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Saturday morning quotes 7.52: Artist at work

August 22, 2020


Several years ago we spotted an advert in an old issue of Early Music that illustrated a young man making lutes in a workshop course that purported to teach the luthier’s craft.  Since we knew that luthier Stephen Barber had studied at the same workshop, we wrote to ask if perhaps it was he in the photo.  It turned out that it was someone else, and to prove the point, Stephen and Sandi sent the photo on this page, illustrating a very focused Stephen at work, skillfully coercing a collection of thin strips of exotic wood to conform to the shape of a lute, circa 1980.

Stephen and his equally skilled partner Sandi Harris have been constructing a variety of plucked-string instruments based on historical models for well over forty years.  The team gained a breadth of knowledge of lute-making by visiting museums throughout the UK and Europe and taking painstaking measurements of surviving historical lutes. Together they have crafted instruments for nearly all of the top professionals in the field, but they are also responsive to less exalted aficionados who appreciate the team’s characteristic combination of artistic quality, practical utility, and attention to detail.  Sandi and Stephen are responsible for crafting the beautiful bass lute that features prominently in many of our performances.

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Bass lute modeled after Hans Frei, c. 1520, by Sandi Harris & Stephen Barber

Separated by an ocean, we have kept in occasional touch over the past fifteen years, sometimes sharing lute stories, such as the time we were interviewed live on air by a classical radio announcer who was so taken by the beauty of the lute depicted above that he was rendered speechless in the middle of the interview.  We actually had to head off the dreaded radio studio dead-air time to remind him that we were there to play live for his audience. 

One of the stories Stephen shared was about the legendary folk guitarist John Renbourn (1944 – 2015), honoring his memory just after his untimely passing.  Stephen related an endearing post-concert story that offered a glimpse of Renbourn’s personal habits and musical proclivities.

“John drove us all home from the gig in his battered white Mercedes 190SL, a comedy drive across London, oblivious of speed limits and quite a few traffic lights . . . we weren’t sure if the groaning, rattling chassis was going to make it – the car, that is –  but John swore it would (and swore at it a few times too). The conversation during the drive centred on John’s desire to acquire an orpharion at some stage, he’d always wanted to get his hands on one, and having heard a recording of Paul O’Dette playing on a 7c orpharion we’d made him, said he really wanted to try one of these instruments, feeling he may well find affinity with its metal stringing and touch. Back at Dave’s flat, the Glenmorangie came out, and we staggered home at around 4am. John came to the workshop a few weeks later, and we talked long about orpharions and bandoras, we showed him various moulds and the research material we had, along with photos of examples we’d made over the years. Sadly, we never got to!”

– Stephen Barber, correspondence from 2015

For decades, Stephen and Sandi have dedicated their lives to building fine instruments that make it possible for many early music practitioners to share the ethereal sounds of ancient music with their audiences; sounds we think offer an essential respite from the mad technocratic bubble that is the world today.  Like us, Stephen and Sandi are artists who survive on their work, as opposed to many who practice their art only because they have other means.  Over the past several years Stephen and Sandi have encountered very difficult health circumstances that have resulted in serious impediments to their ability to carry on with work, a situation we can readily understand. 

Professional lutenist and generous soul Lynda Sayce has very kindly set up a campaign to assist Sandi and Stephen with the overwhelming task of finding an alternative wheelchair-accessible workshop and moving their many years’ accumulation of specialty tools and timbers to a new location, enabling Sandi to continue their work.

Please visit the campaign and also the video channel where you can see a descriptive video produced by Lynda that lays out the situation in detail.  Lynda has also begun posting a curated collection of videos offered by those of us who wish to honor Stephen and Sandi’s artistic contribution to our widely scattered international community of lute-fanciers and early music enthusiasts. The collection currently features a characteristically sublime performance by Nigel North and, as of now, duo Mignarda.  Our performances feature the beautiful bass lute crafted for us by Sandi and Stephen, depicted above. 



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