Sunday, July 15, 2018

Resonance Requires Air-Dried Tonewood

The Terrier by Mando Mo
air-dried 3-5 years
There are several schools of thought as to what makes a good tonewood. But in the end, a maker can’t be 100 percent sure they have built a nice-sounding mandolin until it is finished and played. However, there are factors along the way, starting with the selection of the species, that are the key to making a quality instrument. Tight grain is not essential, but pieces with wide growth rings are best to avoid. The wood has to be quartersawn, thereby preventing any expansion and contraction like there would be with flat-sawn wood, which tends to warp. Then there is the tap test.

“You look for woods that have a good tap tone to them, that resonate when you tap them,” says Bob Cefalu, owner of RC Tonewoods & Sons in Kenmore, N.Y. “Most of the rosewoods fall into that category. I don’t know if there is really such a thing as a bad tonewood, because probably 90 percent of the sound comes from the top or the soundboard. A good, stiff soundboard in Sitka [spruce], Engelman [spruce], or any of the European spruces; they all make good soundboards.”

Mandolin tops are selected from billets, which are cut into book-matched boards about 3/8" thick in the rough. In final form, they are sanded down to widths as small as 1/10" (.12"). Some believe a flexibility test will help determine if a set will make a good top as a tonewood.

“You’re looking for sound transmission, so you’re looking for lightweight wood, which is crispy,” says Marc Culbertson, who runs the musical instrument operation at Gilmer Wood Co. in Portland, Ore. “If it is lightweight, you will have more amplitude of sound, more energy to carry through. Heavy wood dampens the tone. The crispy thing is about the quality of the tone. If you have a piece of wood that is fuzzy like leather in your hand, then that’s the quality of tone you are going to get. It’s going to sound airy and fuzzy. If you want your tone to be crispy, have some detail to it, then you’re looking for that in the wood.”

“There are certain woods that have proven over the centuries that they make good tonewoods,” says Shiraz Balolia, an avid guitar maker and founder and president of Grizzly Industrial of Bellingham, Wash. “Spruce is one, cedar is another; they’re both very good examples. One of the things that I look for is if I get a stack of Sitka spruce for example, I’ll pick each board up — they’re usually cut to 1/4" size and are bookmatched —and I’ll give it a tap tone. I can feel what will have a really good sound once it is built.”


As critical as the top is to the mandolin's sound, the choice for the back and sides doesn’t have to be as highly selective.

The Tortoise by Mando Mo
air-dried maple back and sides
3-5 years
“Backs and sides are a different thing,” says Mitch Talcove, owner of Tropical Exotic Hardwoods of Latin America in Carlsbad, Calif. “Traditionally, it was Brazilian rosewood. Then it became difficult to get, even before being listed on CITES. Martin [C.F. Martin Guitar Co.] made its last production run with Brazilian rosewood in 1969. Then everybody switched over to East Indian rosewood. Supply is still plentiful and it is pretty much the standard for everybody out there from Larrivee [Jean Larrivee Guitars] to Martin to Taylor [Guitars].”

Some makers are using mixed species of hardwoods for the backs and sides, essentially for aesthetics.

“I like quilted maple because of the figure, but it is not the best tonewood; it’s a good tonewood, but it’s not the best,” Balolia says. “So I try and complement that with something like koa or something else. I built a two-tone guitar with koa sides and a curly maple bottom, and then the Sitka spruce top. It turned out really nice, the tone was spectacular. For me, it was an experiment, and you don’t know until it is done. And that’s when it is too late if it has a bad sound.”

The drying process for tonewoods is also an important element of how a top will eventually sound. The average air-drying time for the best tonewoods is around three years, with some drying times as much as five years.

“We deal with a company in the Alps which has been doing tonewoods for eight generations,” says Rick Hearne, owner of Hearne Hardwoods in Oxford, Pa., who uses European red spruce for acoustic guitar tops and European maple for classical instruments. “A quality of the tone of those [classical] woods comes from sunning the maple. They actually have racks all over their property where they take the rived matched billets of maple and they’re getting sunned. They air-dry them for about three years.

“Everybody is in the game of selling tonewoods; it’s big business,” Talcove says. “For me, if I can pick the wood, I’ll buy top wood and I have it here. To my knowledge, here in Southern California, I’m the only place you can actually walk in and buy tonewoods. Most of the people who are manufacturers like Taylor, Martin and people of that caliber, they go direct to the source.”

The price of a book-matched mandolin top varies greatly. Although most are Sitka spruce or some other spruce, they start at about $40 a set and run much higher. Sides and backs are priced on an individual basis. The type of species and amount of figure will greatly influence the cost.

Here are some Tonewood companies that carry 3-5 year air-dried materials:

Kiln-dried or Air-dried Tonewood. What's the difference?

If you’ve seriously shopped for a premium instrument, you have most likely heard the term tonewood applied to the materials coveted by mandolin builders (and even some musicians). It generally applies to the woods used to build musical instruments, usually those with strings such as violins, cellos, mandolins and guitars. The inherent effect of different wood species upon the tonality of an instrument is a never-ending discussion, but little is heard about how wood is prepared.

The idea of old wood has currency among builders, but unless properly seasoned, a board’s age is a worthless statistic. Labels like “air dried” and “century old” are suspect because these designations by themselves mean nothing. As we start to examine the actual science behind how wood gains and loses moisture, the fallacy of these sorts of terms becomes clear. The correct seasoning of wood that’s used for mandolins is important, but exactly why is a bit opaque as viewed through the lens of marketing.

Why We Dry

Builders of all things wooden must be concerned with moisture content for many reasons. Most of the considerations are structural, including the ability of glues or final finishes to bond properly. Wood shrinks in size as it dries, so it is important for pieces to be stabilized before fitting them together in a final form. Unlike a table or door, extremely small changes in dimensions can cause playability problems for a guitar. For all these reasons, it is important to bring instrument wood into a state that will be at rest in “normal” operating situations and environments.

Appropriate Moisture Content

To begin with, wood in its natural state is fairly saturated with moisture in what is referred to as sap. It’s the easy flow of this moisture through the tree that nourishes its extremities, much like our own body’s circulation system. After a tree is felled, it no longer draws moisture through a root system, but can still absorb water from its surroundings. Even after trees are cut into boards, the wood is at the mercy of its environment. Moisture in boards is found in the tube-like rays and vessels that supply food to the wood cells, as well as inside the cells themselves. Transfer of waterborne food to the cells is accomplished via small gateways called pits, which act as valves. The notable thing here is that this system can work in either direction—gaining or losing moisture in an effort to reach what is called equilibrium. This fact is important because it means that a board stored for decades in a humid environment will not lose enough moisture to be deemed usable for most furniture or musical instrument purposes.

On a freshly cut tree the moisture content can be anywhere from 30%-45%, this is called green wood and some chair makers use this wood for their projects, but for the rest of us the MC is too high to build anything from it, so we, have to dry the lumber before it is of any use to us.  The ideal MC for furniture making is around 8-9%, some say 7 and some say 6, so let’s just say anywhere from 7-9% is ideal.

How We Dry

Most commercially available lumber is dried to between 8 to 12 percent moisture content, measured by weight in what is called the “dry basis.” The most common method of achieving this is by using a drying oven, or kiln. It’s not just a matter of putting wood into a hot room and waiting because there are a myriad of variables to be aware of. Green (new) wood can vary greatly in moisture content, ranging anywhere from 30 percent to as much as 200 percent as a ratio.

Bound and Free Water 

In the living tree, the wood cells, which are like skinny soda straws, are about 3 to 5 mm long; the diameter is 1/100 of their length. The center of the cell is hollow. Water that is in the hollow space is called free water. It could be removed by blowing it out of the cell. (Actually, we call the liquid "water," but the water contains many other chemicals--just ask anyone who likes maple syrup on their pancakes what the water in wood tastes like!) The cell wall itself (which is actually 1.5 times heavier than water, so wood actually doesn't float--the air in the hollow spaces makes wood float) also can absorb water. The wall can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water. This absorbed water is called bound water, as it is held in the cell wall by hydrogen bonding.

Moisture is divided into two different categories: free water, which is found in the rays and vessels, and bound water, which is held in the cells themselves. Also, the material nearest the outside dries more quickly than the center of the board. The resulting vacuum instigates a capillary action that draws the internal moisture towards the surface. This aspect takes more time and requires more heat. But forcing any of these issues with too much heat too soon can destroy the wood with cracks, or leave the center wet—a structural time-bomb. Some experts insist that fracturing the cells or cooking the resin left behind by overenthusiastic drying can also change the resonance of the wood. Whether or not this is true, the structural reasons are enough to warrant tailoring the drying cycle to each individual load.

When drying wood, the free water leaves first. It requires less energy to evaporate than the bound water. At about 30% MC, all the free water is gone and just bound water remains.

Air-drying Tonewood

Air drying is a lengthy process usually each board takes 1 inch (25mm) per one year to dry, the lumber is stacked off the ground 15-24 inch(400-600mm) on stickers which are placed across the boards and inline to each below, and above in between the boards to avoid sagging to gain even weight distribution.  The stickers serve to allow air flow between each board.  stacks-of-lumber

A canopy or preferably plywood with cinder blocks or other heavy items should be placed on top.  The canopy or plywood is there to protect the timber from weather elements, plywood is preferred over the canopy because it allows air flow and protection from the sun.  If you use a canopy you should remove it when it’s not raining.  Once the boards have reached equilibrium with its environment which is usually about 15% outside, you then need to bring it into your shop to acclimate, and continue to dry until they reach the 7-9% MC.  Depending on your own environment this can take from two weeks up to a month or more. g05550art01

Air drying needs to be in an open space not surrounded by trees or other plant life, the ground mustn’t be damp either.  If any of these features are present, then the lumber will continually absorb the MC from its surroundings and not dry properly and mold may start to form, mold is notorious in pine and other woods.  These stacked timbers will continually absorb large amounts of moisture from the surrounding trees and damp ground.

Unfortunately for many who are not financially endowed, we have to make do with the surroundings we have.  It just means that once the timber has reached equilibrium with its surroundings, which may well be above 15% and then brought into the shop, you will have to wait longer than usual for the stuff to dry thoroughly or acclimate before it’s ready for use.  It pays to have a high quality moisture meter, a Wagner is a good choice.  Luthiers prefer a pinless version which costs anywhere from $200 up to $900.  They are every bit as accurate as the pinned type,  even though some will disagree.

Air dried lumber is a hand tool woodworkers best friend, it’s easy to work and is more stable than kiln dried lumber because it’s not forced dried through high temperatures, but rather a natural slower process.  As the timber air dries the cells collapse, slowly causing them to compress and stay put, so when air dried lumber absorbs moisture, it doesn’t swell as much hence it becomes more stable.  Many people including myself find kiln dried wood more physically demanding to work with hand tools.

We also know that very slow drying of lumber enhances the musical properties. Drying at warm temperatures or hotter has a definite effect on wood properties. Therefore, air drying for a year and then continued drying in a home or office to achieve the correct final MC is essential. Air-drying alone will reach only 12% MC in most of North America; 7% MC is the typical final MC required for interior uses. We also know that rain on the lumber enhances certain other properties. For example, white oak lumber is normally quite acidic in character. But if you air dry it for 2 years, there is a vanilla odor that becomes very obvious and enhances the flavor of wine and whiskey in barrels made of such material! In short, air drying cannot be replaced for musical instruments--even low temperature systems do not do as good a job.

Kiln Dried 

Kiln dried is a forced but controlled process where humidity and temperature is controlled using steam and fans for drying.  The drying process normally takes between 6-8 weeks, because of its fast drying due to high temperatures, the cells collapse quickly rather than slowly as it would with air drying, making it unstable.  Because of this when moisture is absorbed, the cells expand rapidly filling up with water quickly than it would with air dried lumber.  However, the positives with Kiln drying due to high temperatures, any laid eggs and bugs are killed off. There is treatment for mold and insects at an extra cost.

If hot dry air is used, then the surface dries too rapidly and develops case hardening, ‘checks’, so kiln drying requires careful control of both air and temperature.  The idea is to prevent stagnant layer of excessively humid air from lingering around the timber, as in the case of air drying, the air is frequently renewed which prevents this from happening.

Beyond the Dry

Henan Junyu Export & Import Trading Co., Ltd.
Since wood is porous, even if a builder buys wood that is carefully and correctly dried, it must still be kept in a controlled environment or the moisture content will drift. This applies to the mandolin in your home, too. Maintaining a relative humidity of around 35 to 40% will keep your mandolin close to the environment that it was (hopefully) built in. It is important to note that some of the drying parameters of commercial lumberyards do not include considerations of cell damage that may affect resonance despite being structurally acceptable for furniture applications. In those cases, structurally sound has nothing to do with the sound it makes!

In the end, it comes down to having a mandolin that functions properly and won’t shift too much during use. Beyond that, it has to do with resonance. I'll cover that in the next blog post.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Origins of the Violin Part 3 - Andrea Amati (1505-1577)

Andrea Amati was born in 1505 Cremona, Italy.  It was in the workshop of Andrea Amati (ca. 1505-1577) in Cremona, Italy, in the middle of the 16th century that the form of the instruments of the violin family as we know them today first crystallized.  Several of his instruments survive to the present day, and some of them can still be played. Many of the surviving instruments were among a consignment of 38 instruments delivered to Charles IX of France in 1564.

According to a biography by Roger Hargrave, Amati was one of the top candidates scholars have advanced for the "inventor of the violin." The two other candidates he named were Fussen born in a region now part of present-day Germany. The other candidate he named was Gasparo' da Salo from Brescia.

The violin-like instruments that existed when Amati began his career only had three strings. Amati is credited with creating the first four stringed violin-like instrument. Laurence Witten also lists Amati and Gasparo' da Salo, as well as Pellegrino de' Micheli, also from Brescia; as well and Ventura di Francesco de' Machetti Linarol, of Venice. Amati's first violins were smaller than modern violins, with high arches, wide purfling, and elegantly curved scrolls and bodies.

Andrea Amati's two sons, Antonio Amati and Girolamo Amati were also highly skilled violin makers, as was his grandson Nicolò Amati, who had over a dozen highly regarded apprentices, including Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.

Few of Andrea Amati’s instruments survive today. Of those that do, many were commissioned by wealthy patrons and royalty, such as the celebrated group of instruments made for Charles IX of France. These instruments date from 1564 to 1574, and we must assume that Amati had been working for some time prior to that date to have won a commission from the French court. His earliest known instrument is thought to date from 1546, but sadly all trace of it has been lost. The instruments made for Charles IX were decorated with the royal coat of arms, and the cutdown viola illustrated here was also decorated to reflect its ownership, in this case by a noble Italian family of the rank of Marquis.

Gigue from Partita No. 2 in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
played by Sean Avram Carpenter.  Violin: Andrea Amati (ca. 1505--1578), Cremona, ca. 1559

Origins of the Violin Part 2

Welcome to the Sweet Music Studio!  Today, I'm continuing to explore the history of the violin.  As I've shown in previous posts, violin owes its existence to ancient instruments such as the rabab, rebec, vielle and viola/lira, used in northern Africa and eventually Europe. These instruments were played in an upright position and bowed. 
The viola early stringed instrument evolved over time in Europe into two separate families of instrument: those that were held in the arms and square in shape ("viola di braccio") and those that were positioned between the legs and shaped with sloped shoulders ("viola da gamba"). They both enjoyed great success and wide use, but over time the instruments held in the arms became more popular and led to the development of the violin in and around 1550.
Marco Cara- lyra da braccio
The classic master period of Italian violin making stretched from the 16th to the 18th century. Famous luthiers included the Guarneri, Amati, da Salo, Ruggieri and Micheli families along with Antonio Stradivari and Jacob Stainer, among others. Though players have preserved many of these treasured violins through the years, they are in limited supply and worth astronomical amounts today.
Northern Italy had two regions that excelled in luthier skill in the earlier part of this 200 year "golden era" range: Brescia and Cremona. Milan and Venice also were important locations for stringed instrument building. Brescia was the first to emerge, and its famous stringed instrument school and workshop bred a generation of innovative and highly skilled artisans.
The credit for the first violin is usually given to a Cremonese luthier named Andrea Amati who had made his name originally as a lute builder. He created at least two three string violins in the 1540s. He was then commissioned to build one of the first four-string violins by the wealthy Medici family in the 1550s. Though the instrument was intended initially for professional street musicians, it became a favorite of aristocratic amateurs who had money to spend in the instrument shops.
The two earliest examples of violins that survive today were both crafted by Amati in the mid 16th century.
The “Greffuhle” violin is one of only 11 decorated
Stradivarius instruments still around. (Smithsonian)
Antonio Stradivari, another famed luthier, learned his trade as an apprentice in the workshop of Nicolo Amati, a grandson of Andrea Amati who was active through much of the 18th century. But he added his own discoveries in varnish and body design to the skill he gained in Amati's shop.
The violin became a central part of the orchestra in the 1600s, popularized by composers such as Monteverdi.
Through the centuries, the violin evolved considerably and went through one major transformation. Originally the neck was shorter and the instrument had gut strings. Some versions had only three strings. The most sweeping change happened in the 1800s, when a change in the accepted pitch of the violin resulted in luthier modifications to almost all existing violins. A centimeter was added to the neck and fingerboard to allow for the change and the bass bar was increased in weight to allow for more string tension. Strings are usually made of steel now.
One famous historic violin is stored today under close guard at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Built by Antonio Stradivari in 1716 and almost never played, it is preserved as an example of how his instruments looked and sounded in a like-new condition. This unique and uniquely valuable violin, called the Messiah-Salabue Stradivarius, left Stradivari's workshop upon the master's death in 1737 and passed through several hands before arriving as a donation at the museum in the 20th century. According to reports, the gift came with a proviso that the violin never be played.
A great deal of research and experimentation has gone into trying to recreate the qualities of golden period violins using modern materials and methods, but the original instruments are still highly prized.
Stradivari violin, "The Antonius," played by Eric Grossman
The violin continues to evolve today with innovative designs in electric violins that can be played with amplification and effects.

Famous Players

The violin is not only used in classical music, it is also a popular sound for jazz, bluegrass, rock, folk and country music.
Famous classical violin players include Pablo de Sarasate, Yahudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Giuseppe Tartini, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, Arcangelo Corelli, Itzhak Perlman, Joseph Joachim, Antonio Vivaldi and even Wolfgang Mozart. Niccolo Paganini is thought by many to be the ultimate classical violin player and composer, as he wrote and flawlessly performed some of the most challenging repertoire available for the violin.
There are many notable jazz violinists, including Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Jean Luc-Ponty, Ray Nance, Svend Asmussen, Federico Britos and Regina Carter.
Well known country and folk violinists include Charlie Daniels, Dale Potter, Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, Roy Acuff, Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise, Vassar Clements, Tommy Vaden and Alison Krauss.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Origins of the Violin - The Viola di Braccio (Viola da Braccio, Lira di Braccio, Lira da Braccio)

The viola di braccio ("viol of the arm"), which was used to distinguish them from the viol family (violas da gamba - viol of the leg), appears in the 15th century in Italy.

It retains the general shape and size of the vielle but reduces the strings from five to three like the rebec. And for the first time, the c holes of the rebec and vielle are replaced with the now familiar f holes used on modern violins.

Origins of the Violin - The Vielle

The vielle appears in 13th century France and differs from the rebec significantly. There are now 5 strings, the body is much larger and closer in shape to the modern violin with ribs to enable greater flexibility when bowed. It is worth noting that the name vielle came later to refer to a different instrument--vielle à rue (vielle à roue)--or as it is more commonly known now--hurdy gurdy.

The vielle /viˈɛl/ is a European bowed stringed instrument used in the Medieval period, similar to a modern violin but with a somewhat longer and deeper body, three to five gut strings, and a leaf-shaped pegbox with frontal tuning pegs, sometimes with a figure-8 shaped body.

The instrument was also known as a fidel or a viuola, although the French name for the instrument, vielle, is generally used. It was one of the most popular instruments of the medieval period, and was used by troubadours and jongleurs from the 13th through the 15th centuries. The vielle possibly derived from the lira, a Byzantine bowed instrument closely related to the rebab, an Arab bowed instrument. There are many medieval illustrations of different types of vielles in manuscripts, sculptures and paintings. Starting in the middle or end of the 15th century, the word vielle was used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, as a shortened form of its name: vielle à roue ("vielle with a wheel").

Several modern groups of musicians have formed into bands to play early music (pre-Baroque), and they sometimes include vielles, or modern reproductions, in their ensembles, together with other instruments such as rebecs and saz.

Origins of the Violin - The Rebec

As a result of the European crusades, an instrument called the rebec based on the rabab appears first in Spain during the middle 11th century. The rebec differs from the rabab only slightly: The rebec has three strings instead of two, the body is made of wood rather than gourd, and the instrument is placed at the shoulder to play rather than on the lap.

Life in the Medieval era was pretty different than life now. They ate different foods, talked differently, and listened to different music. In fact, most of what we think of as traditional Western music wasn't actually developed until the end of the Italian Renaissance or later. So, what made medieval music so different? For one, they used different instruments, like the rebec. A rebec is a stringed instrument common to the Medieval era and the Renaissance. It was an important part of medieval life, giving a unique sound to a unique period in history.

The rebec was small, carved from a single block of wood into a shape sort of like a stretched-out pear. From the neck to the body stretched between one and four strings. The most common version features three strings, each tuned in increments of fifths on the musical scale. It was played sort of like a fiddle, with one hand passing a bow drawn across the strings, and the other pressing the strings against the neck at various positions to change the notes.

The rebec produces a unique sound, which may come off somewhat sharp and crass compared to the softer sounds of modern violins and fiddles. It is able to sustain long notes, like most bowed instruments, and does not strictly adhere to what is now the Western set of musical notes.

So where did this unique instrument come from, and why does it have such a distinct sound? The rebec may sound familiar to anybody who has experienced music of the Middle East. That's because it has its roots in Islamic traditions. Like a great number of things in medieval Europe, the rebec originated in the Middle East and made its way into Europe during the high amounts of cultural contact in the Holy Crusades.

In roughly the 10th century, there was a small stringed instrument popular in Arabian music called the rabob. Many scholars believe that the rabob entered Europe through Spain, which at the time was partly occupied with Islamic Moors from Northern Africa. The rabob first appeared in Europe around the 10th century, taking on the name of rebec and adapting to local needs. Generally, a rebec has more strings than the Arabic rabob, and is held on the shoulder rather than the thigh or lap as in Arabic traditions. Although the instrument developed a following in Spain early on, its popularity remained limited in the rest of Europe until the later medieval era between the 13th and 15th centuries. At this point, it seems to have become a commonly used instrument.

Origins of the Violin - The Rabab

The origins of the violin are uncertain and open to debate, but it is generally agreed the instrument we know today in western music as the violin had its origin in the Arabic rabab. The rabab had two strings made of silk attached to an endpin and strung to pegs used to tune the strings in fifths. The rabab was fretless with a pear shaped body made of gourd and a long neck. The instrument was held on the lap and played using a bow with resin rubbed on its string. No images or examples exist of this instrument but it is described in documents dating from the late 9th century.

Arabic Rabab
The Arabic RABABAH or Arab fiddle is the earliest known bowed instrument and the parent of the medieval European rebec. The instrument was first mentioned in the 10th century, became prominent in medieval and later in Arab art music. In medieval times the word rabab was used for any bowed instrument. In China the rebab is known as rawap and very popular among the uighur, the uzbek and the tajik. Throughout Central Asia the instrument is inlaid with mother in pearl geometric designs.

The rabab has a membrane belly made of animal skin or wood and one, two or three strings. There is normally no fingerboard, the strings being stopped by the player's fingers. Body shapes vary. Pear- and boat-shaped rababs were particularly common and influenced the rebec. Rectangular bodies are mainly played by Bedouin musicians. But Flat round and trapezoidal are also found. Throughout the Middle East and Africa, as well as Central Asia, northern India, and Southeast Asia, the word rabab or a derivative name refers to a spike fiddle, one that has a small round or cylindrical body and a narrow neck.

It has a easily recognizable rich thick sound - a combination of high and low tones. 
The rabab reached Europe by two routes. A pear-shaped variety was adopted in the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century as the lira. A boat-shaped variety, still played in northern Africa, was introduced by the Arabs to Spain in the 11th century. 

The instrument is still plays a dominant role in the music of Morocco where it has an important function in arabo-andalouse music and is used by street musicians as well. The lithograph shows an Arabo-andalousian rebâb. The main instruments used in arabo-andalouse music are the tar - a sort of small tambourine - sometimes a darbuqa - a funnel-shaped drum made of clay - and three types of string instruments - the rebab, the kemanjah (a violin) and the 'oud (a lute). Arabo-andalouse music traces its origins to Abu Hassan Ali Ben Nafi, known as Ziriab. This famous singer and composer fled from Baghdad to Moorish spain in in the 9th century. His success at the court of Baghdad led to injurious rumors and intrigue spread by his teacher who became jealous. Ziriab was the founder of Moroccan classical music, essentially the Andalusian music of the 10th to 15th centuries. It is extremely complicated in musical structure and has unique rhythms.

The rebab is currently played from the Maghreb to as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Right a Moroccan rebaba player of the 20-th century, under 2 rebaba players of the 13 th century. Remarkable is that the style of footwear of the 13 th century musicians on the miniature of the Cantigas of Alphonso-X, Alphonso the Wise, is still common in nowadays Morocco under the name babushes.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Tortoise - by Mando Mo Strings

The Tortoise
Solid Spruce Top, Back and Sides Solid Maple, Neck  Maple, Tortoise Binding, Top, Back, Neck, Head stock, Pearl inlay Fret Markers, Pearl inlay Mando Mo Logo, Nut width Standard 1 1/8"  or  Wide nut version 1 3/16", Bone Nut, Brekke Adjustable Bridge,   Adjustable Truss Rod
  • $899 comes with a strap, tuner and hardshell case
  • $849 with a padded gigbag
  • $799 without
Pick up in Granby, MA (USA) for cash, PayPal for online and international orders.  Will ship anywhere in the world for an additional shipping amount (based on the destination) by FedEx Ground (US), and DHL Express (everywhere else).

Friday, June 22, 2018

"The Pup" by Mando Mo Strings

The Pup (by Mando Mo Strings). 

Abalone inlay, flatback, PatPend Mando Mo Bridge), scalloped tailpiece.
  • $699 comes with a strap, tuner and hardshell case
  • $619 with a padded gigbag
  • $599 without
Pick up in Granby, MA (USA). 

Will ship anywhere in the world for an additional shipping amount (based on the destination) by DHL Express.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Dance Music of the Middle Ages - Europe

The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonize?

When were the middle ages?

The mediaeval or medieval period, or the middle ages, covers a huge stretch of time, from A.D. 476, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, so that’s around a thousand years.

Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374, one of the creators, possibly the original creator, of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.
Francesco Petrarcha or Petrarch, 1304–1374, one of the creators, possibly the original creator, of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–1457.
Some historians have taken to splitting the mediaeval period in two: the ‘dark ages’ until the 10th century (from an anglocentric view, that’s before the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language in England was Old English); and the ‘middle ages’ from the 11th century (between the Norman conquest and the renaissance, during which the language evolved into Middle English). This split is an ahistorical view which ignores how the term ‘middle ages’ was originally conceived by those who minted it.

It was Italians of the 14th and 15th century, primarily Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo, who defined themselves and their generation as bringing about a renaissance (rebirth) of classical Roman and Greek wisdom. Thus, for the people of the self-defined Italian renaissance who delineated the ‘middle ages’, the term meant precisely and explicitly the same as the ‘dark ages’: it was a whole millennium of cultural darkness in the middle period between the fall of the Roman Empire and Italian culture’s rediscovery of its treasures. The idea of this alleged rediscovery of classical Roman and Greek art and wisdom (it wasn’t quite so straightforward as that in reality) spread steadily through the nation before then spreading internationally through Europe. This gradual broadening of the idea makes it impossible to give a precise date for the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the renaissance, so a nominal latest date of around 1470 is often given.

The recovery of medieval music

Much of medieval secular music is a mystery. Most people were illiterate, therefore most music was not written down but passed on and learned by ear and so, of course, we’ve lost it. The music that was written down was most often church music as it was largely clergy and monastics who could write. This ecclesiastical music is important in itself, but its predominance in surviving manuscripts gives a partial view of music-making.

Medieval music is not immediately accessible for a modern musician. There were different systems of musical notation, none of which indicated precise rhythm until the 12th century. Square notation is now the best known system developed in this period, and once you know square notation some of the music is easy to read. At times, though, it wasn’t written very accurately, or was written with a poor pen and so had vague or indecipherable note values, which is adequate if you know what it’s supposed to sound like, which they did, but we don’t.

It is extremely rare for us to have any idea what the intended instrument was to accompany a voice (if at all) or to play for dances, so we have to make our own choices from the scant available information and our own sense of what sounds right.

But there are many treasure troves of medieval music. One of the most notable is the Cantigas de Santa María, a book with 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, compiled during the reign of Alfonso X, “The Wise”, 1221-1284, who was King of eight regions in modern day Spain and one in Portugal. During his reign, Alfonso composed, compiled and edited a large number of books, with subjects ranging from art and literature to scientific texts translated into Castillian from the Arabic originals. The melodies of the Cantigas were adapted from sacred sources or popular melodies from both sides of the Pyrenees, including some derived from troubadour songs in Provençal and others that have striking affinities with Arab music. The book of Cantigas, compiled 1257–1283, is beautifully illustrated with pictures of musicians, giving us much information about the instruments of the day, and its music notation is admirably clear.

Medieval dances and dance music

Gittern player with dancers, early 15th century.
There tended to be two kinds of medieval dance music: either each section started the same and ended differently; or each section ended the same and started differently. This goes for nearly all the medieval dance forms: estampie, rotta, trotto, royal dance, saltarello.

Often we find that subsequent sections of a dance grow longer, indicating something about the style of medieval dances.

But no dance instructions survive before the Gresley manuscript of c. 1500, found in Ashford, Derbyshire in 1984, so we know little about how medieval dances were performed and little about which instruments they were intended to be played on, so again we have to bring our own artistic and creative sense to bear, interpreting the clues found in iconography and brief scattered references in writing.

Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages in Europe

Musical instruments of the Middle Ages were divided into three rough categories:

  • Wind instruments, such as flutes, whistles, reeds
  • Stringed instruments, like harps, lutes
  • Percussion instruments, like drums, bells, gongs
These same categories can be applied to many or most instruments in common use today.

Wind Instruments

The simplest and most obvious example of a wind instrument is the flute. While flutes have continued to become more elaborate over time in order to provide more consistent sounds and more variation in possible notes, today’s flute bears a strong similarity to the flute of the Middle Ages. Flutes produced a high-pitched sound, with notes changing based on finger placement on holes or keys. The flute is unusual among instruments in the way it is held, sideways from the mouth rather than straight out or down. Wandering minstrels often played the flute, as it was easy to carry and required little preparation to begin playing.

Instruments similar to the flute included the shawm, the gemshorn, the crumhorn, and the recorder. The shawn was a simple instrument that used vent holes and a reed, a small piece of wood that vibrated against the tongue or lips to produce sound. Today’s saxophones and clarinets are reed instruments. The crumhorn was a curved horn that utilized a double reed to produce a similar sound, much the same way an oboe uses a double reed today. The recorder was a very simple instrument not significantly different from a flute. The gemshorn was played like a flute as well, but was a horn-shaped instrument made from ox horns.

Bagpipes were used during the Middle Ages as well. The bag was often made from animal skin, and the horn, or pipe, could be fashioned of wood or bone. The bagpipes were played with a reed. Bagpipes were particularly common among poorer people, perhaps because they could be made at home with materials readily available, such as the skins and bones of livestock.

Stringed Instruments

Stringed instruments today are little different from the stringed musical instruments in the Middle Ages. Some were clear precursors to more modern versions. Others have been abandoned or relegated to strictly historical status due to their sometimes cumbersome natures and the amount of practice needed to become skilled players. Stringed instruments included not only easily portable ones such as fiddles, but also largely stationary instruments, like the harpsichord.

Like the flute, the fiddle was a favorite of minstrels who traveled from village to village in search of work. Fiddles could be played with a bow, like violins, or plucked with the fingers. Each style produced a distinctive and unique sound.

An early ancestor of today’s violin was the rebec. The rebec had a rounded, pear-shaped body, very similar to the shape of modern violins. Rebecs, too, could be played by plucking or by bowing. Viols were popular as well, and could vary in size. Some were placed on the lap while playing, while others were large enough to rest on the floor. These would be the earliest versions of the modern viola and cello. They were not instruments that traveled as well as others, owing to the musician’s need to be seated in order to effectively play them.

The harp was one of the most common instruments of the time. Middle Ages harps were somewhat smaller than those we are accustomed to seeing today, generally measuring about 30 inches in height. Harps were played by strumming or plucking the strings in order to produce sound, and were easily transported enough that they were yet another favorite among minstrels.

The dulcimer and the harpsichord were unique instruments. Each was essentially based upon the harp, with the harpsichord offering keys to strike each string and the dulcimer requiring the player to strike the strings himself with a small hammer. Eventually, stationary, seated instruments such as these would give way to the piano, one of the most popular musical instruments in the world today.

Percussion Instruments

Percussion instruments create sound not with strings or with the musician’s breath, but by being struck. Drums are perhaps the most obvious type of percussion instrument, both today and in the Middle Ages. Drums were generally made from a hollowed-out trunk of tree or a metal or clay bowl. Animal skin would be stretched across the top of the hollow area, and beating, hitting, or striking the skin would create a percussive sound used to keep tempo and add interest to musical pieces.

Other musical instruments in the Middle Ages qualified as percussion instruments as well, however. The tambourine was designed by stretching animal skin across a hollow circle of wood, clay, or metal and affixing bells to the edges. The tambourine could be struck or shaken to produce two very different sounds, the first being a drum-like beat with added bells and the second being a simple bell jingle. Tambourines were widely considered a feminine instrument, and generally played by women.

Cymbals and the triangle rounded out the most widely used percussion instruments of the time. Cymbals were, like today, thin metal plates that could be struck with a hammer or crashed together. The triangle has not changed at all since its origination in the 1300s; triangles are smaller metal pipes bent into a triangular shape and struck with a mallet or hammer to produce a high-pitched, bell-like percussive sound.

Origins of Dance Music in Ireland

May Day, Beltane, and the menace of May Eve
It is likely that dance was evolved before or independently of music as we know it today.  Within historical time the melodic phrase has been the basis of European dance, not percussive beat (Subsahara).  The earliest social dances were circular and linear chain dances, dating to 1400-1200 BC in Crete/Mediterranean.  Of these, circle dances are most likely the original formal dances.  By the middle ages, the CAROLE (a circle dance) became the most popular form with two associated forms: the FARANDOLE, a line dance from the Mediterranean, and BRANLE, a circle dance from Northern parts of Europe.

The Farandole

In early forms of dance, the music was sung by the dancers in simple, compound double or triple time, with a regular pulse.  Performed exclusively outdoors, the dance steps were very primitive, with a leader directing the dancers in a variety of twists and turns.  This developed to use three arched figures with raised hands under which dancers passed: "Threading the needle", "L'Escargot" and "The Arches".  These fell out of popularity in the 15th century courts either because of high headdresses and pointed hats, or for religious reasons, but remained popular among rural/common dancers.  The dance then became known as HEY (hay, haye, heye or haye) with a changing of the dancers' location in relation to each other.  This pattern is reflected in part of the modern Reel.

The Branle 

From the French Branler: to sway, and the English: to braul, brawl.  These were circle dances.  The music had a pulse/rhythm "the branle double", an 8 bar phrase, the ballad metre, while the branle simple had a 6 bar phrase.  These and other branles became the basis of French folk dance by the 16th century and came in various styles including:

  • Couple Dances -
  • Country Dances (Contradances in New England) - the form of a courtly dance in England, a fashionable dance from the leisure class at court who had time to organize dances and steps.  There may have been more common "country dances" amongst the poor/working class in Ireland, but there is little evidence of such except in 1670 when Richard Head writes: "Their Sunday is the most leisure day they have, in which they use all manner of sport; in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam", and in 1674 John Dunton reports of a wedding where: "a bagpiper and a blind harper that dinned us continually with their music, to which there was perpetual dancing".
  • Withie and Sword Dances - recorded from 1669 - another form of courtly dance in England
  • Quadrilles (sets of 4 dancers) -

16th century French branle performed by students of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Music by Jeremy Barlow and The Broadside Band.

Traditional Musical Instruments for Dancing

Instruments used while dancing was mainly drums and background lute, accompanied by singing. Other instruments also included bells, jingles, long drums, nakers (or nakir: a small drum of Arabic origin), side drums, tabors, tambourines and timpani (also known as a kettle drum).

Other forms of Dance (European During The Middle Ages)
    Circle Dances:
    • Sellingers Round
    • Estampie
    • Saltarello
    Court Dances:
    • Basse Dance
    • Black Alman
    • Black Nag
    • Rufty Tufty
    Line Dances:
    • Prince William
    • La Spagna
    • The Morris Dance
    • The Jig
    Country Dances
    • Scottish Dances
    • The Egg Dance
    • Ballet
    • Pavan
    • Burgundian Dance

    Dance in Ancient Ireland (13th - 17th centuries)

    In Ireland, the haye, rinnce fada and rinnce mor are three names used to refer to dance in old literature: "haye" was a chain dance, rinnce fada similar to an English country dance, rinnce mor or trenchmore, was a long dance.  In 1265 a poem on New Ross's fortifications talks of "carolling" (dancing and singing), and in 1413 dancing is described in relation to a Christmas visit by the Mayor of Waterford to the O'Driscoll seat in Co. Cork (Breathnach, 1977).  The first reference to the dance in the Irish language is 1588, when Tomas Dubh, tenth Earl of Ormond, talks of "a dance around fires by a slender, swift, vigorous company".  The Irish words for dance, "rinnce", first appears in 1609 and "damhsa", ten years later.  Descriptions of music and dance together come from 1602 at the court of Elizabeth I, where Irish tunes are mentioned: "We are at frolic here in court; much dancing in the privy chamber of Country dances before the queen's Majesty, who is exceedingly pleased therewith.  Irish tunes are at this time much liked."

    Dancing was associated with important times of the year:
    • Bealtaine: Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man
    • Lughnasa: Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest season. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Modern Irish it is called Lúnasa in Lùnastal, and in Luanistyn.
    • Samhain: Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, it is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
    • Imbolg: also called Brigid's Day, is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1/2 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
    Dancing was also associated with the rituals of life: births, weddings, and wakes.  

    Nobody knows for sure about dancing in Ireland before the 17th century.  But even though there is no official Irish word for dance (because the documentary evidence of dance is from the 17th century on), and because of its popularity depicted in Holland by painters like Peter Breughel in the 16th century (bagpipes and dance for weddings), it's a good assumption that it was practiced also in Ireland.

    Irish Dancing (18th - 19th Centuries)

    The original style of dancing is the solo step dance, and this is found all over Ireland.  This was taught by travelling dancing masters who were well established in the late 18th century.  They taught jig and reel steps, and also made up fancy circle dances for several couples, and "set" dances (not to be confused with sets or set-dancing), which were display dances for talented dancers.  

    NOTE: Solo and group step dancing have been refined in the 20th century into the costumed and choreographed kinds we see at competitions today, and in Riverdance and the Lord of the Dance.  In the competitions, dancers will be dressed in colored costumes decorated with Celtic designs, these dating to the early 20th century, their more elaborate forms originating in the USA and Australia.

    Irish Dancing (20th Century)

    The Gaelic League favored a deanglicization policy in anything culturally-related.  The banned all European circle, country and sets dances, encouraging a revival of older dances and creating new ones.  In 1939 the Coimisiun an Rinnce (Irish Dancing Commission) published instruction for the approved choreographies, "Siege of Ennis", "Walls of Limerick", "Sweets of May", etc.  Although sets were banned, they continued anyway, surviving to the present day in areas like Kerry and Clare, boosted in the 1980s by revival and in their original English (courtly) forms, they are still danced in some Orange halls in Co. Down.  

    The Church

    The Church opposition to dance was a European universal from the 1740s to the 1930s in Ireland in tandem with state desire for control, resulting in the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act (EDI).*  

    Houses and crossroads, where Irish music was played and danced, had been the main venues for social dance in Ireland prior to 1935.  These were still in "operation" well into the 1950s, especially for the American wakes.  House dances were often fundraisers, generally benefits or for the fun of it, but sometimes for political groups, and they could be held in anyone's house.  Neither they, nor cross-roads dancing could be legally controlled by the church and this of course they didn't like.  But emigration and recorded music combined with foreign dance forms (the waltz, foxtrot, twostep, shimmy-shake) were beginning to be popular in Ireland.  Private commercial dance halls were being opened to take advantage of the new fashion.  The Gaelic League was against this activity for its perceived "undermining of Irish culture".  

    The Church damned dances and saw them as not only improper (on the borderline of Christian modesty - Irish Catholic Directory, 1924), and "direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires".  In addition, there was concern among the authorities about the hazards of overcrowding in unsupervised premises, and even about groups like the IRA running dances to raise money for guns.  The issue became a battle for control.  Religious and political forces combined to demand licensing of dancing.  Intensely conservative lobbying was engaged in by the Church.  Under the Public Dance Halls Act (EDI) of 1935, dancing required a license, and this would only be given to people approved of by a district judge.  Failure to comply was a criminal offence.  Overzealous vigilante style enforcement of the Act by the Church destroyed social, noncommercial house dancing, and gradually shifted the social dance from private space to public.  

    Many argue that the Church destroyed Irish traditional music and discouraged new players.  But it also laid the groundwork for the "band", the "ceilidh band" in particular, as the mainstay of music for dancing in Ireland, opening a new chapter in Irish music History.

    Modern Irish Music

    Demands of dancing in large spaces altered the performance style of music.  It did not require solo and duet playing, it sacrificed rhythm to beat, impersonalized the musicians, prioritized the music=making over social occasion and obliged musicians to learn other forms of music (non-Irish) demanded by the modern venue.  The Accordion became important, for volume, diminishing the status of the subtlety inherent in expert fiddle playing.  Dancers were separated from the process of music-making, standards of appreciation declined, musicians lost local importance, became discouraged and many abandoned playing altogether, or switched to performing European or popular American music, which was becoming more popular in Ireland.

    *From Wikipedia:

    Public Dance Halls Act 1935 (Ireland) cover.jpg
    The Public Dance Halls Act 1935 (IrishAcht Um Hallai Rinnce Puibli, 1935) is an Act of the Oireachtas which regulates dance halls in Ireland by introducing a licensing system and a tax on admission tickets.
    The proposals were based on the recommendations of the 1932 report of the Carrigan Commission into juvenile sex crimes.[2] Other Carrigan Report recommendations were enacted in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which raised the age of consent and banned artificial contraception.[2][3] On dance halls, the report stated:
    In the course of the Inquiry no form of abuse was blamed more persistently for pernicious consequences than the unlicensed dances held all over the country in unsuitable buildings and surroundings, for the profit of persons who are liable to no control or supervision by any authority. The scandals that are the outcome of such a situation are notorious. They have been denounced in pastorals, exposed in the Press, and condemned by clergy, judges and justices, without avail. Before us the Commissioner, speaking for the Civic Guard, said these dance gatherings in many districts were turned into "orgies of dissipation, which in the present state of legislation the police are powerless to prevent." In short, there is no effective legislation to put down this nuisance.
    The Public Dance Halls Bill was introduced in 1934 by the then government of Fianna Fáil, and supported by the opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties.[4] It was supported by the Catholic hierarchy. Secular nationalist institutions like the Gaelic League the legislation were seen as beneficial for protecting Irish culture against foreign influence.

    Licensing is administered at the district court, subject to the discretion of the local judge. In the early years of its effect, they were less tolerant of more recently introduced musical styles, such as set dancing(seen as "foreign") and jazz dance clubs.[6][7][8] However, it also disadvantaged many traditional Irish musical activities, such as private house dances and crossroad dances, forcing spontaneous and social music and dance into a controlled and commercialized environment. This set the conditions for the predominance of the céilidh, with its large and loud musical ensembles and wide open dance spaces.[5][9] The ceilidh arose at the expense of older traditional music, which declined in popularity for decades until the creation of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and later the Folk Revival brought new attention to traditional Irish music.

    The Act remains in force, with amendments.[10] Nightclubs may be subject to stricter conditions in some districts than in others, depending on the particular judge. The Irish Nightclub Industry Association has described the legislation as "archaic".[11] In 2001 there was confusion about whether the Act applied to lapdancing clubs.[12]

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