Jack Devereux: Strings of Life (Part Two)

Continued from Part One

The Right Way
There’s a great deal of history wrapped up in the art of fiddle-making, but Devereux’s perspective on the subject is of a decidedly practical sort. While emphasizing that developing the required skills calls for a lot of what he calls “ass-in-seat time,” he says that there’s a lot of manufactured mystique. It helps sell fiddles if people don’t know how it’s done, he says. “And that’s been going on forever.”

After recounting a concise, condensed description of how the art began, he sums it up with an observation. “These guys were working in Italy in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries,” he says. “And they kinda got it right.” But because the knowledge was kept mostly secret by those early figures like Antonio Stradivari, Guiarneri del Gesù and the Amati family, some of that knowledge was lost.

“I think that’s where all that smoke-and-mirrors stuff comes from,” Devereux says. But today, passed-down tradition and modern technology have come together, he believes, to create what he calls “a second golden era of violin making.” In the past, dealers were very guarded about sharing information concerning instruments and builders. But today, Devereux says, there exists a kind of reverse-engineering technology that allows for intense analysis of the techniques used to build classic instruments. “The trade is much more open than it used to be,” he says.

For many generations, new violins were very much second-class citizens in the music world. But Devereux believes that some builders working today are crafting instruments that are “as good as the old Italian stuff.”

As a modern-day violin maker, Devereux owns up to a bit of bias on that subject. But he cites some recent high-profile tests. “A few acousticians, violin makers and physical scientists have gotten together and done ‘blind shootouts’ between a $5 million Stradivarius and a new, high-end instrument,” he says. “And the new instruments tend to pretty resoundingly sweep the field.”

It does seem that for the most part, today’s fiddle makers are doing their best to emulate the classic violins of old; there’s not a lot of wheel-reinvention taking place in the field. “I think there’s something cool about a traditional art form,” Devereux says, “about trying to be as expressive as possible while limiting yourself to the constraints of that form.”

Devereux sees that mindset at work not only in the building of instruments, but in the actual music-making. “I came out of a background of playing traditional music,” he notes. “Playing old time music, bluegrass and Irish music – and jazz is sometimes this way too – is about seeing how you can be expressive within a pretty constrained art form.”

But one can only take things so far. “If you change old time music,” he observes, “at a certain point it stops being old time music.” And Devereux believes the same is true in fiddle-making. “There are certain people ‘innovating,’ and that’s cool,” he says. “But for me, it’s a question of, ‘What did those Italian guys do? How do I come to understand it better?’ And that’s an ongoing struggle. Because there’s a right way.”

For his part, Jack Devereux draws some wisdom from Eastern tradition. “I’m interested in the Japanese philosophy of paring away unnecessary stuff to get at the essence of the instrument,” he says. Concerned that he’s wandering too deeply into uncharted waters, he hastens to add, “I’m going to get myself into trouble here, because I don’t understand this stuff that well. But there’s the Wabi-sabi idea that no matter what you make, if you do it in an intentional way, it’s going to have some character.”

He waxes poetic about the balance and tension between technical ability and emotive expression. Devereux says that whether it’s making violins, playing music – or any creative pursuit, for that matter – “You have to have some reason for doing it. It’s about understanding the medium, and then finding a place and a voice within that.”

With regard at least to violin-making, it’s worth wondering how an artisan expresses his or her own individuality when the goal is emulation of that which has been done before. “I don’t have to think too hard about it,” Devereux admits. “The thing is, my fiddles are going to look and sound like my fiddles, no matter what.”

The setbacks Devereux experiences in his art tend to be the kind from which he can recover. “There’s a constant battle of things like operator error,” he explains, “sawing a piece of wood too short, and that kind of stuff.” But those problems are more than offset by a sense that he’s always learning, always improving. “My output is being lapped by my study,” he says. And with every violin he completes, he knows that the next one will be even better. That desire to know more and do better is what drives Jack Devereux every day.

Geometric Extrapolation
Guitar aficionados prize early instruments like a 1937 Martin D28; when one surfaces on the market, it can change hands for well over $60,000. But guitars and violins are vastly different, says Devereux. “The D28 was a product that was standardized. They do have plenty of variation in them, but the goal was always standardization,” he says. “With what we – and the people we learn from and emulate – do, that’s never part of the equation.”

To illustrate, Devereux picks up a custom-made plywood violin body mold that’s been sitting on his work surface. “I start with this mold; the template is symmetrical. I put the wood on here and trace it and cut it out. But then the ribs [sides] get bent around the template.” He says that the ribs dictate the final shape, rather than the other way around. “So there’s always going to be some ‘lumpiness,’” he says. “Even when you look at old violins, there’s ‘wobble’ in there.” To phrase it in modern terms, that wobble – that individual character – is a feature, not a bug.

There does exist a kind of production-model violin, made in China. “Those are made in a manufacturing setting,” Devereux explains. That approach uses a mold for the ribs. “All the tops and backs get cut out the same shape,” he says, “and they all go together: bang, bang, bang.”

Devereux’s method is at once less precise and more elegant. But it, too, is based on accuracy. With the help of a friend at the Library of Congress (“he does the care and feeding of their musical instrument collection,” Devereux explains), he acquired photographic copies of historically significant violins. “There’s a geometric rationale behind it,” he says. “Knowing just the length of the body, you can extrapolate the whole shape with only a compass and a straightedge.”

He explains that up until the Age of Enlightenment, mathematics was often approached as a series of ratios, rather than specific measurements. “You can read all these treatises about building most anything during the Medieval to early Renaissance,” he says with a knowing smile, “and there’s a lot of incredible geometric extrapolation. It’s less about the numbers. It’s more about, ‘This is one-seventh of that.’” That kind of analog beauty (as opposed to digital exactitude) is a key to the elegance of artisan-built violins.

Devereux happily embraces the fact that even with this approach, there’s what he likens to “photocopy error.” No matter how precise one tries to be, when an artisan builds a fiddle, no two are ever quite the same.

It’s little surprise then, to learn that Devereux is deeply immersed in his chosen profession. “It’s such a cliché, but this is what I go to bed thinking about, and it’s what I wake up thinking about, too,” he says. “I have this great job. I get to go visit other violin makers.” On occasion he has to summon his inner discipline to focus on the task at hand, but as a rule, he says, “I just like thinking about this stuff, and then working on it.”

Devereux has achieved a kind of life balance by making time for live musical performance. His distaste for touring largely dissipated when he joined Town Mountain, one of his all-time favorite bands. As a result, a typical work day for Devereux can involve both sides of his livelihoods. “I’m in this weird place now where I’m touring a lot,” he says. “I love it, and I love the band, but at the same time, it’s tough.” The evening before our conversation, he had driven home from a run of Town Mountain gigs, arriving home at 6:30 p.m. “I got home and thought, ‘It’s been three days since I’ve been in the shop!’ And then I was here in the shop until 11.”

Between making instruments and playing music with Town Mountain, Devereux has little time for other pursuits. “I really don’t do anything else,” he says.

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