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Instrument makers improvise on the strings of tradition

| Sunday, April 4, 2010

Joe Knight is blind in one eye. At 74, he's a bit hunched over from more than 40 years working in residential construction, and his wife's health is a concern.

But, almost every day, he escapes for a few hours to a small building behind his home in Clarion. Outside, there's a warning posted that the premises are watched by a video camera; inside, there are scraps and pieces of wood, sawdust and tools. It's much like any other workshop until Knight invites a visitor into a room that he keeps locked.

"You want to see my violins?" he says.

On two sets of shelves hang hand-crafted violins that gleam in the light. Even though Knight barely plays a few notes, and has not made a profit from this venture he started 14 years ago, this room is his refuge.

"I come down here as much as I can," Knight says.

Knight is a luthier, an artisan who makes or repairs stringed instruments. In an age when violins especially are increasingly being mass produced, notably in China to his dismay, Knight -- and his peers -- are throwbacks to another age.

"You are looking at 400 years of tradition here," says Robert Gordon III as he sits behind a worktable at his studio in Indiana County.

Gordon learned violin making from his father, Robert Gordon Jr. At his Indiana studio (he also has a workshop in his home in nearby Belsano, Indiana County), Gordon repairs and refurbishes stringed instruments, mostly violins and violas, along with the occasional cello or upright bass. Because making a violin by hand is labor-intensive -- Gordon estimates he works more than 200 hours on each instrument -- and because he needs to make a living via the repair work, he produces only two per year.

But his limited production is a point of pride.

"It's functional art," Gordon says, "and it's so wonderful to be a part of that. You have violins that are valuable because of who made them and the fact they are antiques. But that same violin, if it's still functioning well, it's really valuable. Now you have something you can't put a price on."

While Gordon and Knight are following in a tradition set by Italians Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and the Guarneri family (17th and 18th centuries), Tom Moran is not a typical luthier. Self-described as "disgruntled musician," the 53-year-old spends hours each week in the basement of his Squirrel Hill home crafting instruments that have no precedent. There's a miniature stringed piece with dulcimer fretting that has a cigar-box body. There's an electric oud made from bright, blue Masonite with a poplar frame that uses Danelectro technology from the 1950s. And there's an ant-lyre, a stringed instrument that's more of a conversation piece than anything else.

As a friend told Moran, "you might not be the first guy to make a harp out of deer antlers, but you're probably the first guy in 200 years."

Moran has no clientele, no marketing scheme, nothing but a desire to make instruments that create sounds he hears, but cannot reproduce.

"I'd be listening to West African music and think those ngonis sound great," he says of the small stringed instruments indigenous to that part of the world. "But it's not like you can go to a ngoni center. ... Then I thought, I could make this stuff."

Moran studied with Alex Meleshenko, a luthier and guitar maker from Forest Hills, before he began working on his own six years ago. Knight also had a tutor, of sorts: He learned by studying notes and manuals and using the tools left behind by his great uncle, Robert Knight, a jeweler who lived in Ludlow, McKean County. Looking for something to do after he retired 14 years ago when he tore a biceps in his arm, Joe Knight, who always was fascinated by music, decided to take up his great uncle's craft.

"It dawned on me that he probably wasn't any smarter than me," Knight says of relative. "There's gotta be a system. ... I thought I might as well make violins, I do everything else."

Since then, he has finished 59 violins, spending at least 200 hours on each one. He kept the first one he made in 1996 to remind himself "how dumb I was," but Knight has sold his creations to classical, country and bluegrass musicians from the region.

He has yet to make a penny on his work.

"To be honest, I've been doing this 14 years but I've yet to make a profit," Knight says.

While making money is nice, luthiers have another, less tangible reason for their craft. Ask Gordon how many hours per week he spends on the job, and he immediately replies, "I don't have a job. It's not a job. I never talk about going to my job. I'm either going to this studio or the other studio."

He also insists anybody can make a violin, just like anybody can sing if they care to. But to be able to make an instrument that sounds good is a gift.

"There's an innate skill that better makers have," Gordon says, "and a lot of it is marching to your own drummer. It's very hard. Everybody thinks 'oh, I have my own violin design.' But it's very hard to have your own design when you're looking at 400 years of tradition, because it's already been done. It's when you can synthesize all of these things into your own creation that you succeed."

Moran, whose background is industrial design, thinks playing guitar for 40 years allows him to design instruments that not only meet his needs, but can't be found in traditional stores.

"I was always the guy who would take his guitar apart and put it back together and tinker with it," he says. "After a while, I was sort of thinking things like, 'I wish I had something with drone strings on it.' From that sense of disgruntledness, it came to, 'I'll make it myself.' The only way I'll ever hear this is if I make it."

And yet, especially with the ouds he crafts, he's not trying to redefine the instrument.

"This is an American oud ," he says, referring to a shiny oud with the Danelectro tunings. "I'm not trying to reproduce Arabic stuff. I'm not Arabic. I'm just trying to learn, and I've had a lot of help from Arabic makers (via the Internet)."

Moran makes about two instruments per year, and would like to find the time to make more before he would possibly consider selling anything. Gordon, who donates time to the Indiana School District to repair and restring instruments, has a waiting list for his limited production of violins. He would like to find time to make more violins.

But Joe Knight has a storeroom full of violins waiting for the right hands. He's sure that they are of top quality, and better than any of the imports flooding the market, and he'll make a deal with any ensemble.

"I've got enough fiddles for a whole orchestra," he says. "I'd just like to hear sometime what it would sound like, 12 or 15 or 20 (being played at once). ... I'd give them two weeks to get used, to let them see the difference. If the conductor can't tell the difference, he ain't worth his salt as a conductor."

Additional Information:

Contact information

Strad Jr. Violin Shop, Joseph L. Knight, luthier, 70 N. 5th Ave., Clarion, PA 16214

Details: 814-221-7542

Robert Gordon III Violinmaker, 505 Gompers Ave., Suite 9, Indiana, PA 15701

Details: 724-463-3045 or Web site

Born Again Banjos, Tom Moran

Details: Web site

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