Although automation abounds, craftsmanship proves timeless

The age is soon coming, so we’re told, when robots will do all the manufacturing there is to be done.

The age is soon coming, so we’re told, when robots will do all the manufacturing there is to be done. Already the only tasks left for people to do today, on the factory floors of such mammoth operations as the auto industry, is to press buttons, do some finishing and provide maintenance for the tireless contraptions that have taken over almost all of the human skills in that segment of industry.

So apart from the owners, the administrators, the bean counters and the specialist supervisors in the big plants spread around the world, it looks like opportunities for employment further down so many production lines are drying up. All too soon our young people will be looking mainly to the expanding service industries in their search for careers. Those without specialized education and new, narrower qualifications, will be reduced, as they are now, to grinding out a living, earning minimum wages.

It’s not a pleasant prospect.

Happily though, we’re assured that soulless gadgets can never be designed and programmed to produce everything we’re likely to need in the future. No, this bleak horizon of absolute technology will always be dotted by bright sparks of light, where people with exquisite, traditional skills will continue to craft objects that bring beauty and enjoyment to the rest of the world.

So there is happily no way that any robot will ever be able to replicate the eyes, minds and hands inseparable from the many age-old crafts that are still being practised globally, by small enclaves of dedicated men and women, steeped in their traditional skills.

And I realized the other Monday morning at a local recital, that nowhere is the traditional human expertise more evident than in the making of musical instruments, those superb, expensive creations, chosen by the world’s leading orchestra members and soloists and cherished for their exceptional hand-made qualities of structure and sound.

For years I’ve been enjoying the annual English Proms concerts and much other classical programming, thanks to two TV channels, each with enough endowments and public funding to enable them to flourish without the paralyzing plague of advertising commercials. Watching those celebrated musicians performing close-up on screen, thanks to brilliant camera work, I’ve often thought that it would be wonderful to enjoy, say, a violin piece, sitting right beside the artist, not as I have done so many times, in a distant seat, so far away.

Sarah Hagen, one of our top west coast pianists, presents a series of Monday morning concerts each year in the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre, and always has an invited talent alongside to play a program of duets. It might be a clarinettist, an oboe or horn virtuoso. One of her good friends is the principle concertmaster of the magnificent Los Angeles Philharmonic and in their off-season, he goes on tour with a multi-million dollar Stradivarius violin, one of two their society owns.

So there we were, my wife and me, front and centre among the small audience seated on the theatre stage. I was less than 10 feet from one of the finest violinists in the U.S. playing a beautiful 300-year-old instrument, lovingly hand-made by a legendary Italian craftsman. The experience was magic, sheer magic, for me and for the little cluster of devotees on stage.

So that morning I was able to cross another item off my bucket list, and this in turn prompted me to indulge my curiosity a little and find out more about the art of making the special stringed instruments that are sought after by the world’s leading musicians, those who have devoted their lives to the violin, viola, lute, guitar, mandolin or cello, and let’s not forget the daddy of them all, the big double bass.

What I found was overwhelming, because the number of skilled craftspeople on every continent making beautiful instruments, one at a time, completely surprised me. So I decided to delve into history and found for instance, that the modern violin is attributed to Andrea Amati around 1555.

Amati’s oldest surviving violin dates from 1564, which makes it 452 years old, though there’s no mention as to where it is right now.

Of course Antonio Stradivari is probably the best known name in the creation of early violins. He was apprenticed to family descendants of Amati in Cremona and went on to make a full range of stringed instruments including a harp or two in his own workshop.

Of the 960 violins he crafted, until his death at 93 in 1737, 650 survive today; the oldest dates from 1666. Original Strads have always been highly prized and insanely expensive. In June 2011, the violin originally owned by the granddaughter of Lord Byron was sold at auction to an anonymous bidder for nearly 10 million pounds sterling. Fortuitously the proceeds were donated to the world fund for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Fortunately the Italians didn’t manage to keep the art of violin making all to themselves and workshops soon emerged to provide skilled employment in other European communities. One such place is worth a mention, because the decision to launch a cottage industry making violins saved a little town high up in the Bavarian Alps from economic disaster.

The place is called Mittenwald and is well worth a visit. The whole area is magnificent, so long as you have a head for heights. There’s plenty to see and do and the nearest scenic mountain, the Karwendelbebirge, starts pretty well on the fringe of town. There’s a restaurant on the summit, with staggering views, plus a little cable car that does all the hard work for you.

Mittenwald had flourished on the main north-south route of the Roman Empire, then enjoyed continuing prosperity into Renaissance times. After that though, things went into decline and families started to leave in droves, until some bright spark, fresh from a trip to Italy, suggested that his clever Bavarian neighbours should turn their skills to making the means of music. Everybody got into the act and soon their workshop established a reputation for superb violins, cellos and even zithers.

Today the good folk of Mittenwald will be happy to take you around their Geigenbaumuseum, and if you decide to make something with strings for yourself, you can enrol in the local Staatliche Geigenbauschule. A buddy of mine has a neighbour in Wiltshire, back in England, who did just that, and has since built a couple of baroque lutes for Julian Bream, my favourite guitarist.

So happily there’s one feature you won’t find in those old world craft places, or in the little modern workshops scattered around the globe, and that’s any trace of mass production, or hint of a conveyor belt. And most of all, because a little bit of soul is built into each one of their exquisite instruments, there’ll never be room for a robot.

» Bill Greenwell prospered in advertising for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.

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