The Sheep and the Violin Maker
For centuries, instrumental strings have been made from sheep gut. Traditional production methods were practiced and improved over time as they were passed from master to apprentice.
It was only in the middle of the 20th century that the use of beef gut, which is the material primarily in use today, took over the workshops of most string manufacturers. Beef gut is cheaper, and unlike sheep gut, is easy to process with machines. Today, machines are also used to polish the strings to a standardized diameter. Therefore, artificial adhesives are sometimes used.
Musicians who witnessed the evolution from sheep to beef gut say that the musical sound produced by beef gut strings, which are much stiffer and less malleable, is not comparable to the sound produced by traditionally manufactured sheep gut strings.
Maybe also the use of artificial adhesives such as glue, which is often used in today‘s machine processing of strings, cause a loss of sound.
In recent decades, only a few string makers have continued to practice the craft traditionally, maintaining and keeping alive the old crafting methods. The very last „Saitenmachermeister“(a master of string production, a title given by the guild of string makers after years of practical experience), Wolfgang Frank, lives in Zwota, in the region of Markneukirchen, Germany, the former world trade hub of gut strings.
This dire situation prompted the University of the Arts Bern (HKB), Switzerland, to carry out a research project whose aim was to collect the existing knowledge from written and oral sources, as well as to secure and preserve Wolfgang Frank's wealth of experience. I was brought on board as a violin maker who specializes in historical instrument making. Or at least that was how it began.
Thanks to this project, I quickly realized that it makes little sense to build historical instruments if you then string them with beef gut strings produced with modern methods.
Therefore, I decided to learn the art of traditional string making myself and set out to develop a method that allows the recreation of truly historical strings.
In previous research projects, I made it a habit to throw my previous knowledge overboard so that I could examine and question new information and sources without bias.
I attempted to put myself in the shoes of the craftsman from 300 years ago and imagined how he viewed his creation and raw materials. I tried to emulate his spirit of research and experience the aroma of alchemy. So, I simply started researching and trying out every tiny, perhaps eccentric, or absurd idea.
The primary sources compiled by the HKB research project served as guidelines during my research. My friend and teacher, Wolfgang Frank, has been my mentor to this day on my journey.
This resulted in crazy recipes, initial successes, advancements, setbacks and countless repetitions of the same processes, countless tests of strings for tensile strength and sound quality.
I wanted to get as close as possible to the everyday practices of the old masters. Therefore, I decided to stop purchasing pre-cleaned intestinal material from gut dealers. Instead, I went to the slaughterhouse in Zurich and harvested, with my own hands, and guided by a professional gut - cleaner, casings from the belly of the sheep and cleaned them myself.
Stripping and scraping the fine, thin sheep intestine is an entire art in itself. No machine can do this with equal precision. Today I obtain my raw materials from a passionate, professional
gut cleaner whose craft is an old, love-filled family tradition. He is a true virtuoso in his field.
The process of pulling, stripping, and scraping the guts myself taught me something important.
I experienced how the fresh material decayed in my hands during the process. Due to this very practical experience, I am convinced that a majority of the aids implemented in both historic and modern string manufacturing processes, are used mainly for the disinfection of the intestines and the taming of the more unpleasant odors - not for the improvement of the sound as is widely assumed today.
During my apprenticeship with Wolfgang Frank, another thought grabbed me.
Would it be possible to recreate, by machine, the many facets of string-making that occur in regular intervals and are also necessary throughout night?
Would it be possible to design a machine with precise measurement and sensor technology that could perform the number of ideal twists at the ideal point in time? Can one automate something that has so far depended on the skillful hand and mind of the string maker?
Indeed, it is possible, it has succeeded, but the machine is not in use today. The machine was programmed and built by an engineer and is fully functional. During the development of the prototype, we made many experiments and measurements. Based on this data, I was able to gradually refine my manufacturing methods.
Today I produce my strings with nothing more than pure craftsmanship.
Now it is time so give big thanks to:
- Wolfgang and Tabea Frank, who welcomed me with open arms and shared with me their immense knowledge. Without them, there would be no ‘Wild’.
- Markus Ehrat Innovation-Mentor from Innosuisse, a visionary who kept the project running from the background with a practiced hand.
- The team of the Institute of Interpretation of the University of the Arts Bern: Martin Skamletz, Sabine Jud, Daniel Allenbach. They are the ones who made it possible to carry out this research project. http://www.hkb-interpretation.ch/news
- The team of the KTI (Innosuisse) research project: Kai Köpp, Jane Achtmann, Johannes Gebauer. They tirelessly searched for historical sources and sorted the findings. http://www.hkb-interpretation.ch/projekte/from-field-to-fiddle
- Bernhard Kainzbauer, who has tackled the idiosyncrasies of computers in order to tame them.
- Davide Monti, the incredible violinist who plays my strings in the most extraordinary way. (Listen to his music in the image video, La Petenera with Acorte Musical)http://www.arparla.it. www.helicona.it
- KONI, the imaginative artist from Linz. By chance, I stumbled into her studio. http://www.koni-oberhauser.atSpontaneously, she gave me a gift. This was how the image of the Wild Sheep arrived to my strings.
- Manuel Diepold, the brilliant filmmaker, who managed to capture the sound of our string on film.
- Florian Kofler, the cellist, who bravely plunged into the traditional craft of string-making, learned it with devotion, and will carry it safely and carefully into the future.
- Theresia Kainzbauer, my partner, who carried me through all the ups and downs of this project.
- Julia Falkner from Seccoso, for the wonderful design and professional creation of our website. http://www.secoso.at
- And all who cannot be named here. You busy translators, string testers, friends and family. Thanks for being on the ball, your work, and your patience.