A month in Mexico.
In the pursuit of a deeper knowledge, in the hope of recharging the creative batteries, and for a simple love of travel, I spent October in Mexico with violin maker Maestro Ernesto Ramirez. In his beautiful workshop in Tepotzlan, near Mexico City, we built instruments, shared techniques and tips and discussed broader philosophies. It was stimulating just to be in Mexico which is so rich and textured visually, culturally and historically. I very much enjoyed seeing a different aesthetic in everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to modern art and architecture. Mexico is a place where many hand-crafts are still practiced and even taken for granted. Much of this hand work has a relaxed and un-self-concious feel, a quality that I see in many of the older Italian violins that I admire.
Time to talk
The most interesting thing to me about working alongside Ernesto was getting a glimpse of someone else’s professional world view. While we both understand the basic elements of violinmaking, because of our personal histories and interests we emphasize and value different aspects of the work. Ernesto has a much deeper knowledge and understanding of the history of the violin than I do. When he makes a violin he thinks of the instrument in one hundred years and its place in the world then. For me, I am more interested in the processes and flow of the work right now and tend to allow myself to be influenced by what I hope or believe today’s market wants or needs. Ernesto hopes to make something valuable by sheer design effort while I hope to do so by losing myself in solving many small, immediate problems.
A huge unexpected bonus for me on this trip was to learn that Ernesto is about to publish a book presenting his research into the origins and design of the violin family of instruments. He has uncovered a system of proportion that not only describes the essential dimensions of the violin, it also convincingly shows that the designs of the violin, viola and cello are part of the same system of proportion. Look out for this book due to be published in four languages around the end of the year. It will definitely shake up the debate on the design principles of the violin.
Ernesto Ramirez: The X File of the Violin – Perfect symmetry or optimal sound.
Given this sudden wealth of new ideas, of course I had to try some out for myself! in his book Ernesto uses the Conte Vitale, 1676, by Andrea Guarnieri to demonstrate viola design. I had planned to make a viola so I adopted this model and built it incorporating many of Ernesto’s ideas.
Using a skeleton mold it was easy to start converting Ernesto’s working diagram into a viola. [Details of the drawing purposely obscured……you need to buy this essential book!]
The fruits of our labors: A Storioni mode violin and an Andrea Guarnieri viola incorporating some of Ernesto’s design principals. To be honest the finished viola would be indistinguishable from one derived by careful dimensional copying, but I think that incorporating a broader principal of design perhaps gives the finished instrument a little more strength. it certainly made the creative process more interesting to me as a builder.
Ernesto started his professional life as an orchestral bassist, playing in Mexico City and Brussels. In the 1980’s, after being inspired by the idea of becoming an violin maker, he joined Paul Hart in setting up a violin making school in Mexico City, becoming its first student. For many years he ran Mexico City’s premier violin shop, supplying and servicing instruments. These days he and his wife Waltraud run the thriving violin parts supply business Viola da Ganga out of their house in the City. (Ganga = Bargain in Spanish). Ernesto has largely retired from dealing and servicing violins and he devotes himself to historical research and to the search for the Holy Grail: making the perfect violin.
In Mexico City
I also met up with my friend, violin maker Claudia Reynoso, who was preparing to leave on her own, even more exotic, violin making expedition to Patagonia to maintain instruments there.
Claudia says that she has come to see violin making as a lens through which to experience the world rather than an end in itself. Right on!