“400 years of tradition”: violin making in an “idyllic” location | Pennsylvania News

By DAVE SUTOR, The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

Robert Gordon III can hear and even see the music inside a piece of wood before turning it into a finished violin.

To demonstrate how, Gordon, a second-generation luthier, twisted a Douglas fir top onto a violin made from a Guarneri mold passed down to him by his father.

The wood moved like a wave.

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He then typed it about two dozen times.

“The resonance that comes with it, its lightness, its stiffness,” Gordon said.

“Like a lot of it is, see how flexible that top is? You’re trying to get the lateral flexibility, as well as the longitudinal. The instruments are really thin. It’s up to 2.5 millimeters You look so slim You can actually see through them when you hold them up to the light You can kind of see what your arch is, and between the flex and the tone of the tap so I’m just tapping where would be the sound post, and that’s sort of determining how it sounds in my ear. There’s a lot of art that goes into (violin)making,” he said.

He describes the sound of his violins as “darker”, like those of 18th-century Italian luthier Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, and not “as bright and shiny” as others.

Gordon’s fiddles have been used to play a variety of music, from fine classical arrangements by the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra to bluegrass tunes on pick and fiddle.

“I love it when someone plays it and looks happy,” Gordon said. “That’s what makes me happy. You see it in their eyes, “Oh, man, that’s what we’re talking about. ”

He said that at best, violins “can imitate the human voice”.

Invited to play a song on one of his own creations, Gordon drew a horsehair bow on all four strings and the sounds of “Ashokan Farewell”, an American folk tune, then “Faded Love”, a song western swing, filled his house. .

“In terms of inspiration, I play around a bit,” Gordon said. “I’m not very good at playing. Someone asked me: ‘Do you play?’ I think you should play it if you do them. Otherwise, you don’t know what you mean. You only hear it from someone else playing it. My wife plays double bass and sings, and we have a small band.

Sitting at his work table, Gordon gazes out the window at his garden and the nearby woods where the seasons change, again and again and again, from the new growth of spring, to the vibrancy of summer, to reds, yellows, browns and the oranges of autumn, to the frozen white winter landscape.

“I have an idyllic location here,” Gordon said of his property at the end of a gravel road in Belsano.

He shares stories of bears crossing the country, an owl swooping down and catching a pair of frogs that were quite romantic in their last moment, and an array of birds he observes with his ubiquitous binoculars.

“Nice feeder there,” Gordon said. “There is a manger hidden behind this tree. I don’t know if you see it. I entertained turkeys this morning. Deer every day. We are ornithologists. We do the Christmas bird count. We do all that stuff.

Inside, a humidifier sprays mist to maintain the humidity level ideally between 40% and 60%.

Neatly stored plastic planter nut containers hold parts and tools. A ceiling fan and light hang above. There’s “a bandsaw over there that I don’t plug in.” But, save for a few modern conveniences like these, the workshop feels like the space a luthier might have been decades, if not centuries ago.

“You’re also looking at 400 years of tradition,” Gordon said. “Nothing has really changed much in 400 years. It’s very difficult to do something different.

There is no sound of power tools grinding wood and sending sawdust into the air. Gordon does all the work by hand.

“I like the sound of the scraper or a sharp chisel going through the wood,” Gordon said. “You can hear it. You can hear when you go down to a place where you like thickness or something. It’s so much better than a power tool.

Dozens of violins hang from the ceiling of his workshop and the adjacent vestibule.

He still adds to the collection, making two or three a year, although now, at 65, he no longer does repair work or accepts commissions unless he has the freedom to make his own designs. .

“I quit doing custom work just because I want to be able to do whatever I want,” Gordon said.

Gordon said he could do repair work for a steady salary and probably charge more than the standard $8,000 to $10,000 for his original violins, but, as he explained, “I live modestly. … I never had a great search for money.

“Certainly on the rise”

The Guarneri-patterned violin he is currently making for his brother will feature a back, sides and neck crafted from Pennsylvania sugar maple that Gordon harvested with his father in the 1960s.

Robert Gordon Jr., a pastor and factory worker, made more than 200 violins — and donated about 50 — according to his son’s tally.

“He was more prolific than me,” Gordon said.

With the help of his father, Gordon made his first violin at age 13.

The luthier job remained a part of his life over the years, even when he worked at other jobs.

Then, in 1988, Gordon opened a boutique in Pleasantville, Venango County, before moving to Belsano in 1998.

Gordon often attended the Violin Society of America workshop at Oberlin College, Ohio, led by master luthier Vahakn Nigogosian, of Stradivarius Studios in New York, and later by Christopher Germain. Gordon has occasionally served as a member of the workshop staff, where he was able to share ideas with luthiers around the world, including Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Norway.

“I think violins are experiencing a rejuvenation because of the schools,” Gordon said. “A lot of people really want to make instruments. In America, I think it’s definitely on the rise. I receive calls.

“There are a lot of people who want to study. I recommend that they go to schools. You can get a four-year degree now. It is difficult to penetrate the market. You don’t come out of school thinking you’re going to be a millionaire.

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