The urge to destroy a violin

Since last summer, the Instagram account @violintorture offered a response to the secular craft of violin making or violin making. “Can you still play the violin after cutting it up?” The creator of the account, Tyler Thackray, asked before sawing an instrument in three, to celebrate his ten thousandth disciple. (The answer, in a way, is yes.) The basement of Thackray’s house in San Francisco, which he calls his “dungeon,” is filled with a swarming population of unsuitable instruments, cobbled together from cheap violins he buys online. There is a violin with the strings installed under its body, so that it can only be played upside down. Another without a head, a nod to Ichabod Crane’s dread. A “slim-olin” conjured by cutting a violin in half. A violinist myself, I shuddered at a video in which a violin appears to twist as Thackray saws off the roll. Was this perhaps a problem for the local ASPCA?

In the four and a half centuries since Cremona luthier Andrea Amati helped bring the modern-day violin to life, the instrument has become an object of quasi-religious devotion. Thackray’s Instagram commentators rant about his sacrilegious antics: “I’m sure you’re a great person, but man, I hate this account,” one person wrote. Thackray, who is thirty-nine years old and works as a software engineer, cannot actually play the violin – his main instrument is the electric bass, although he also identifies as an amateur viola da gamba player – and many Professional violinists that he emailed about trying out his mutant instruments refused. He thrives on derision, describing himself as a push with a jones to argue online. “Guess you could just call me an asshole,” he admitted on a Zoom call, as his twin pugs, Brucie and Bozu, snored in his lap. “There are times when I’m going to build a violin and think, someone is going to hate that. This is one of my biggest motivations.

Like salami or the flush, the violin is considered one of the few examples of human ingenuity that, centuries after its invention, left virtually nothing to be desired. In the 18th century, in Cremona, capital of violin making, in Italy today, the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri families united power, sound and aesthetics to develop the instrument which remains today the prototype of the violin. . The famous luthier Joseph Curtin describe most of the violin innovations like “plane a few tenths of a second on the hundred meter dash”: tiny acoustic adjustments to the existing shape of the instrument. If the violin world is wrong about conservatism, the reasons, according to violin maker Julie Reed-Yeboah, are obvious. “The shape is the shape it has to be,” she said. “The whole violin has a purpose. “

In this world of sacred tradition, Thackray let go of his Franken instruments. “I always went for the alternative stuff,” he said of high school, where he was a class clown, sporting dreadlocks and piercings, listening to a lot of metal, and playing electric bass. These days, he’s cut short hair and two tasteful sets of ear gauges and lip rings, which are softened by his frequent smiles, and a gallery of tattoos inspired by the Japanese mythology. Thackray had long bristled with the goody-goody violin tunes voiced by those like Double-set violin, an Australian classic musical duo with over three million subscribers on YouTube. During the lockdown, a friend suggested Thackray revisit a previous interest in violin making, which arose when he was learning double bass a few years ago. “From a purely business perspective, I thought I could create an Insta and be TwoSet’s nemesis,” he said. While repairing his first instrument, a violin he bought on a whim, Thackray realized that the clamps needed to hold the pieces together were reminiscent of a torture device. An Instagram handle was born.

Thackray only respects skilled luthiers and will readily admit that he is not. “There are times my hand slips – stupid mistakes like that,” he said. “Most of the time when I shit it’s because I’m a little drunk.” The @violintorture account is less about innovating within the confines of the violin than exploding out of bounds: gutting the instruments and then pushing their pieces together to unleash an unforeseen chaotic potential. As a mostly self-taught hobbyist, the kind whose hobby has colonized his entire basement, Thackray has no intention of making a profit, and is therefore free to realize the insane and “disruptive” visions. violin which would destroy the reputation of a traditional luthier. “My whole approach is, basically, to do what other guys can’t,” he said.

Like the evolution of species, the evolution of the violin is punctuated by a number of unsuccessful experiments. The 19th century French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, despite all his skill, introduced a number of solutions for violinists as history has shown the door including a poorly designed metal bow (too easy to dent). Modern manufacturers such as Curtin have offered promising directions for the violin using scientific knowledge in a field that has historically held new technologies at bay. Curtin’s Ultralight line reduces the weight of the instrument and offers players a way to make adjustments to certain aspects that would normally require a technician, such as the height of the strings. Another unconventional violin, that of luthier Andrew Carruthers Violin Turtle, developed last year, is inspired by the blistered appearance of the hull of its namesake.

For most players, these innovative instruments are eccentric distant cousins, interesting in theory but not worth the risk. Researcher Karin Bijsterveld, working with bassist Marten Schulp, described how musicians tend to resist innovations in orchestral instruments, even adjustments that might make them easier to play. Performers want to preserve a sense of identity and pride, not to mention their livelihood, for having mastered instruments with a steep learning curve.

Thackray isn’t asking anyone to trade his Strad for a slim-olin – one, after all, is not like the other – but rather to postulate that the violin can be a tabula rasa for some joyful and little experimentation. practice. “Classical music is so serious that people lose the sense that the instrument is a form of entertainment,” he said. “It’s still art, and the goal has to be fun.” He maintains that the art of violin making is secondary to having ideas, as in his first major projects, the violele and the ukulin, a violin with an ukulele neck and vice versa. In recent months, Thackray has expanded its workshop to include a computer numerical control (CNC) and a 3D printer. These devices are considered verboten among luthiers, who pride themselves on achieving results only with their own hands. A traditional violin can take around hundreds of hours to make, not to mention the many years of training and learning that go into coaxing an instrument from a few slabs of wood.

As Thackray guided me through his dungeon via Zoom, he showed me violins, cellos, guitars, ukeleles, an erhu, a Stroh violin (himself a hybrid of violin and horn) and other extended instruments. on tables and on the floor, awaiting their fate. . Maneuvering between machines, piles of wood, cabinets and benches loaded with tools, he picked up an ongoing torture: an instrument that will be a violin in the front and a mandolin in the back, with two handles and twelve ropes … if that works, he added slyly, with all the bedside manners of a vulture. As he compiled a list of increasingly weird future projects, it morphed into an adjacent space that houses buckets filled with honey and other remnants of his original plan to turn the basement into a factory. mead (he is also a beekeeper), although he has not collected a drop since he got used to the violin. His girlfriend, used to her whiplash passions, didn’t blink.

Most of Thackray’s work, such as a 3D printed violin created from a design by the Portland-based product designer David Perry, is inspired by followers and luthiers he connected with via Instagram and some of them have, in turn, been inspired by him to create their own violin projects. Although Thackray aims to demonstrate that starting out in violin making doesn’t necessarily imply a hermitage in a remote Italian village, he is transparent about how quickly the hobby can take its breath away. Even a damaged violin or a so-called VSO – a “violin-shaped object” that looks like a violin but, due to overwhelming structural problems, cannot be played satisfactorily – can cost over a hundred dollars, and Thackray, an Android developer with plenty of revenue, has now paid over forty.