What prompted you to build instruments and what role should instrument builders have in shaping the future of music? Charles J. Rufino



Charles Rufino
Photo by Michael Vann

Questions like this have kept me occupied for many a quiet hour since I entered this field. How did I wind up doing this wonderful work? What winding and curious path led me to my present life? What meaning does this work have in a larger sense? Recently, while carving a scroll for a new violin, I had a chance to slow down and reflect on these questions. Making great instruments takes a certain amount of intellect, but a lot more heart, so you have plenty of spare mental capacity, along with time, to think.

My initial response was that I came to this through a great love of woodworking wedded to an equally great love of music. But I felt some deeper motivation to be at work in me. It’s easy to daydream about being successful in any field, but understanding why one will endure the cost of achieving that dream is where the truly interesting stuff is to be found. Hard work and disappointment, like revenge, is a dish best tasted cold.

One clue came from my former life: before my apprenticeship as a violinmaker began, I was pursuing a degree in classics and history at New York University, though some of my former professors, including the great F.E. Peters might have disputed my choice of verb. Ancient things that have lasted down the centuries have always fascinated me, and the mysterious, obscure history, and fascinating lore of the violin could keep any history buff busy for years.

Isn’t it intriguing that people have always found “classics” perennially valuable and true? What is it about these artifacts of distant times and places that draw people to them? Undeniably there is an inherent beauty you recognize when you experience one of Plutarch’s Lives, a violin made in the 17th Century, or a Beethoven piano sonata. But there is also, I believe, a charm in their very antiquity that validates them and makes us curious to experience and know them. The first time I listened to the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, I could hardly wait for it to be done. But my love and regard for Beethoven’s music impelled me to buy the LP and play it every morning while getting ready for work. After several months I began to notice a change in my appreciation of the piece; it began to speak to me, just as I trusted it would. Do you have any doubt that it, or other “classics,” will do the same for others long after we have gone on to a better life?

Another element is my intense curiosity about how things work, and how they will be different after I experiment and play with them a bit. When I was very young my poor parents must have sometimes felt they had brought the Sorcerer’s Apprentice into the world; I was forever fixing and mixing things to “improve” them. I still get kidded about the odd things I did. There was the time I straightened the grapefruit knife, and my grade-school habit of combining a little bit of every liquid in the refrigerator to confect a “pick-me-up” tonic. This ended after a particularly vile concoction persuaded me that I had reached the practical limits of that avenue of enquiry. I still do this to some degree when I experiment and combine ingredients to make varnishes—I just don’t judge the result by taste.

So when I was looking for something important to do with my life after leaving NYU, I went on a pilgrimage. I was hungry for experience in different fields and wanted to learn how to make all sorts of things by hand from raw materials. I worked briefly as a machinist and carpenter, and considered woodcarving and furniture making. Somehow I came to understand I was looking for a more mysterious work—that of the artist. I remember saying out loud in a moment of epiphany, “What I really want is to have a real tough apprenticeship with a real tough master, somebody who really knows his stuff, secret stuff that you can’t learn by just reading a book.” Be careful what you ask for, Grasshopper. I had heard this before, but was I ever going to learn what it meant?

A furniture maker told me once he would not enjoy making the same violin over and over, and I immediately felt he somehow missed the point. I might use an identical pattern and even wood from the same individual trees, but it would never be the same violin. Musical instruments have to vibrate and sing as well as be visually beautiful, and bringing that mystery to life is a recipe, rather than a formula. You can never get it right unless you are totally present and alive to the experience, just like a musician cannot bring music to life by rote.

The final hidden delight must be that I love when my work gives musicians a thrill. When a player, after years of searching all over for their dream, tries out one of my instruments and gets that “WOW” look in their eyes, it’s a sublime moment. It’s like listening to my daughter, a published poet, reading her latest work. I fill up with joy and pride all mixed up until I want to bust…it’s my kid!

The human contact is especially rewarding because I spend most of my work time alone and in silence. I know just how writers feel when they talk about their lonely working lives; my universe is usually about an arm’s length across, a piece of wood in my immediate field of vision, and a scattering of tools and wood chips. At the end of a work week, I often like to go out to a loud and noisy place just to see people and hear the noise of humanity.

Have you ever seen a book about the work of a particular violinmaker? There will be a certain amount of text and then page after page of photographs of instruments, stiff mug shots that usually left me bored stiff. I never could understand why until recently. I was perusing a book about the work of Stradivari and I came upon a photograph of David Oistrakh holding his Strad upright in his lap and tuning it. His chubby hands, the hands that played it and brought it to life, are caressing the instrument, his crinkle-eyed full face beaming at his treasure. I have never seen a more beautiful photograph of a violin. It was so different from the usual static, glamorous-Barbie-doll-head-shot of a violin. It was just a tiny toy in his big hands, and the emotional focus was the human being in the photo, and the humanity that the instrument allowed the artist to express. A trinity: the musician, the instrument, and the relationship between the two. I find making this trinity possible to be irresistible.

I still love getting lost in wonder about every new instrument, the infinite possibilities of construction it presents, and the river of history and time we both inhabit. How long will this instrument exist, in whose hands will it be centuries from now? What I am going to find when I start looking for the violin I know is hidden in here somewhere? How might I improve on the last instrument I completed? Can I make lightning strike twice in the same spot with this new set of wood so very similar to the instrument I completed 5 years ago? Who is the unknown musician who will come in one day, months from now, play this instrument-to-be and fall in love with it? What brought me to instrument making in the first place is not that far from what keeps me here: it looked like a lot of fun, and has never been boring for long.

To address the role instrument makers could play in shaping the future of music, I’d start by qualifying this question to limit it to mainstream professional instrument makers. For example, Harry Partch, whom I just love, is not in this category. In my university days I thought he was a maker of cool instruments, as a young maker I thought he was a maker of silly instruments, and now I think he is primarily a composer who had special ideas about music. I want to consider people who are instrument makers, first and foremost.

I want to contribute by shaping the direction of music from the “center of the flood rather than the edge of the strand.” There are makers who speak about the acoustic research that helps them make their oh-so-fabulous violins, but then they state their ultimate goal is to create a new instrument, something the world has never seen. Well, say I, good luck. The results of these endeavors usually remind me of Victorian art forgeries that leave you wondering how anyone could have been fooled. The prejudices of the time, once invisible, gradually become glaring, illuminating the limits of thinking. It often restricts our experience to a limited reality filtered through our beliefs. Once those beliefs are taken away the world changes and a new generation laughs at the result we were so proud of.

In the 19th century, academics were always arguing about “who invented the violin,” generally along nationalistic lines. In the 20th century, serious research indicated that it developed organically from the needs of musicians over many years until a general set of characteristics emerged sometime around 1500. Just as no one person could have “invented” the violin by thinking it up, nobody in my field can shape the future of music by doing the same. People might try to do so, but who is going to want to listen to the result?

As you may suspect, I have been struggling to put thinking into its proper place for many years. My instrument making started to mature when I allowed it to become soul work rather than brain work. The many hours of simple motions being repeated over and over allow the unconscious mind to come out and play and gradually uncover the instrument hidden in the tree. Remember that whole “wax on…wax off” scene from The Karate Kid? It’s a great lesson many of us need to remember over and over again.

I read somewhere that the philosopher Spinoza supported himself by being a maker of optical lenses, grinding them by hand for countless hours, and complaining about having to do physical work to be able to eat. Beyond that, I don’t know anything about Spinoza, but I do suspect that his philosophical work was improved by his time at the workbench. Sometimes when I am deeply involved in an instrument, making one of the cuts among hundreds of thousands I remember this and smile inside. Having the time to think while moving the hands is a great way to free up the mind to let the really important work get done.

In earlier times, musicians, composers, and instrument makers had much closer contact with and influence on one another. We can easily imagine a violinist in the early 1700s visiting Guarneri or Stradivari and discussing the latest concerto being written for a royal performance. The violinist fidgeting awkwardly until he screws up his courage and says “I love the violin you made for me, it sings like a bird, a bell, a flute. But, a thousand pardons, I compared it to this older, crude violino primitivo of 150 years ago. The tone of the older one has so much power, even if it is not so pretty, and I find it harder to be heard with the new music being written today. Can you get a little more of what this old instrument can do into a new violin?” This is the manner in which I seek to influence music.

Collaboration with musicians has been one of the most important aspects in the evolution of my work. Nothing makes me sit up and pay attention as when a trusted friend tells me that they wish they could have something more in the tone or in one area of the range of an instrument I made. And I am hoping that one day there may be a further collaboration between musician, composer, and me. In an unintentional way the music world has seen this in recent decades; some of those pieces written by Soviet composers for musicians who only played on steel strings just sound wrong on instruments set-up with gut strings.

I especially look forward to someday being part of the discussions when a concerto is written—the kind of discussions that Brahms had with Joachim when composing the Concerto for Violin—to explore what musical effects would be possible to achieve. The musician usually makes suggestions about the playability of the virtuosic parts or how some material might be more effective played on a different string. I can easily imagine my contribution could be an exploration of writing for different registers, normally unavailable due to tonal constraints.

This dream was inspired by performance I heard some years ago in Aspen. Ralph Kirschbaum was performing in one of the Brahms piano quartets and I was flabbergasted by the sound of his (Montagnana) cello; at one spot the piano had the main part and the violin and viola passed a second theme back and forth. The cello had a simple bass line underneath all that other music that sounded like thunder and lightning combined into one—a rumble that sizzled and crackled, an astonishing effect. I began chasing that sound and believe I am getting close to what I experienced that day.

That experience gave me an idea to go in a new direction, and no longer seek to justify my work by how closely I could adhere to the dimensions of existing masterworks. I would design a matched quartet of instruments in the manner of the Italian masters, adhering to classical principles, but adapted to modern musical necessities. I would no longer make copies of the work of different makers. This may not sound like much to many other creative artists, but it was sacrilege when I was growing up in the trade. The words of one of my mentors told me many years ago would haunt me for mony an mony a wearie nicht, “Before you try to do better than the Old Italian masters, start by trying to do as well as them.”

And then came the Dark Night of the Soul when, cast off from familiar moorings, thoughts very different from sunny musings about David Oistrakh visited. “What does it mean to be a maker of wooden acoustic instruments in a digital age? Am I a Dr. Frankenstein trying to revive the woolly mammoth? Is it the punch line of an epochal cosmic joke that mastodon ivory is replacing the elephant ivory banned from international commerce? Why, if I want to be an artist and create things, am I fooling around with an artifact that had its golden age between 1705 and 1750? And am I really an artist if I am just making violins: are violins art or artistic craft? Do I want to be famous now or 100 years after I am dead? How the heck do I achieve either?”

When the turbulence subsided and the simple plodding humility and calm returned, I came to a place of philosophical peace. I thought of the fabulous collection of master musical instruments in Washington,D.C., at the Library of Congress. Side by side with instruments celebrated in their own right, the former possessions of musical giants and royalty, are obsolete instruments no longer in common use. Wonderful objects, contemporary with the work of Guarneri and Stradivari, crafted with infinite skill and artistry, but ignored as also-rans by all but the most devoted musicologists. There is no way to guarantee a place in history. I can only try to do my best for the community of musicians alive today and strive to belong to my own time. “I am just a servant of the music,” I once heard a great musician say. I was thunderstruck: what a blessed way to look at my own work. “I am just a servant of the musicians and the wood.” The musicians I serve and the wood with which I contend. It sounds corny written down here but it has worked for me in the trenches.

One result of the above process of gestation is a story that gives me great pleasure to relate. I was invited to Avery Fisher Hall by the Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. A student of his had won an important competition, which carried the prize of performing with a dozen or so major orchestras, and needed a serious solo instrument. I was invited to compete against several Italian instruments of stratospheric price and out of his price range. We met on stage and I handed over my instruments. As I walked to the rear of the orchestra seats to better judge the sound, I mused, “What a dream come true, to hear my instruments played by this great man in this great hall.”

The student sat by me, the Concertmaster played. When my violins were played the student kept saying under his breath, “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it!” Mine were the clear winners, absolutely no contest. Then the student asked that my instrument be compared to the teacher’s Guarneri, an early Del Gesu. Oh great, I thought, just when things were going so well, my Brand New Fiddle is going to be upstaged by this Old Master Violin. But my instrument sounded just as well as one nearly 300 years old, worth millions of dollars. Soon after, the student purchased one of my instruments and did his round of concerts to great acclaim. My violin is the instrument upon which he concertizes to this day.

What new directions do I see for my work? I remember the injunction of my former master not to try to top the old masters until you have equaled them, and now I think I have earned the right to try. My newest instruments are producing greater power and beauty of tone than I have ever achieved before, and are being purchased as soon as they are completed. My most recent violin went to the third person who played upon it. Being validated by musicians is all I have ever wanted and I am confident that even finer instruments will be coming out of my studio.

How do I feel I can best contribute to the future of music? By fulfilling the needs of musicians, making great instruments that play as well as antique instruments. As the Old Master instruments become increasingly rare and only available to rich institutions or corporations, my instruments will be available for musicians to play on instruments of equal merit. Instruments that, I trust, will be used for centuries to come.