Jeffrey Greene: The Hidden Art Behind String Instruments

Jeffrey Greene: The Hidden Art Behind String Instruments

Jeffrey Greene is an award-winning poet who has published five poetry collections. He is also the author of a memoir about his life and his home in a little village in Burgundy, as well as four personalised nature books. His poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review Online, Southwest Review, and the anthologies Strangers in Paris, Intimacy, and Nothing to Declare: A Guide to Flash Sequence. In this interview for France Today, he answers Janet Hulstrand’s questions about his latest book, Masters of Tonewood: The Hidden Art of Fine Stringed-Instrument Making.

Thanks so much for giving us the opportunity to learn more about your latest book, Jeffrey. In addition to your wonderful memoir, French Spirits (which is one of my all-time favourite books about France) and your beautiful poetry, you’ve written three books that are in-depth nature studies: The Golden-Bristled Boar; In Pursuit of Wild Edibles; and now, the recently released Masters of Tonewood. How did this wonderful collection of poetic writing about science and nature come into being? 

Thank you, Janet, for these very kind remarks. As you know, French Spirits is about love, family, and a very special home in Burgundy, all leading to my full commitment to a life in France. I wrote the book at a time when the genre of expat travel memoirs enjoyed popularity. However, French Spirits was released just after 9/11, and like many American writers and readers, I experienced a strong shift in mood. Before French Spirits, all my writing had been devoted to poetry, but now I understood that I had acquired a tool, maybe just a voice, to write and publish about environmental issues and nature, subjects close to my heart. I started with Water from Stone, about habitat restoration in Texas, before starting what turned out to be a trilogy of nature books inspired by my experiences in France; I even venture to say in my own backyard.

A neighbour knocks on the door and hands me a quarter of a wild boar, bristles and all, and marvelling at it I wonder why no one has written about one of the crucial animals in human history. Thus, I started The Golden Bristled Boar. In Pursuit of Wild Edibles begins with my memories of growing up with chronically broke, very young parents in the New England woods; it also explores the bounty of local edible plants and garden creatures that make their way even into French haute-cuisine.

Most recently my wife Mary, inspired by her Paris professor’s new instrument, commissioned a celebrated young luthier from Angers to make a cello for her. While watching the construction of this cello for a year and a half and realising that most musicians don’t know the forests where the rare resonant wood comes from that makes their stringed instruments visually and tonally beautiful, I wrote Masters of Tonewood.  These nature books are all driven by a sense of wonder and curiosity.

How did your dual interest in nature and in music lead you into the very interesting exploration of the world of luthiers that we learn about in Masters of Tonewood?

Like so many kids, I learned to play a musical instrument. I wanted to play the saxophone, but instead, my father gave me his old clarinet. I performed in a fifth-grade orchestra that gave concerts at other city schools, and then soon after I started playing the guitar and other instruments and writing songs. Ultimately, composing songs led me to writing poetry. Now I only play sporadically, but I have never lost the sense of how a musical instrument is an object constructed for the human body and heart; and how in the hands of a gifted musician, its voice can propel us from heartbreak to ecstasy.

For decades, I have attended a chamber music concert series at the Louvre. Many of those accomplished musicians play stringed instruments made by the most celebrated luthiers in history, including the Golden-Age Cremonese innovators—Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri.  I learned that the key resonance wood for violins, violas, cellos, contrabass, piano, classical guitar, harp, and other stringed instruments in Europe comes from a very common tree, the Norway spruce. However, the wood that goes into a great instrument only comes from a very old spruce tree that grew in rare mountain forests at approximately 4,000 feet, with unique soil composition, disposition to the sun, and prevailing weather patterns.

When I learned about these unique forest conditions, I contacted Roger Ramond, a French forestry professor and a good friend, who directed me to a book titled Bois de Musique that contained a map of seven forest areas in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. I visited each of these forest areas and learned about forestry, milling, hand woodcraft, and music. The scope of the book also includes instrument making in Spain and the US, and concerns about endangered tree species worldwide, especially in South America and Africa.

What exactly is tonewood? 

You might wonder how a small instrument like a violin can rivet a whole concert hall with so much sound, even “grab an audience by the throat” with the range of its emotive voice. Of course, the virtuoso musician gives the soaring expression to great compositions. But anyone who lives with creaky wood floors, like the ones in my Paris apartment, or listens to a woodpecker, knows that wood fibre possesses the remarkable property of conducting and projecting sound.

The voice of a violin comes from these very rare old spruce trees I mentioned that grow at higher altitudes. The short growing season in the mountains results in tight annual tree rings, giving the wood exceptional sound velocity, especially if it possesses no flaws: no knots or bends in the grain. The rare log is cut pie-like in paired wedges called billets that mirror each other when opened. Then, the wood is aged for 10-30 years, and then glued together and meticulously sculpted into the belly of the violin. Luthier Antoine Cauche in Angers told me that the best tonewood destined for the belly of a violin or a cello should sound sharp, like a ping pong ball when tapped. Figured maple, prized for the rare beauty of its grain patterns, also provides high sound velocity and is invariably used for the backs and sides of the violin family of instruments.  The vibration from the strings passes through the bridge, also made of maple, to the belly of the violin and is conducted, in part, with the aid of a sound post from the front to the back, and a bass bar attached to the interior of the belly plate. The sound churns and projects back out through the f-holes.

While in my book I focus primarily on Norway spruce, Sitka spruce, figured maple, cypress, some endangered species such as Brazilian rosewood, ebony, and Pernambuco provide tonewood with sound qualities that best suit individual instruments. Mahogany, koa, cedar, cypress, different rosewoods, African blackwood, boxwood, mopane, walnut, and ebony, just to name a few, also serve as tonewoods. These woods are used in woodwinds, harps, guitars, lutes, pianos, percussion instruments, and the violin family of instruments, many having evolved from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African influences.

Jeffrey Greene has written several books, including a memoir about settling in France © Jeffrey Greene

What is the most surprising thing you learned in the process of researching Masters of Tonewood? The most interesting? The most concerning?

While I knew a musical instrument could be made from almost anything that resonates sound, from a cigar box to a stovepipe, I was surprised to learn that fine instruments could be fashioned from salvaged wood: maple floorboards recovered from former hotels; light, stiff spruce taken from old aircraft wings; and submerged logs dredged up from Alaskan fishing traps. In each of these cases, the wood had been cured for decades and provided beautiful tonewood for resourceful luthiers.

Early in Masters of Tonewood, I discuss a Stradivarius cello called Stauffer ex Cristiani 1700. At the Cremona Violin Museum, this cello serves as the centrepiece among eleven other legendary instruments in a room called “The Treasure Box.” The instrument is fascinating in its own right, but this Stradivarius acquired its name from the short-term French owner Lise Cristiani, one of the very first female professional cellists. In the early nineteenth century she defied taboos against women holding the instrument between their knees. She performed in Europe, where she inspired a composition from Mendelssohn, and in far eastern Russia, where she reported serenading a whale in the sea of Okhotsk. Her tours included audiences that had never seen a cello before. She died of cholera in the Siberian town of Tobolsk when she was only 25.

The most “concerning” issue is climate change. But another devastating problem is illegal logging in both public and private forests. According to Lyndsie Bourgon, author of Tree Thieves, up to 30% of the worldwide lumber trade comes from poaching. Often the cutting is indiscriminate, rather than a balanced approach of managed culling to assure the continued health and productivity of a forest. Shocking rates of illegal logging and clear cutting in the post-communist era has occurred in Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia as a result of corruption. Traditionally, special woods from Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, and elsewhere have been used in musical instruments for their beauty and unique tone. Many are protected endangered tree species from around the world, yet they find their way into musical instruments.

Pascal Cranga, in Cluny, is a master teacher, forest expert, and luthier devoted to French local wood handcrafts © Jeffrey Greene

You weren’t researching climate change per se, but what did you learn about climate change in the course of doing your research for this book? If so, what is the bad news? And is there any good news in terms of these very special forests?

Ironically, some experts claim that a climate shift known as the little ice age, which is depicted in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s paintings, was, in part, responsible for the high quality tonewood used in the Golden Age Cremonese instruments. The cold period contributed to slow-growth spruce which even at lower altitudes offer more quality tonewood resources.

However, spruce thrives in mountains, where it grows in tight stands in cool, moist conditions. These large trees possess the ability to anchor themselves in rough terrain by spreading their roots around rocks and into rock cervices without a deep tap root. This turns out to be one of their vulnerabilities in our new warm winters, droughts, and persistent heat waves. Behind our house in Burgundy, we had four towering Norway spruce trees, and we lost all of them. These trees when weakened are vulnerable to pine bark beetles, certain types of fungus, and changes in the ecology of the soil.

Also, in 2018, the devastating Storm Adrien ravaged the famous Paneveggio Forest, from which Stradivari selected his violin trees. Windfallen or wind-twisted trees are more common with climate change. Similarly, forest fires are more frequent, particularly in Brazil. The protection of precious wood and endangered tree species is becoming ever more difficult.

After Adrien, exceptional effort was made in the Paneveggio Forest to recover usable wood, some for instruments. Recuperating beams and salvaging logs may become increasingly important in the wood trade.

I was interested in the part of your book where you discuss the important role of “garde forestiers” in protecting and preserving French forests. Can you tell our readers a bit about that? 

For Masters of Tonewood, I studied meticulously managed forests, referring to them as renewable gardens. The Risoux Forest in the Jura bordering France and Switzerland especially fits this description. France has a long tradition of forest and water management and protection laws that go back to Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert who initiated reforms in 1660 to protect against abusive cutting and forest damage. Nevertheless, forested areas became dramatically reduced with expanded farming, and with wood providing a key resource in building and heating.

Yet, reforestation and forest management in France over the last century and especially since 1990 has been impressive. France is the fourth most wooded country in the European Union. The garde forestiers, government-certified forest rangers, work the front lines of forest management, especially policing against clear cutting, tree theft, and pollution. They work with farmers, woodcutters, and transporters to maintain a rotation and selectivity of cutting that assures the future productivity of the forest and maintains the organic health of its soil. A garde forestier is part forest law enforcer and part head gardener.

At an Icelandic horse farm in Burgundy © Jeffrey Greene

Are there any museums or other places to visit, especially in France, that you would recommend for people who are interested in learning more about how stringed instruments are made?

The Salon Musicora, which will be from October 28-30 this year, is an important international trade show for musical instruments and accessories that also offers conferences, workshops, and entertainment. The Musée de la Musique in Paris displays hundreds of instruments and provides historical contexts for them. Also, Mirecourt, the most important luthier school in France, in the Vosges department, has an informative little museum with an array of experimental stringed instruments. The Berlin Musical Instrument Museum offers a fascinating display of stringed and keyboard instruments. The Cremona Violin Museum in northern Italy focuses on the evolution of the violin family of instruments and provides displays of original forms and tools used by the Cremonese Golden Era masters. But music lovers and Paris wanderers might especially enjoy a simple stroll along the rue de Rome near the Gare Saint-Lazare. For five blocks, both sides of the street feature luthier workshops, sheet music stands, and windows full of beautiful instruments of every sort.

Masters of Tonewood: The Hidden Art of Fine Stringed-Instrument Making is available to buy now.


Amazon US

Lead photo credit : Jeffrey Greene standing In front of the presbytery that he and Mary Weiss-Greene restored in Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses. Find out more about the restoration in French Spirits © Mary Weiss-Greene

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.

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