A craftsman's expertise makes these strings sing sweetly once again
Ole Steffen Dahl knew what he was doing back in the '60s when he set up shop in Bloomington, Ind., where classical music blooms 52 weeks a year. This restorer of violins, violas, and cellos was looking for a small-sized city with plenty of Mozart, Stravinsky, and Bach - not just rock - on its concert menu. Well, he found it.Skip to next paragraph
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With Indiana University's School of Music just a few blocks away, the Danish-born craftsman reaped enough business to keep ample bread and pickled herring on the table. The University, with its 275 stringed-instrument students, supports five orchestras, ranging from a 25-piece baroque group to a full-scale philharmonic. Add to these the town's symphony orchestra and chamber group. That's a lot of music-making in the environs, and rest assured, someone's instrument is always popping a string or splitting a seam.
Mr. Dahl arrived in Bloomington at a time when the School of Music was burgeoning to its capacity enrollment of about 1,650. Today, his shop sits in a back alley behind Aristotle's Bookstore, but it's not hard to find because patrons' cars point the way with their musical doodads hanging over dashboards or bumper stickers that read, ``The older the instrument, the sweeter the sound.''
Inside, Dahl slumps as he works at his bench, and you're sure you've run into a real-life Geppetto who's sanding violins instead of marionettes. As the late-day shadows creep into the workshop, the whole place takes on a fairy-tale air with small brass tools, no bigger than Thumbelina, catching the last shafts of sunlight.
On the shelves, rows of violins and violas stand like wooden dolls with cinched waists. And on the wall, the calendar shows not today but nine months back. Dahl's shoes shuffle in wood shavings that curl on the floor while an aging Irish setter snores. If Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were writing now, surely they'd set a story here.
There's so much shyness in Dahl's nature that he says little to customers. But then, they come for his craftsmanship, not conversation, and he doesn't need to trumpet his abilities because he's had a corner on the market for years. He's even teaching his future competition. In his courses on stringed instrument restoration at Indiana University, Dahl shares his know-how with students.
He also offers admonitions: Never artificially season wood for stringed instruments in a kiln; the wood should be dried in the air over time.... instruments' bridges should never be dipped in vinegar to make them look seasoned, a practice popular in France....steer away from varnish with spirit (alcohol) base because it fosters a brittle sound; oil-based varnish gives a softer sound. And he always instructs them, ``to use the best possible maple, spruce, and poplar'' when making and restoring. ``But that's something I can't tell you how to arrive at because it takes years of experience.''
As a rule, Dahl works on more violins than cellos and violas. Nobody knows who first created this instrument, although Northern Italy is considered the cradle of violinmaking. Andrea Amati (born around 1505) has long been heralded as the first to achieve fame for his violin craftsmanship, an expertise carried on by his sons and grandson. The Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families all figured in the golden age of Italian violinmaking from mid-17th to mid-18th century.
``There's no way you can duplicate these fine early Italian instruments. You can copy the outline, the model, but you can't duplicate the sound, the resonance. Some people think they can, but I don't believe it,'' says Dahl, whose views stand strong behind a pianissimo voice.