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Saturday morning quotes 5.6: What’s in a name?

June 27, 2015

“What? in a names that which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete…”

– Shakespeare, The Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii, First Folio, 1623

In an attempt to uncover information about American luthier Robert Meadows, I stumbled across an enlightening discussion touching on the topic of monetary versus intrinsic value of musical instruments, a subjective matter with a seeping relevance that permeates our excessively brand-conscious world.

Meadows, who built some very fine lutes in the 1980s, appears to have focused his attention and skills on building violins.  A particular violinist who tried one of his instruments practically burst, gushing about the violin’s tone and overall quality, but just could not bring himself to pay the asking price simply because the maker’s name was not as familiar as some.  Amusingly, the violinist’s remarks alternate between effusing about the instrument—which he obviously covets—and carping about the price.  Words from Meadows, the maker, are woven into the discussion; appropriately respectful and restrained remarks rightly expressing confusion as to the violinist’s motives.

Of course this obsession with brand names is not a new concept.  Gioseffo Zarlino (1517 – 1590), author of the important treatise Le istitutioni harmoniche (1558), described a particularly striking historical example.  Zarlino’s teacher, the famous Adriano Willaert (c.1490 – 1562), encountered the stigma of branding when singers in the Papal Chapel discovered that he was the composer of a piece that had been mistakenly attributed to Josquin:

“I shall now relate what I have heard said many times about the most excellent Adrian Willaert, namely, that a motet for six voices, Verbum bonum et suave, sung under the name of Josquin in the Papal Chapel in Rome almost every feast of Our Lady, was considered one of the most beautiful compositions sung in those days. When Willaert came from Flanders to Rome at the time of Leo X and found himself at the place where this motet was being sung, he saw that it was ascribed to Josquin. When he said that it was his own, as it really was, so great was the malignity or (to put it more mildly) the ignorance of the singers, that they never wanted to sing it again.”

Leaping across time and genre to personal experience, I recall a story related by the legendary Piedmont singer-guitarist, John Jackson. I was driving Jackson on tour, taking care of the details, attempting to keep him on schedule, and reveling in many hours of playing music with him in hotel rooms.  Jackson had a winning personality, a charming rural Virginian accent, and a disarming way with all.  While his press cast him as a rustic Virginia gravedigger, he was actually an astute businessman who confided that he owned two backhoes and drove a very comfortable Lincoln.  On tour, he publicly chided me for hiding my light under a bushel and kept asking me to join him on stage at the end of his concerts.  Although he liked my guitar, a 1940’s Martin 000-18, he decidedly preferred his large, sturdy, dependable, well-worn Gibson.

One evening, Jackson recounted a story about a young man who lived in his neighborhood who “liked to come around and play a bit.”  The budding guitarist showed up one day with a brand-new Martin D-28, a modern replica of their earlier models with lighter bracing and herringbone purfling around the edge of the soundboard.  Jackson immediately saw the real and potential faults in such a lightly-built instrument, but when he pointed them out the response was, “But John, it’s a Martin Herringbone.”  Soon thereafter the soundboard began to bulge and the neck began to warp and twist rendering the instrument nearly unplayable.  Still, the guitarist would brook no criticism saying, “But John, it’s a Martin Herringbone.”

The fantasy-based world of early music is certainly not immune to brand-consciousness within its hellishly small concentric circles.  It has been a longstanding convention for recording artists to name the instrument maker—and even string maker—on CD liner notes. Years ago when the early music revival was in its infancy, this convention had relevance by drawing deserved attention to the burgeoning craftsmen and women who were producing very fine replicas of old instruments, and working toward imitating the substance and character of old strings.  Such acknowledgement amounted to discreet advertising and helped support the budding careers of luthiers, enabling them to eat regular meals and refine their skills on the income realized through new orders (kudos to those luthiers who still regularly produce instruments on spec). But today this convention seems to have devolved into pointless boasting, banking on faux credibility gained by crowing that the recording musician owns an expensive and hard-to-get instrument built by a top luthier with a ten-year waiting list.

The fact is that many established instrument builders, not unlike the entrenched cadre of tenaciously-rooted and unyielding academics/musicians, are doing well enough at this point in time, and there needs to be a real opportunity all around for the sun to shine on a few new faces.  An egregious example that illustrates marginalization of musicians, and a particularly demeaning exercise in doublespeak: Even well-known musicians who dwell outside of the inner circle are deliberately kept firmly on the “fringe” at famous early music festivals, where they are invited to pay their own travel and lodging, find and rent their own venue, do all their own publicity, and pay a large sum for a miniscule advert in the festival brochure.  I don’t think so.  Did these people study con artistry with PT Barnum?  To all who inquire as to why we aren’t more famous, this is just the sort of rot we are up against in the US.

Early music festivals also figure among the scant opportunities for luthiers to display their wares—for a significant registration fee. There are many lesser-known instrument makers out there who build very fine instruments.  But their reputations will never have a chance to flourish without a legitimate opportunity to get their instruments out into the world.  Perhaps giving new builders recognition is the only valid argument today for liner notes acknowledging the instrument builder who, just like the lesser-known musician, is turning out a very high quality product but who is sadly marginalized simply by lacking name recognition.

Or perhaps it’s a moot point since CDs have rapidly become a thing of the past, and streaming with its ephemeral, context-less and valueless anonymity, the wave of the future.  But one important historical tradition today’s culture is blithely ignoring is that of the older and wiser specialists mentoring the young and promising, then stepping aside.  Perhaps some of early music’s more prominent musicians/academics and luthiers should consider this aspect of professionalism in scholarship and authenticity in craftwork and performance practice.  And pay heed to the wise words of the Reverend when he says, “You got to move.”

2 Comments
  1. When I was much younger ( think 1970) I was in a classical guitar workshop where one of the participants came up to perform and pulled out his guitar a 1968 Ramirez 1A. Everyone oohed and awwed that he had a Ramirez., the instrument of choice for the grand Maestro Segovia ! He played ,and received his share of praise and criticism.A few weeks later in a discussion about instruments I remarked about the wonderful instrument this player had to my instructor. My instructor laughed and then then said ” but did you hear how he played?”.
    Contrast that with the day the great Argentinian guitarist Enrique Correa came to visit. In my shop at the time there was a cheap Japanese guitar that I was fixing for a local client. When I say cheap I mean cheap, a pig of a guitar. Enrique casually picked it up and started to play Bach, Venezualan Waltzes, and Guiliani. It was pure magic for a the next half hour.
    These two events have stayed with me all my playing days. It’s not what you play but how you play or to put it into my my favorite aphorism : It’s the witch, not the wand.”

  2. Thanks, Mel. There’s nothing I can add to your perfect summation. But since you didn’t, I can add a link to your site here where, had I been keeping up, I would have seen I’ve pilfered the title to today’s post.

    http://www.blackbirdstringarts.com/

    To utterly blend metaphors, there’s nothing new under the sun except disinfected darkness.

    RA

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