Category Archives: Music
I had the opportunity earlier this year of observing Luthier and master craftsman, James Beatley, at work.
Below are some of the images I took (click on them for the bigger versions) and some questions that James was also kind enough to answer for me to give us a better insight into the process that sees him produce such exceptional instruments at his workshop in his home in Stoneybatter.
What drove you to make your first instrument?
When I was in my early 20s, I was playing the tenor banjo. I had heard about the short scale banjo, which would be better suited to my style of playing. Back then (pre Internet) it was very difficult to find one in Ireland. After a few years searching with no luck I decided to make one. This was a journey which took me three years to complete – the main problem was sourcing materials. Now it is so easy just Google.
What finally inspired you to make the jump from mechanical engineering to become a full-time Luthier?
There are lots of reasons. Having been making instruments for about 15 years as a hobby I desired to take the making to a higher level. I wanted to learn more about restoration of instruments too. My job with the ESB had undergone a massive restructuring, which would have left me at the same level until retirement. It was time to go.
Almost all the instruments I make are after classical Italian makers from Anno 1700. I make the instruments in the same method and use the same tools as were used then. Nothing really has changed except sometimes I would use some modern tools, both mechanical and electronic, to make more exact measurements. For example, when making a front or back of a violin you would be most concerned with the stiffness of the finished piece, both across the grain and with the grain. I like to think of this as a stiffness rather than a flexibility. Whatever stiffness you decide on will be the biggest contributor to the overall sonority of the instruments. Normally this stiffness is felt in the hands by twisting and pressing on the wood and listening to the tap tones. You can guess a tap tone very easily to within a semitone. For example if I want the wood to ring at F# I can be fairly accurate, but the difference could be as much as 15hz from one to another. By using a sine wave generator you can be exact in matching your front and back. Carleen Hutchings (1911-2009) was an American violin maker and pioneer in plate tuning. In the 1950s she wrote a scientific paper on violin plate tuning using Eiginmodes and Chladni patterns.
It might be easier to answer what parts I least enjoy. This would be the initial preparation of the wood – flattening and preparing the centre joints for glueing and squaring up the neck block. After this initial work is done it is a slow labour of love. On completion the setting up and playing of the instrument for the first time is very satisfying.
What are the most challenging aspects?
I think any Luthier will agree with me that varnishing is the most challenging and difficult part of the whole process to master. The problems here are their is only one good supplier of ready-made varnish for the violin family of instruments and this maker’s varnish does not meet all of the desired qualities. So most makers who know what is required will try to make their own. Personally, I have experimented with recipes for about 16 years. The varnish I’m using now and for the last four years is working really well for me.
I think because it is so close to the human voice makes it universally used in all genres of music. Anyone who has tried to learn the violin will tell you it is very demanding and difficult to learn. The fun of learning is in the challenge and you can take it to what ever level you desire. From a physics point of view their are many scientific papers written about how the violin works, they are all probably a little bit right and many disagree and contradict each other , ut one thing is for sure – the violin is a very inefficient instrument as most of the energy put into the playing is lost in damping etc 90% of what you hear can be directly attributed to the musician and the rest to the instrument.
Does making instruments give you a different perspective when playing them?
Not really, being a maker or not one can appreciate a good instrument. If I pick up an instrument which does not work so well or is set up badly I won’t want to play it. The same goes for anyone.
Is each instrument unique and, if so, how?
Yes, no two instruments are the same. Each will have it own voice and aesthetic values. Making two violins of the same model when finished there are many anomalies between both. No two pieces of wood are the same or have the same acoustic attributes. Every single part of the instrument has an acoustical contribution. The scroll size and design. The density of the fingerboard will have an acoustic resonance which will effect the body mode, which should match the air mode. The overall set up – type of pegs used the bridge blank, tailpiece etc every part has its own acoustic value. This is why we make to tap tones and not measurements.
Do you feel you are still learning all the time?
Yes sometimes even doing a job you have done many times before their is a ‘light bulb’ moment. Recently there has been the publication of a book, Restoration and Conservation of Stringed Instruments. This is a collaboration of all the best makers and restorers from around the world. It’s a massive volume. Since I bought it every time I undertake a repair I consult the book to see how other makers approach a particular task. Often I will adapt my method with ideas from this book.
Whose work are you most influenced or inspired by?
Giussepe Guarneri del Gesú is my favourite maker. There is a beautiful freeness of the use of his tools, evident by the tool marks in his work. These marks also contribute to the aesthetic beauty of his instruments. The purfling of his instruments is poorly executed, but all these little aspects add to the overall aesthetic beauty. His ideas on design for acoustic value were revolutionary at the time. My preference in making is to make my instruments have an aesthetic desirability as well as being of good sonority. The challenge in making an instrument look new and precise is a bit boring for me.
Do you strive for perfection?
You might ask ‘what is perfection?’ If I am making a copy of a classical Italian instrument I will have to do every repair which has been done to a violin which could be over 300-years-old. I will do all these repairs with the greatest of care so yes I strive for perfection. On the other hand. I may be asked to make a violin as new, but I must admit to have softened the corners and the eyes of the scroll and rounding off the inside top of the peg box to give some character to the instrument otherwise I feel the instrument looks boring… am I striving for perfection?!
Do you feel your instruments will form a large part of your legacy? And do you ever think about that?
I do believe I am making good instruments, so good instruments usually fall into the hand of good musicians who look after them well. My instruments could be around for several hundred years and just like Thomas Perry( 1744-1818), a Dublin maker, I also brand-stamp my instruments. This stamp will always be there and will be a point of topic. On the other hand, I had a life-changing moment recently when my computer hard drive gave up without warning. I lost 18 years of collected data on all the instruments I have made. This would be an archive for future makers or anyone interested. My computer was just out of warranty and I had a back-up hard drive for about six weeks, which I had not used. Also all my images of customer repairs and all of my business advertising, accounts etc were gone. My initial reaction was ‘Fu… k’ , but then I thought if I had suddenly died in the morning ‘so what’. Would it matter about my life’s long work? I guess it only matters to me.
So I have been fortunate enough to photograph two people during their respective creative processes and in their own environments in recent days. Much more to follow on this, but here’s a few photos from my first forays into these projects.
James Beatley is a Luthier.
Natalia Kovtanukova is an artist:
It’s that time of the year again in Wexford, when the town comes alive like no other.
You can already sense it now – the Opera Festival is almost here. In a matter of days the hotels will be full and the streets will be buzzing again from early in the morning until late at night.
Anticipation is building ahead of Friday night’s launch, with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny coming to town to do the honours on the quay. Mr Kenny will be one of just many visitors to Wexford during the festival, which runs from Friday, October 21, to Saturday, November 5.
Tickets are selling very well for the Opera Festival’s main events and almost 40 per cent of those tickets are going to people who live overseas, highlighting the popularity of this internationally renowned festival, now in its 60th year.
It’s estimated that the festival will attract some 20,000 visitors and give the Wexford area an economic boost of somewhere in the region of €8 million, which is hugely significant for a relatively small town. People won’t just come from abroad, they will come from all over Ireland. The locals will be out in force too.
On that note, it is worth pointing out that Wexford Opera Festival was founded by a small group of volunteers and only became the renowned international event it is today through the hard work, enthusiasm and vision of Wexford people working for no personal profit.
The spirit of volunteerism that existed in 1950 is not just alive and well in Wexford, it remains essential to pull off the smooth running of the Opera Festival, possibly even more so these days given the scale of it, and a huge band of locals will once again be lending a hand this year.
Everyone knows the importance of the festival and, it seems, everyone enjoys it too. The town is completely transformed and – even in recessionary times – the mood is lifted. You can’t put a price on that.
The Irish Independent had a nice piece on the festival last weekend, talking to Nora Liddy, whose father was a member of the founding committee, and the festival’s current Artistic Director David Agler.
The fun begins on Friday with the launch on the quay, which is always punctuated by a spectacular fireworks display. Mr Kenny is set to officially launch the 60th Wexford Opera Festival at 7 p.m. with the fireworks display set to begin at 7.30 p.m.
The entertainment on the quayfront begins at 4.30 p.m. and there are a number of great acts set to entertain the huge crowd expected to gather for the occasion, including Cork City Ballet, Oyster Lane Theatre Group (featured in the photo at the top of this post) and Extreme Rhythm.
Of course, the operas themselves also get underway at the magnificent Wexford Opera House (which just by itself is worth visiting if you’ve never been), with “La Cour de Célimène” beginning at 8 p.m. “Maria” follows on Saturday night and “Gianni di Parigi” on Sunday, with the three operas running until the close of the festival on Saturday, November 5.
You can check out Wexford Opera Festival’s site for full details on the three operas and all the other exciting events they have lined up this year, from lunchtime recitals to evening cabarets.
However, the great thing about Wexford Opera Festival is how inclusive it is and this is due, in no small part, to the Wexford Fringe Festival, which runs in tandem with it. You don’t have to like – or care about – opera to enjoy festival time in Wexford.
This year there are over 250 Fringe Festival events over 17 days (it runs just a little bit longer than the Opera Festival!) and there’s lots to look forward to.
The wide range of events include live gigs, theatrical performances, photography and art exhibitions, literary recitals, as well as dance, craft, children’s and street events… the list goes on for a while! You can check out exactly what’s on here or for updates follow the Fringe Festival on Twitter @wexfringefest
Personally, I can’t wait to get into town early on Saturday morning and start out on an Opera Festival Odyssey, taking my time as I make my way through the many excellent art and photography exhibitions, as well as enjoying all the weird and wonderful people and events you inevitably stumble upon when you wander through the historic and atmospheric streets of Wexford as it shows itself off to the world.
It can be fascinating to observe photographers in action.
We all enjoy looking at a great image, but I’m sure you, like me, often find yourself wondering about the means which achieved that visually appealing end.
Seeing a snapper in action can give you a greater insight into the person behind the camera – from how they see the world to how they interact with people – than you might hazard a guess at from just seeing the final image.
I know quite a few photographers and they all have different ways of doing things, but who they are and the images they produce are inextricably linked.
I firmly believe that truly great photography is borne not out of a love of the act of photography itself, but a love of people and the world around us.
Canadian photographer Claire Bouvier is a great example of this and I hope she won’t mind me making her my case study for this post!
I met Claire last weekend through her friend, namesake and fellow Kingstonian, the beautiful Claire Hefferon, whom we both like to take photos of – I just get far more opportunities!
Ms Bouvier is a talented photographer, managing to combine a keen eye with an enthusiastic and effervescent approach.
Her eyes and imagination are very quick to pick up on what is going on around her and she’s also quick on the draw with her camera when she likes what she sees.
Claire is what I’d call a “constant framer”, always creating stills of real life with a photograph in mind.
Making people feel at ease with a camera aimed at them is not easy for most of us, but Claire has that happy knack.
It was great to see this lively shutterbug set off into the crowd at a concert armed with her camera, self-confidence and charm, making friends as she captured impressive images. No mean feat.
The drive to explore and discover, allied with a deep interest in the people and world around her are what seem to fuel Claire’s passion for photography.
The substantial point I’m driving at in this post is that no matter what or whom you aim your camera at, ultimately your photos say just as much about you as anything or anybody that may appear in them.
They are an expression of how you see the world, how you feel and, ultimately, who you are.
(Here’s a couple of unfiltered/unedited shots from the gig. Happy snapping Claire!)
Ladies and gentleman, I should hire a sniper to shoot me.
This is if I hold myself to the same standards I expect of others that is, which is what we all should be doing, right?
Well, in London recently, I succumbed. I donned my hypocrite’s coat and I joined the ranks of the masses who I routinely pray to the musical Gods will be struck down – or shot – where they stand.
I took out my iPhone (note: not just a “phone”) and recorded. A whole song too. “So what?” I hear you ask.
Well I have now made my contribution to the continuing assault on the sanctity of live music. I often pray for snipers to be introduced to venues when I find myself looking over a sea of phones and cameras, all getting the same poor footage and all missing out on the same potentially great live music experience.
That connection between artist and audience is surely diluted by experiencing a gig through a little LCD screen? You could argue that they allow people to capture memories, but what use are these memories if attempting to preserve them leads to a much lessened experience?
Also, the quality (sound and picture) of most photos and video footage captured on phones and cameras is generally awful, as anyone who uses YouTube to search out music already knows.
Now I don’t mean a photo of you and your friends that takes all of a few seconds or even a quick shot of the blurry, distant stage – fair enough on both counts.
But at the Tallest Man on Earth in Vicar Street recently, there was a fella just in front of me who had a camera in the air for almost the entire gig. What for? There are countless videos of the Swedish troubadour out there already, live and otherwise, and this guy was missing out on what was taking place right in front of him.
And that’s all leaving aside the fact that your annoying loads of other people with your pointless, extended filming of gigs. It makes me pine for the quaint days when the people clapping on the offbeat were the ones you’d roll your eyes at.
I think that constantly filming a gig is not just disrespectful and distracting for the artist, but also your fellow audience members. If it annoys and distracts me, at 6′ 4″ (thanks Naomi for the reality check!), I can only imagine what it’s like for people craning their necks to see the stage.
So what possessed me to abandon my principles so meekly? Well, the Rural Alberta Advantage.
We went to see them in Bush Hall. At the end of a great gig the band came out right into the middle of the crowd to sing us a lullaby before sending us all home happy. They stopped to sing “Good Night” right beside us. So close I lost my better judgement it seems.
I took out the phone and recorded it (offending footage posted below – in much lower quality). I was looking at it from over the phone too and just held it, so I wasn’t too distracted, but that’s not to say it wasn’t bugging the hell out of Nils Edenloff.
Having participated in the act I hate having to put up with so much, I can report back that it’s the memories of that gig I cherish (like many others) and not the footage. I have no photos or footage from Primavera last year, just memories of a wonderful week.
So sorry Nils (whom we met afterwards and seems a really down-to-earth, lovely guy), Paul and Amy. And sorry to anyone else there I inadvertently distracted during a really great moment at the end of a really great gig.
To the rest of you camera-phone=happy music heretics, I say this: “Shed your electronic prism and carpe diem!”
Interestingly, some people think snipers may not be needed as the copyright conscious music industry and Apple may be about to neuter the offenders.
This recent report from the Irish Times suggest that iPhones may soon be equipped with technology to make the recording of gigs difficult, if not impossible, as the phone will be able to determine if what’s being recorded is copyrighted material and then disable itself (the recording function) accordingly.
However, it seems the report is more than a bit sensationalist. Apple files a huge amount of patents they don’t follow through on, but don’t want others to either. They filed this one 18 months ago. Plus if you put your phone in Aeroplane mode you could bypass this straight away or if that doesn’t work people will quickly find another way.
Seems like bullets could still be the best way after all…
It’s not easy being a small town in rural Ireland these days.
Businesses are closing, young people are emigrating and in many cases the lifeblood of a lot of once vibrant towns is being drained away. The challenges facing these towns are huge and the government coffers are empty.
However, that’s not to say that all is lost and, to its credit, the Enniscorthy community seems to be rising to the challenge.
It’s a town I, like many others, usually just pass through on my way to Dublin, though I spent a few weeks working there last year and will again this year I’m sure.
My last visit there was for a piece for the Irish Times on the re-opening of Enniscorthy Castle, which was a great development for the town, which is steeped in history, and well worth a visit. It’s informative, uncluttered and has a nice social history aspect, always the most enjoyable part for me.
Hot on its heels was the recent installation of a new footbridge over the Slaney, which has extended the prom into a longer and (I’m assured by my colleagues from that part of the world) lovely riverside walk. I’ll be giving it a spin on my next working sojourn in Enniscorthy.
This weekend is a big one for the town as the long-running Strawberry Festival is taking place, here’s a preview piece I wrote about it.
It’s fair to say that the festival had lost its lustre in recent years and last year’s effort – for various reasons – was not well received in most quarters. But, the response to that setback has been emphatic.
The festival is back. It’s bigger and it should be a lot better. A huge amount of work has gone into it and there’s a wide range of events taking place, a lot of them for free. Crucially, the line-up of bands is a lot better too and it seems to cater for younger and older fans (Rubberbandits and Saw Doctors, Jedward and UB40 etc) .
You can check out the festival and all the various events for yourself here. Visitors from further afield than Co Wexford are being encouraged to come too and you don’t need to book into a local hotel, with camping available at Bellefield GAA grounds.
From the many fringe events, such as jazz in Market Square to a public paranormal investigation of Enniscorthy Castle (I didn’t pick up anything on my visit there!), and the big gigs on the weekend nights, it should be a fun weekend.
I hope that all the time and energy (and money) that has gone into it pays off this weekend as it’s great to see a town putting its best foot forward and trying to bring about something positive.
There are many more worthwhile initiatives underway in Enniscorthy than I have touched on here, just like there are many problems that need addressing there and in other Co Wexford towns too.
This post is not to suggest that everything is rosy in the garden in Enniscorthy, but merely to point out that green shoots have been emerging quietly this year amid what can sometimes seem like an overpowering cacophony of negative news.
Let’s hope the town can bask in sunshine for its big Strawberry weekend. If you are looking for a good day out then maybe consider heading down to Enniscorthy.
P.S. Some of my talented colleagues from this office will be in action in Enniscorthy this weekend, so make sure to cheer on Darragh Clifford in the Strawberry Half Marathon and keep an eye (and ear) out for the musical stylings of Shea Tomkins!