David Morse's conversations with John
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: Its 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
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. Its only as good as
the training that brought you to the present, plus your awareness
and your focus on the event as its happening. Its 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, its always infinite.
J: That's right -- there's
the same amount of chaos left over afterward.
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 theyve 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 its 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. Its called
free plate tuning. But free plate tuning has very little to do
with the violin after its put together. Its 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. Its
too coarse, its not open enough, or its 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. Its
in your cell memory in a sense, because you've done it. It is
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 its chaos, and its
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 its 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. Its 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
J: So your violins would unmask
J: Lets talk about who is the
appropriate user of your violin. Sort of a profile of the appropriate
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 its 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 theyre
being. What's inside comes out, because there's little technical
impediment or physical barrier between them and what they want
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. Its 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
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
J: Do you find that they understand
without all this talking, you put it in their hands and they
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 densitys 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 its 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 its
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 its 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 its 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 its 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,
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
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 its creation. So
its 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 its
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. Its
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.
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
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
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 isnt weakened. There's an acoustic reason for it.
Also having those two points almost wanting to touch one another
creates a little visual tension. Its 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.