From Timber to Timbre

Thirty years ago, fate smiled on Tobias Braun: The guitarmaker’s girlfriend was the daughter of a forester whose tract was filled with the tonewoods ideal for his craft – a near-miraculous luxury. But it would take years for the material to reach Braun’s shop: The spruce (for the tops) had first to be felled, milled, and then left in a shed to ripen for several seasons.

The process is a meditation on the relationship of climate, wood, gesture and, ultimately, sound. “If you take a raw piece of wood, once a tree, and then you begin to make something of it…” muses Braun, a self-taught, now master craftsman. He hefts a block in his sun-dappled workshop. “It’s something like being a sculptor, but sculptures don’t make sound. Music adds another level.”

It’s an unbroken line of intention from timber to timbre, from the felling of an Alpine tree to the tuxedoed performance in a grand concert hall – the final fruit of steadfast labor. It is also a value chain, and every tradesman, artist and dealer adds a craft and takes a cut.

“There’s a large happiness factor because we take wood, and it will become sound,” agrees Claudia Rook. She and Kerstin Hoffmann have made violins, violas and cellos and bows in their brightly lit Vienna studio since 2006, and before that in East Germany. “But basically, it is hard, manual labor.”  “It is fulfilling,” says Hoffmann, as she wipes dust off her fingers. “And sometimes very, very dirty.”

Geiger Musik

Handcraft in the age of Amazon

In an age where music is made on computers and enjoyed on recordings, and where even guitars (or “guitar-like objects,” as Braun calls them) are mass-made in Asian factories, one might fear for the craft. But none of the six instrument makers we met appeared to be suffering for their art, and as in times past, all had a bread-and-butter business in maintenance and repair.

“We know what we will be working on for the next two years,” says Alex Kanzian, gesturing to dozens of instruments at various stages of assembly. He and business partner Fabian Traunsteiner, both in their mid-30s, build, restore and sound optimize double basses in the 6th district. Their workshop is humming – and it isn’t just their new Belgian journeyman, who is applying a hand plane to a vast curving front plate. “We make Viennese double basses in Vienna.” Customers come from all over.

Some profit handsomely: One craftsman says that, in the past, contracts with the Vienna Philharmonic and Staatsoper were “a license not just to print money, but to make gold.” (He doesn’t begrudge it.)

A few parts of the business, like the sale of strings and other bits, have gone online. But the internet has also helped link niche producers with farflung customers, thanks to “our website, Facebook, and Instagram,” lists Traunsteiner.

An Exacting Art

There is something comforting and otherworldly about crossing the threshold of a luthier’s workshop – the warm, tannic smell of pine and lacquer, sunlight catching on sawdust, shavings curled on the floor. They “have a great allure,” says Braun, as we sit among half-made guitars in Gaaden, near Mödling. Here, wood “becomes a kind of tool or transport medium to dive into the transcendental world of the non-linguistic and non-rational. There is something shamanistic about it.” But not esoteric: It is a craft.

“For the people who stare through our shop window, this might seem romantic,” says Traunsteiner. “But in reality, we are high-precision tradesmen.” Profitability requires good management. There’s a lot of resting and drying time – for the materials, not the makers. As we speak, Kanzian and Traunsteiner move around, applying glue to the neck of one instrument, removing the sound post from another, putting strings on a third. “Getting the most out of an instrument comes down to the last hundredths of a millimeter,” says Kanzian. Workbenches are lined with calipers and rulers; devices continuously measure humidity. “This is a precision-based profession.”

One that helps keep the actual sound of music in Austria alive. Kanzian presents a showroom of Italian, English and Viennese-style double basses, explaining that the local permutation features a flatter backplate, a buckled scroll and – critically – a fifth string, tuned here to a thick, low C. He gives it a thrum, and I grin. “Exactly that smile is what this string is for,” says Kanzian. “The Vienna Philharmonic has its special sound because of its Viennese instruments.”

Instrument makers
Instrument makers Fabian Traunsteiner (left) and Alexander Kanzian build, repair and optimize basses in Vienna`s 6th district

Worship of ashes?

For makers of stringed and bowed instruments, today’s competition doesn’t come from fresh-from-the-factory instruments, but from antiques. The highest demand is for those 100 to 150 years old: with a pedigree, but still in good condition and readily available. Much older violins – such as those made by Antonio Stradivari in the 18th century – fetch millions at auction.

These playable old masters do have “a certain aura,” says violinmaker Rook. Fully 50% of the makers interviewed for this story independently described the restoration or tuning of very old instruments as “geil” – meaning awesome. Of one Italian double bass from 1580, among the oldest in existence, Kanzian gushes: “We reglued it a little, optimized it a little … looked at it a little.” Their faces light up speaking of individual instruments that have passed through their hands.

The trouble is, many customers agree. “Someone else can buy new instruments,” says Heinz Koll, retired principal violist of the Vienna Philharmonic. He plays a nearly 300-year-old Carlo Antonio Testore bought in 1982, and has no intention of ever giving it up. His daughters, now violinists at the Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony Orchestra, have been playing old instruments since age 12 or 13. At a certain level you need “a reward for your efforts. There must be the feeling that what you put in, you are getting back out.”

But “over the last twenty years, the making of new instruments has reached such a high level,” says Rook, that top new instruments can compete – and win. A few years ago, two studies from Claudia Fritz at the Sorbonne University demonstrated conclusively that old violins are not necessarily superior: Professional soloists blind-tested instruments under a variety of conditions and routinely preferred the new ones. “It’s not that new is good, or that old is good, but that good is good.”

Rook would know – she’s also a classically trained cellist. In fact, each of them is, as Kanzian describes himself, a “closeted musician and sound fetishist.” The exception is Viennese pianomaker Georg Watzek. But he and his wife attend 60 or 70 concerts a year and catch 10 to 15 operas – not to mention all the balls (Watzek also owns and teaches at a classical dance school; see “How To … Go to a Ball,” p. 78). Musicianship is essential to understand customers who “say cryptic things like, ‘we need more G’,” laughs Kanzian.

And no Strad will make up for a poor musician. “Really, the viola always sounds like the player,” says Koll. They “must have an idea of a sound and then bring [it] out.” The relationship between player and instrument is “a kind of marriage,” that “brings you joy because it sounds so lovely.” In other words, the instrument is to the musician as wood is to the instrument: essential, but a means only. The hands of the master are decisive.

Becoming a master

Paths to mastery vary. For the makers of stringed and bowed instruments in Vienna, there have been three postwar generations, according to guitarmaker Braun, who – in his late 50s – counts himself among the second. The ancien regime was protectionist, “especially the violinmakers – they begrudged each other everything, every schilling they earned.” He spoke of backstabbing and subversions, “truly malicious behaviour.”

Guild leaders made it difficult for others to pass the Meisterprüfung (mastery exam) – and “no one was training anyone,” recalls Simone Zopf, a violinmaking instructor at Austria’s only school for string and bow instruments, which opened 31 years ago. She herself was an early graduate. “Before the 1990s, people had to be quite courageous [to take the Meisterprüfung] because the then-leaders of the guild were really not very supportive and saw it as competition.”

Many, like Braun, were essentially autodidacts, often from other academic disciplines (Braun has degrees in German studies and journalism), who brought a curiosity about ideas into the field. “[The older masters] never left their workshops – they worked like animals, but there was no fresh air. The windows were always closed,” says Braun. The grand old luthier who gave Braun his mastery exam made him promise never to build violins in Vienna. “It was absurd.” But times have changed. These days, instrument makers have a collegial respect, and the guild “is transparent and well-organized, and there is an exam catalogue to study from,” says Zopf.

And crucially, there’s the school. The newer generation of stringed instrument makers often come through the HTBLA Hallstatt, where Zopf helps qualify students as Gesellen (journeymen and women), who can also take a prep course for the Meisterprüfung. At first, the school faced “tremendous resistance from the guild,” Braun said. “They boycotted it, went over its head, worked against it. But the school managed.” Now around 45 students are currently enrolled, and two or three take the mastery exam each year.

Hoffmann and Rook
Kerstin Hoffmann (right) and Claudia Rook are two Vienna-based violin makers and Meisterinnen of their craft. Born, raised and educated in Germany, they both decided to open their workshop in Vienna.

Next generation

The school faces criticism. Rook and Hoffmann, who came up through a rigorous East German training regime, said that it seems a shorter process for people to become Meister here – leading to a glut of unprepared grads. Some become masters, but others “can’t find jobs, [so] they open their own shops and then the overall quality of the market sinks,” explains Rook. Zopf understands the criticism, but argues that these days, “finding an apprenticeship is almost impossible.” (Indeed only two of the four workshops we visited had Gesellen, and none an apprentice). The school provides a broad base – history, theory, practice – and offers other skills, too.

Recalling his early days, Braun says, “I never thought about a business model or a financial plan […] I had no idea what was coming to me.” While he learned the handcraft at the feet of Spanish master José Luis Romanillo, his business skills were all trial and error. A silly reason some fail, Zopf says, is that “they haven’t learned about acquisition, accounting, customer relations.”

Alumnus Kanzian drily admits that passing the exam is “not enough to work for the Philharmonic,” though it is certainly no walk in the park, either. He and Traunsteiner met at the school before taking their education into their own hands – Kanzian, for example, worked for a doublebass maker in Genoa. “We invested many years learning on top of that basis until we were really knowledgeable,” says Traunsteiner. “You never stop learning.”

Preservation of fire

A quick online search of how to build a piano yields instructions, discussion forums, videos. “I get irritated about it because everyone thinks it’s so simple; that they can just look it up,” says Georg Watzek, a fourth generation maker of Viennese pianos – long and straight with strings alined parallel, rather than the comon harp shape, where layers of strings overlap at an angle.

We are sitting in an office above his Neubau workshop, where we have just spent an hour peering under lids, plonking keys, plucking strings, and running our fingers along cast-iron plates that haven’t seen daylight since they were last restored a century ago. Cheerfully he disambiguated harpsichords, Viennese pianofortes (his specialty), and later-era rounded pianos; Watzek has time for clueless reporters, but not for wannabe masters who’ve only built, say, two instruments.

“It takes years of experience. This knowledge is always treated as worthless.” Often, people take classes on restoration but know nothing of acoustics: “There are Handgriffe [hand grips or maneuvers] of which I am aware that I am the last person who knows them,” says Watzek, about ways to tap tonewood and know whether it will sound good. Most top pianos these days – such as the “sublime” ranges by Bösendorfer, are made by a series of specialists. Watzek says he needs a whole day for a step that their expert could do in two hours – but he can do every step. He thinks he might be the last person who can. In Vienna? In the world, perhaps.

Geige

And each was learned the hard way. There is a lacquering technique that requires “amounts” of two substances, on a wad of cotton cloth “about this size,” applied with “this motion.” A manual isn’t enough – first you learn, and then you repeat for years until the gesture is ingrained in the muscle memory.

If you think that sounds appealing, you aren’t alone. He gets inquiries every week from people in their 40s and 50s hoping for a slower life among wood and metal. “The demand for training is very large, but […] it’s difficult to get the people that you need.” He currently works with three young Gesellen – all women – in their 20s. Middle-aged beginners need up to ten years before they can tune a concert piano alone.

“Then he’s 48, and either thrown in the towel or starved to death.” Even a full lifetime seems hardly enough.In the presence of instrument makers, I am reminded of writer Russell Baker: “That life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, that cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.”

When the cord of tradition seems at risk of fraying, it is reassuring that new masters are waiting in the wings. There is a certain piano maker in Prague, Paul McNulty, whom Watzek has been following. Recently, “he has discovered some things.” Watzek smiles. “And that means he deserves [to know].”


Naomi Hunt recommends listening to Antonín Dvořák’s string quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 “American,” one of the most sublime string pieces ever written.

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