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David Morse's conversations with John Simmons 9/8/99

J: You come from a visual arts background. When did you know you were going to be a violinmaker?

D: That was in 87. I'd been making violins for about 4 years.

J: Can you describe your education?

D: I went to Omaha School of Art, and got a degree in commercial art. Shortly thereafter I was drafted and went through engineering, intelligence and officer training in the military. While I was in Vietnam, I did military intelligence analysis for General Abrahams and Westmorland at the headquarters in Saigon. When I got back, I went to Southern California and went to Mount San Antonio College and took art and sculpture classes among general requirements. I moved up to Santa Cruz to complete my degree in sculpture and painting at UCSC. I also did some advance work in acoustics and sculpture at Sonoma State

J: Acoustics AND sculpture?

D: By that time, I realized that my educational goals were pointed towards musical instrument building for a living.

J: When did you start to work on musical instruments?

D: Out of high school. In 1966 or 67 I bought a guitar from Mexico. I had taken it apart and rebuilt it, so that was really the first indication that I was interested in and liked working on musical instruments. When I was in Los Angeles, I made one flattop and one very strange guitar, more of a sculpture than a playing instrument. Around the time I arrived in Santa Cruz, I met Darrel Anger. He and I and some other luthiers made a number of carved top bluegrass mandolins. Not playing mandolin myself, I moved on to an instrument that I could play. It was then that I started building jazz guitars. I made jazz guitars that I sold to people like Earl Klugh and John Abercrombie. By that time, I had made a number of different types of instruments: banjos, mandolins, flattop guitars, and archtop guitars. I realize when I look back, I always had a great fascination with and reverence for the violin and never really knew whether or not I could make one.

J: It’s intimidating.

D: It wasn't so much the actual construction of the violin. I looked at the difficulty of making the violin and it seemed an acceptable challenge. What seemed intimidating were the violinists. I had an original impression that the the kind of demands and critiques that violinists had about their violins were too great, I simply could not come up to that level of scrutiny. But at some point, after having been so successful with mandolins and guitars, I tried. It was then that I realised that the violinist was the key. They had much of the knowledge necessary to achieve an excellent violin tone. I always create my own interpretation of any instrument that I build. My first violin had many of the elements that I use today.

J: The violin you sell today represents your latest attempt to catch a particular sound?

D: Yes. It is like throwing the discus, or dancing a pirouette. It’s only as good as the training that brought you to the present, plus your awareness and your focus on the event as its happening. It’s fascinating how violin builders approach the craft. There are violinmakers who were once machinists, physicists, woodworkers, mathematicians, sculptors, engineers, artists, craftsmen and others. They all bring a certain library of skills, whereas the whole violinmaker is more of an alchemist.

J: What do you mean?

D: The scientist deals with what he can know, the alchemist deals with what he can know and also chaos. Because chaos is infinite just like knowledge is infinite, it’s always infinite.

J: That's right -- there's the same amount of chaos left over afterward.

(Laughter)

D: The metaphor of the scientist is like this: you have all chaos out there, you make a hypothesis, you go into the machinations of the experiment, and conclusions, and so at your conclusion, you go back to chaos. Scientists have this little bit, something they’ve controlled. The problem is, what they control is very, extremely narrow. Every time they try to make some kind of analysis of the violin, they have to make it provable and it has to be very, very narrow in scope to make it provable.

The alchemist is like this: he peers into the chaos, in the past and up to his present, and then he makes an assumption about what he sees at that moment, and it’s based in Now. Its not based on what you can build on in yesterday's information so you can use it for tomorrow. Then he turns around and he acts on this observation and then he returns to chaos. And he's comfortable and he lives in chaos. He relies on the analytic processes in the brain that escapes categorization. Some call it a mystery, I call it a tool. He doesn't live in this small area that's confined to what he can know. So at any moment in time, you can grasp a universe, a harmonic symphony, a snapshot of what's occurring at that moment. But it's a much better, more open and informative view if you can suspend all that you know.

I started off following some of these scientists where they put the glitter on the violin plate and then they put a loudspeaker underneath it and get the thing to bounce and you can see the vibrations. It’s called free plate tuning. But free plate tuning has very little to do with the violin after its put together. It’s very different! Completely different. I knew that 300 years ago they had this intuitive nature. I started thinking about my own thought processes and Pop!, the mind has this incredible ability to take mustard and locomotives and put it together and lead to dining cars. Take totally separate elements and somehow make a fusion. Nothing else can do that, like that part of the human mind. So I decided that I would just observe, continue to add information and not necessarily document and write it down but leave it in the bio-computer. And just work it, and work it, and work it, and have an experiential feel of the violin and to listen to the people who knew more than I - which are the players. I let them tell me the many faceted explanations of sound that musicians hear and use. It’s too coarse, it’s not open enough, or it’s not loud enough, or it doesn't play staccato. Then l try to visualize what it is that the violin's doing to improve that particular characteristic. This is the place where alchemy comes in. Alchemy is a wonderful metaphor for this.

J: You don't know to move the violin arch because you've seen empirical data from some sound test that indicated that moving the arch would do that. You know that from your personal "field" of experience. It’s in your cell memory in a sense, because you've done it. It is neural- linguistic.

D: I don't do it simply as my own path, but I look at the great master violins that people are playing today and emulate and try their physicality.

J: So occasionally you'll hear a master violin that relates to the tone you hear in your head and you think that there's something in this that I want.

D: I came to searching for my own sound in a very overt objective way when Isaac Stern was showing me his Guarneri violin. I was looking at it, and he was looking at my violin and he played it. He said, "This is not an Italian violin sound, but it's a very good sound". And I realized, wow, I'm certainly not going to come up with the solutions they came up with, or if I did, no one will know for 150 years. He kind of pointed the path down my own road. I had been slavishly trying to get what other people call the Italian violin sound. I realized I don't have to adhere to this search by copying other violins. Now, it really is about 75% copying ideas and about 25% or maybe less of my own ideas. The visual aesthetics of the violin are very separate from the aural aesthetics. Because you're fashioning this tone through a very direct, mechanical means. Which means, what you're really addressing is, how the structure is manipulated to make that sound.

J: Which is physics, its mechanics. Those scientific disciplines can be used to describe your work, but not predict it. That's the whole difference.

D: To me, the whole thing defies description. I can only say that it’s chaos, and it’s alchemy, and they all come out differently, and whatever I put into them is an occurrence of what happened at that moment with those particular pieces of wood.

J: So it’s an interaction between you, the mood you're in at this period of your life, the wood that you choose, the input you get from your customer.

D: And the character of the good violins that I've seen at that time. It’s like Paul Klee. He was really criticized heavily by the art community in New York, because once he became famous, he bought back some of his old paintings and redid them. It made many people upset, because you can"t see the evolution of his ideas, if they are erased. It made me realize that what I'm creating every moment is something that will never occur again. For me or anybody else.

J: If a musician contacts you and asks you to build a violin for them that has specific characteristics, that will be another factor among all these others that will affect the resulting violin. How customized are your violins?

D: They're not very customizable. I feel that the path that I'm on is very focused and I can produce a very special need for a soloist and symphony musician. My violins are easy to play, and yet they are very difficult to play. They're easy to play because the bow immediately lights up the strings, immediately you get illumination and sensitivity, be that breathy or a very powerful quality. But, because the sound is so transparent and open and clear, it reveals all the nuances of the player and the more sophisticated the player is, the better the synergy is.

J: So your violins would unmask a dilettante.

D: Yes.

J: Lets talk about who is the appropriate user of your violin. Sort of a profile of the appropriate user.

D: I'm a toolmaker. I make tools for people. The tools that I make are crafted and they're art pieces and yet they are tools for someone else to craft and create art on. As a tool, its best in the hands of someone who is an accomplished violinist who wants to get the strength, power, and subtlety out of a violin. My violins all have a very powerful clear projecting tone, very articulate. Every nuance in the hand and arm come out in the sound. Ray Kobler played one of my violins while the concertmaster of the San Fransisco Symphony. He once joked that he could always pick out my violins, because they all come out bold and powerful.

J: It's a challenging violin.

D: It challenges the player, but it’s an interesting thing. For the talented player, they put the bow to the violin and I see this awareness that they have all this subtlety. And, as soon as they recognize that, the violin gives it to them, they give it to the violin, and the violin gives it to them, and there's this circular thing that happens, and all of a sudden, they're playing who they’re being. What's inside comes out, because there's little technical impediment or physical barrier between them and what they want to create.

J: Your violins lack the dullness and sluggishness a poor violinist might hide behind, if they have poor technique.

D: I don't want to characterize it in that way because there are other people who are creating violins that have a broad tone and they're warm and they're luscious and when you play them, no matter what you play on them they just make a wonderful sound up close, but they don't project. Perfect for some players.

J: Of that one kind (of sound).

D: My violins are for someone who has a very distinct and clear image of what they want to create on a violin. A lot of musicians don't realize how much energy they use in compensating for the physical limitations of the violin. Its all analog, so there's a spectrum of how these violins respond. In a lot of violins, the hair simply doesn't want to pick up the string. To be able to get a real clear tone is very difficult on these violins. As you pass the bow over the string, there are milliseconds of scraping sounds before the string actually picks up and starts to make the full vibrational spectrum. It’s primarily coloration. How long it takes a violin string to pick up and vibrate, is one way of telling how good or bad the violin is.

J: So your violins are highly responsive, and therefore dangerous, to some people. I'm gonna rob this bank with my violin! (laughter) So getting back to who you see using your violins. Is it someone who is doing quartet work, or bluegrass work, or playing in a violin school with 20 other violinists?

D: Well it could be any of those, a bluegrass player, or someone who plays quartets, someone who's at violin school, or who just graduated from college with a major in music performance on the violin. The people who typically buy my violins now are symphony orchestra players or soloists. They are the ones who are the happiest with what my violins can do.

J: Do you find that they understand without all this talking, you put it in their hands and they go, Ahh!

D: Yes.

J: Can we talk about some of the variables that go into the physical production of the violin? The varnish, the wood, the pegs?

D: One of my parallel searches is measuring the density’s relationship to stiffness in materials. Then I try to make an analysis after the violin is built. What did choosing this wood do the sound? A scientist is going to say it’s impossible! You can't do that. But an alchemist can do it! There are two succinct ways to say what a violin is: The violin is a series of approximations, and it’s an exercise in matching impedances. Everything in the violin has to be balanced. That's kind of an abstract, technical way of saying what a violin is. If the whole thing is perfectly balanced except for a part that is 1/5 thicker than it should be, you've lost whatever else is going on. The violin is only as good as the weakest link. One of the starting places is the wood. There are obviously great violinmakers who have gone about making violins without electro-spectral analysis. I think that one of the most traditional ways of analyzing wood to see whether it should go into a violin, is to tap on the piece in the raw form and say, Ahh! That sounds good. Or, Ahh, that doesn't sound good. That is what I see a lot of violinmakers do. I discovered that free plate tuning has a very limited application and reflection of what the plate does once it’s in the violin. It's a little like taking a fender off a car and trying to test it's aerodynamics in a wind tunnel to see how the shape could be improved. I also realized that it’s true of the wood. Choosing a piece of wood that sounds good when it's a log, or a board before you start to carve it, really has very little to do with the final violin sound of the piece when it’s in the violin.

J: That sound environment is so different from the final one, that it could even trick you into a false decision.

D: I feel like it tricked me for years. At a point in my examination, I took really varied kinds of wood and made four violins with really different woods. All four backs were very different, and all four tops were very different. And I made a violin with all of them, and then I switched all the parts. To see where the sound went.

J: So there's a little bit of the trial and error method in your madness.

D: Absolutely. Although I've gained lots from that, that has also misled me. Because it was only four violins, and it was only at that moment in time, and it was only what I knew at that moment, to get the result. But, nonetheless, it pointed me in the direction of the materials that were actually producing better tone.

J: Where are you now in your examination of woods? What woods are you using now?

D: The sooner the tree is cut and taken down into a small piece and dried, the better the results. So when I go to Italy, I only want to examine the trees that were cut within the last week. I'll look at trees that were cut within a week, and then I cut and split it just as soon as I can, so it can dry out just as quickly as possible. My thought is, if you take a carrot out of the ground and eat it right then, its really crisp. You leave it in the salad bin in your refrigerator for three weeks; you know what you get.

J: Can you describe your procedure in going out and hunting for wood?

D: For the most important part, which is the top, I really search a very narrow area in Italy. I look for the annular rings and the structure of the annular rings. I look for whether the tree has twists, a lot of bark, a lot of knots, etc.

J: Do you personally pick a tree and say, this is the one I want?

D: Yes. Then, I'll cut and split it up and let it dry, and ship it back to the USA. Probably 75% of the wood I cut, once its dry, I won't use. There's only a very select number within the tree that fits my criteria and certain trees are drier or wetter than you think they are and have different characteristics when they're wet than when they're dry. Which is why I think this idea of hearing the log come down the river or hitting the tree with an axe to choose wood is romance, not alchemy.

J: How did you come to prefer this one type of tree in Italy?

D: I knew that there was a reason why the Italian violins had a unique tone. They didn't have some of the downfalls that the violins built with woods from other areas had. I was at a convention and I saw this violin and the piece of wood for the top was just magnificent. It was so beautiful. It was a student made violin, and I asked her where she had purchased this marvelous wood. She said, right near Cremona Italy. Two months later I was in Italy.

J: Do you sell any of this spruce?

D: Absolutely! If anyone would like some they can contact me through my e-mail.

J: How do you choose the wood for the back?

D: The back is equally important, but has a different role to play. The differences in grain on the maple are more varied than in the spruce. The spruce is more uniform and consistent, whereas maple can be very tightly curled, or broadly curled, a lot of different grain configurations that affect the tone.

J: What about the varnishes?

D: There are a few different aspects. People have said that the Stradivari's violin sound great because of the varnish. But many of those old Strads have very, very little of the original varnish left, most of its is worn off in the first five years after it’s creation. So it’s not all in the varnish. But the varnish is the fingerprint and the artistry of the maker. So the quality of the application, and the vision that the artist has, makes a difference. If you hand the same varnish to ten people, you'd come up with ten different looking violins. Because of how they apply the varnish. So it’s not only the elements that are there, but also how they're utilized.

J: Do you use anything that's different from other violin makers when you make your varnish?

D: Not really. There are just really solid varnishing fundamentals. Having a degree in sculpture and a degree in commercial art has trained my eye. I see the shape and color of the violin with an artists eye. It’s not like everyone else's.

J: So you came to violin making already a sculptor and a painter. So how do you bring your trained visual sensibility to bear on your violins, which, after all, are not only aural violins?

D: That's the amazing part of it. Violinmaking has a craft quality to it, it has an artistic quality to it, it has a musical, aural, and engineering quality. After making and designing a number of violins -- mandolins, guitars, and banjos -- during and after my time at the university studying sculpture, I realized that there are certain elements that you better not mess around with. If you mess with those elements sculpturally, if you mess around with the basic tenets of arching in a violin you no longer have a violin. It may look really wild and be really nice sculpturally, but its not going to sound like a violin. So I spent a number of years examining and separating the function of the violin from the form. I was looking for how the aesthetic form sometimes influences the acoustic structure. Or, how they captured the structural form that was necessary to make the sound. Some great artistic geniuses embellished or augmented that structural form with something that was pleasing to the eye. Which is a great feat in the original and initial violin. The Renaissance had a artistic style that reflected the culture and life of the times. You know, at that period of time, for craftsmen, philosophers, and artists, a a clear and precise symetrical form was their ideal. Because I spent some time examining the function and form separately, I said "I'm working on the structure and analyzing it to improve the sound. Otherwise I'm free, I have this form; I have this beautiful shape that I can change, as long as I don't tread on the structural aspects."

My sculpture professor at the University of Santa Cruz, Jack Zajak, said that one of the great aspects of art is its timeliness. Great artists absorb society, the interrelationships between people and reflect that in their work; they have a vision of where we are now and where we can go to create a new future. As soon as you capture the imagination, it has a deep message that's both personal and universal.

J: You can actually change history with artistic vision.

D: What I see in this shape that I have chosen is a 21st century form that no longer has rigid straight lines and symmetry as it's theme. Rather, as much as I can, I've infused organic shapes into the violin. So nowhere is there a corner or an edge that is ridgid. There are more dolphin-like forms and forms echoing blooming flowers, in a subtle way. I just see these as reflections of nature. I want to promote a future that is more organic and interactive with the natural world around us.

J: This is a fabulously Taoist way to do things.

D: It looks out into the 21'st. Century.

J: The scroll is a specific example of that.

D: I was taking a nap in the redwoods in the Santa Cruz mountains, and when I woke up, I was laying on my side, and right in front of me, about 6 inches away from me was a fiddle fern partly unfolded. I didn't think anything of it. But it was very strong image. 3 or 4 days later I was peering out into the Pacific Ocean, sitting on a cliff somewhere, and this fiddle fern came back in front of me and it turned into a violin scroll. Right in front of me. But it wasn't rigid and stiff; it was as you would see it in nature, slightly tilted, with soft edges. I did some sculptural models and settled on an interpretation. Now my scroll has a physical form that is organic and not linear. It asks the viewer to change the way he looks at it, liberating the eye from the constraints of symmetry. Anytime you see a flower or something like that, you want to look around it. You want to see its subtlety, the beauty in its imperfection.To me, my scroll gives the violin a warmth and a feeling of being alive.

J: Do you carve them all the same?

D: I only use one side pattern and the concept stays the same. Still each one is unique with it's own character.

J: Where else do you depart from the classical violin shape?

D: The corners of the violin intrigued me from the very beginning. When I would look at the violin from the side, I just felt that aesthetically this looks so boxy, because of the repetitive lines. The back and front edge of the violin and the two corner points from the side, make it look very much like a box. So, by curving the points inward slightly I break up that rigidity. I also take the corners on the top and the back and carve them to look like they move or spill over.

J: Like a gutter spout.

D: Or like a curled leaf. It adds flow to the shape. Another thing that Jack Zajack said about sculptural forms is that if you can get the person to look all around the object, you've succeeded artistically. I feel like it does, it creates a little tension. The eye says, oh, this flows somewhere and the eye searches to find out where it goes. Curiosity moves the eye around to understand the whole shape. Then the form can come alive. After I had built violins for a number of years, I started seeing the static quality of the perfling. The black stripes are always uniform in size, and the white is in the middle. A frame around a painting is generally broader at the outside and more detailed towards the painting, which kind of draws your eye into the painting. So I simply made the blacks thicker on the outside and thinner on the inside to draw the viewer into the violin. As the perlfing turns into the corner, it looks more 3 dimensional. I stop the perfling across the button on the back of the violin because it makes for a stronger acoustical connection with the neck. The button isn't cut through, so the wood isn’t weakened. There's an acoustic reason for it. Also having those two points almost wanting to touch one another creates a little visual tension. It’s resolved visually at my initials. The f-holes are functionally similar to the Stradivari f-hole, but they offer a strong aesthetic shape on their own. Also, I take the scroll box and make it softer and wider, to make it physically easier to access. So you can get in there and change strings without much difficulty.

I've designed an endpin and pegs. I carefully control and choose the density and stiffness of the wood for those elements, and I've designed them to match the rest of the violin. Its an echo of other pegs you see where the ring is an inlaid piece of brass, and there's a round piece of wood that's stuck on the end there called a pip. The pip inevitably falls out or starts buzzing. This new peg and end pin design incorporate these shapes into the wood sculpturally in one piece. It adds a nice detail to the pegs. The tailpiece is designed very carefully density-wise and stiffness-wise to maximize the tone of the violin.

As far as the actual shape of the violin, I basically fall within the basic limits and parameters of Stradiveri and Guarneri, because on that end of the spectrum, I don't want to depart from the physical form aspects that create great violins. My variations are within those limitations. Arches, same way. Very classic.

J: You were quick to that insight because of your painting background. Can people who attend a concert see and appreciate these things?

D: The subtle changes I've made on the violin can't be seen past about six feet. I've handed my violin to people who have no prior knowledge of the violin idiom and they detect no difference. Unlike changes to the violin such as the duck scroll and the flying saucer f-holes that otherviolinmakers have used to be creative, my forms are classicistic. Artistically, I really like what they've done, but I just have my own vision.

J: Surely the player themselves notice the sculptural elements you've added to the violin, and furthermore, like them. It affects their playing positively?

D: I see myself as a matchmaker. I am happiest when I place a violin or viola with somebody who falls in love with it.