Lutherie? That's a funny word. Sounds like something Ricky Ricardo might use.
"Lutherie, you got some 'splainin' to do!"
Simply put, lutherie refers to crafting high-quality stringed musical instruments from raw hardwoods.
I became interested in lutherie a couple of years before I stopped driving racing cars - sometime in the middle 1990s. I had begun reading the Alex Delaware mysteries by Jonathan Kellerman. Delaware's girlfriend in the books, Robin Castagna, is a luthier. The work she did in the books sounded interesting, and I decided to see what it entailed.
Numerous Internet searches and several books later, I was hooked.
The drive to create is as old as mankind, and one of the marks of humanity. While humans have demonstrated, sadly, an amazing capacity to destroy, they have balanced this capacity with an innate desire to build, improve, and create beauty. Without this desire to make something that is more than just the sum of its parts, we never would have had the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, the symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, the books by Steinbeck and Faulkner, or the elemental beauty of a Stradivarius violin.
When we indulge this drive to create, we engage in many activities at once. Beginning luthiers (pronounced loo-tee-ays, a fancy word for someone who builds stringed instruments), embark on a hobby that not only says that they are a lovers of music, but that they also want to stretch their own boundaries and learn new skills. They want to produce an instrument that will make music, craft it with their own hands, feel the wood yield to their will, and perhaps leave it behind to be discovered by some young music lover long after they have gone.
What I have described in the previous several paragraphs illustrates the Zen process in instrument building. Zen meditation –whether you engage in it while sitting on a pillow or while paving a highway – is the process of shedding all worldly stresses and concerns, and focusing entirely on the right now. It requires complete concentration on what is happening in this very instant, and an awareness of the active relationship between you and your activity. Even if you are only engaging in a chore like sharpening your chisels and plane blades, Zen lutherie requires that you be completely engaged in the task of sharpening, aware only of the strokes of the steel on the abrasives, as you guide them with your hands and eyes, without allowing yourself to be distracted by outside influences.
Instrument builders have always been aware of this curious relationship between man and wood. A fifteenth century Italian lute is reported to have had a Latin poem inscribed inside of it which reads as follows:
Viva fui in sylvis
sum dura occisa secure
Dum vixi tacui
mortua dulce cano.
Which translates as:
I was alive in the forest,
I was cut by the cruel ax,
In life I was silent,
In death I sweetly sing.
The goal of the luthier is to find that song in the dead wood that is waiting to be released, by paying attention to what the wood wants him to do with it.
Rick Builds a Banjo
Building musical instruments – or, for that matter, engaging in any creative pursuit – provides us with a way to separate ourselves from the day-to-day world, the stresses of work, the daily chores of housekeeping, and the mundane news that dominates our world. When you retreat to your shop, whether it is a dedicated space filled with expensive woodworking power tools or just a corner of your rec room in which you have put together a worktable with some simple hand tools, you provide yourself with a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday pressures and obligations. For a brief – often all too brief – time, the entire world is you, your tools, and the wood.
The work can be meditative – a time to think about your place in the world and explore your dreams and goals.
It can also be frustrating. Wood doesn’t always do what you want it to. You will make mistakes. Even the most experienced instrument builder has accidents, allows a chisel to slip at the wrong time, inadvertently dents a soft soundboard, or makes a wrong measurement from time to time. One of the challenges of building musical instruments is learning how to recover from a mistake, without entirely scrapping your work.
What does this have to do with being a crime fiction writer?
Not a damned thing.
However, nobody is simply one thing. Whether you claim to be a teacher, or a window washer, or a bank president, that title fails to say anything more substantial about you than what you do to put the groceries on the table. Our lives don't end each day at the moment we leave the office. Any one of us might be a teacher/father/mountain biker/gourmet chef/shadetree mechanic, or perhaps a bank president/volleyball player/weight trainer/watercolor painter/world traveler. Even these descriptions fail to capture our essence - our beliefs, attitudes, world views, or even our perspective of our place in the cosmos.
While it is tempting to attempt to understand the work that one produces outside the context of how it relates to the creator, one has to admit that if you truly have a fuller picture of the person who produces the work, the work itself takes on a brighter, perhaps even more human quality.
In earlier times, when a person wanted others to perceive them in a particular way, and if they had the means, they would have a portrait painted. The gifted portrait artist would depict the individual in his or her natural setting, surrounded by articles that somehow expressed who they were.
In our modern technological world, the website has become our version of the portrait. We use this electronic medium to put ourselves before the public and say "This is me!" We write blogs expressing our deepest feelings. We upload pictures of our travels, our family, our homes and our artistic projects, in hopes that these somehow portray our inner selves, and that what we have to say and show will resonate with someone out in the ether. You can't separate the website from the person who creates it, because the one is the extension of the other.
In this section of my website, I want to show some of my lutherie projects as I create them. At one level, I simply wish that the work I put into these instruments will be appreciated. At another level, perhaps I hope that some fellow traveler will cross this site, and that their own creative juices will be stimulated, and they will say - as I did over a decade ago - "Hey, I could do that!"