Martin Schleske lives just outside of Munich. From the age of 7, he studied the violin, then violinmaking, and then physics, completing his thesis on the topic ‘Eigenmodes of vibration in the creation of a violin’. Today he is one of the most highly respected violinmakers in the world. In his book Der Klang, first published in 2010, Schleske describes the ways that the violinmaker must yield to the composition of the wood before they can begin to reshape it into a violin’s body. To find that right wood – the best ‘singer trunks’ – Schleske would often spend months on end seeking the truest tree by tapping on them with a tuning fork. The violinmaker chooses seasoned timber – trees formed by rough weather, winds, and meagre ground, and where the knots and cracks add to rather than subtract from the character of the wood. Such trees, as Jim Gordon noted, bear witness to the resilience and to the kind of elasticity required to create the curved sides that the best violins call for. They witness to the possibility of lives lived ‘without pressure warping [their] integrity’; of lives that ‘bear stress without splitting’; of lives that ‘survive intact and strong’ through the seasons of life. So Schleske:
A good violin builder respects the texture of the wood and under their fingers feels the character, the solidity and density. This shows the builder both the possibilities and the limits of the wood. Each of this wood’s quirks and characteristics has an influence on the sound it will bring forth.
It is nature’s cruelty that shapes the best-sounding wood. As Schleske puts it: ‘every hardship the tree experiences, make the roots go deeper and the structural fibres stronger’. The best-sounding wood is discovered not made, and after being cut down is then stored for many years in the artist’s workshop where the heat and humidity levels are carefully monitored, until such time as it is ready to be shaped into the body of a violin. Here is where the true work of the craftsperson comes to the fore, for the best violin makers are those who resist the temptation to force their own perceptions, or forms, or laws onto the wood through being fixated on some ‘ideal’ or ‘right’ shape. Instead, they see something else; they follow the wisdom given in the timber’s own history as it is carried in the wood’s fibres, honouring what is crooked, exercising care to not cut in the wrong places or a direction that would dishonour the grain, and knowing both the possibilities and the limits of the material in their hands. The goal, after all, is to so form the instrument that it sings with its own voice. What makes it an act of loving creation is that it is not the wood that capitulates to the artist, but the artist who consents to the wood. It is the difference between forcing an agenda and living with a promise, between subjection and interlocution, between working upon and working with.