an old-time gent named Sam who was a woodworker and carriage craftsman. When I chatted with Al backstage at Riverfest about the character in his song, he told me that Sam was based on his great-grandfather's life.
In a recent communication with Al, he offered even more details about the central character in his song.
"He was my mom's mother's dad," he said. "I've always felt that his devil-may-care attitude is much easier to admire from a few generations away. But admire it I do."
In the song, Sam made a lot of money building and selling carriages and this really pleased his wife. What didn't please his wife was that Sam wasn't content building carriages because he felt as though it wasn't his true calling. Sam spent hours in the forest with his children teaching them about trees and what kind of wood they'd yield when harvested.
Of all the species, Sam most revered trees that produced tonewood, or wood that could be used to make musical instruments such as violins. Music and stories of drama, joy and compassion are all stored up in that kind of wood, just waiting to be shared. Sam was gripped by a powerful urge to unlock the music in the wood by crafting it into violins.
Violins weren't as profitable as carriages, but Sam didn't care. In the end, decades, indeed centuries after Sam's passing, the carriages he built had been discarded or turned to dust. But the violins he built were mostly still being played and enriching people's lives by conveying the music in the wood. Sam's spirit energy continues to live every time one of his violins is played.
I find this song profoundly moving. Here is one verse and a chorus:
Old Sam was no provider, his few carriages are gone,
But the fiddles made for naught but love preserve the wood and still sing his song.
While some men heard a calling to gain a carriage maker's wealth,
Another voice told Sam he should be building something else.
Put your hands to the wood and touch the music put there by the summer sun and wind,
And the rhythms of the rain locked within the rings, and let your fingers find, the music in the wood.
Owner of Meadowood Music turns wood into music
By Dave Kline - The Reading Eagle, Berks Country, Mountain Folklore - 11/8/2017
Part two of two.
Continuing with the story of The Music in the Wood that I began last week, there was a third inspiration for this topic: and that is knowing that old-world love, care and the connection of the natural and spirit worlds to music live on here in Pennsylvania's Americana region, in the hands of several skilled woodworkers and luthiers.
A caretaker of the wood I know best around here is Mike Andrews, one of the owner/operators of Meadowood Music, Blandon. Mike and his wife, Paula Taylor, refer to their store as an "acoustic music incubator," and that it truly is.
Mike and his staff offer instrument repairs, but Mike also has a violin or two that he's building from scratch at any given moment. When I visit the store, I enjoy going to the back workshop, where violins and other instruments are being repaired or created. Each instrument awaits its own special moment when the music locked up inside will be released by a person who hears the call to release it.
Knowing Mike for many years, I have developed a high regard for his skill as a businessperson, a luthier, a musician and a human being. I asked him to show me the violin he is building. And I told him the story about the song "The Music in the Wood," because it reminds me so much of him.
And now, with all of the prelude behind us, we arrive at the story of Mike and the wood he's using to build a violin in his workshop at Meadowood Music.
According to Mike, he and Paula received the wood as a gift from Manfred Gleissner of Gleissner Tonewoods in Bavaria, Germany, when they visited him in September 1998. Manfred's grandfather Anton Gleissner founded the company in 1905 in Schonbach, a town famous for violin building.
Because the borders in Europe have moved around a lot, the town has been in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany and the Czech Republic. And the town has been called both Schonbach and Luby. Manfred's father took over the business and ran it in Schonbach between 1933 and 1953. He moved the company to its current location in Bubenruth in 1953.
Manfred took over the business in 1965. His son Stefan joined him in the business in 1994 and is likely to take over the business.
"When we visited, we intended to purchase wood and had no expectation that it would be given to us as a gift," Mike said. "Manfred took us out to the woodsheds to look at the spruce and maple for violins. It was great fun to look at and tap on the wood.
"Something about our appreciation for the wood made Manfred like us. We knew he liked us when he started sorting through the wood with us, helping us find pieces that were more resonant than others. We did not know how much he liked us; we didn't realize that he had taken us to the area where he stored his really old wood. He told us that after we'd made our selections."
Mike continued: "The wood he showed us was wood his father harvested sometime between 1933 and 1945. Manfred relayed the story of how his dad had to move his wood from Schonbach very quickly because the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia moved and closed down. Andreas loaded everything he could onto a wagon and got out just in time.
"The wood we selected was part of the wood piled on that wagon. Since the Iron Curtain went up in 1945, and Andreas started working in the business in 1933, we think that the wood had to have been harvested during those years in the Schonbach area. Therefore, the tone wood in the violin I am currently building, the instrument you photographed, is between 72 and 84 years old."
So how does Mike Andrews feel about crafting the wood into a violin?
"When I look at the wood, ready to start carving, I feel intimidated and excited all at once," he said. "The process of carving, once I start, however, is like meditation. A lot of the process is technically demanding. When I focus on it, everything else goes away. Once the violin is complete, I feel tremendous apprehension until someone draws a bow across it and it sings."
Dave Kline is president of WEEU Radio, producer and host of the "Mountain Folk" show (9-10 a.m. Sundays), and Reading Eagle Company's executive director of circulation, promotions and Pretzel City Productions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.