Van Arsdale Violins
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Custom Made Violins, Cellos & Violas, Bows & Bow repair
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Peter Van Arsdale is very good with his hands. A boat builder, massage therapist and Victorian house restorer at one time or another, he now pokes needles into his Berkeley acupuncture patients and also makes lovely violins from virgin old-growth maple and red pine plucked from the icy depths of Lake Superior.
Cut from logs that sank maybe two centuries ago as they were being floated to frontier settlements, the wood -- rot-free because there's almost no oxygen in the cold waters where it was preserved -- has a richness and density rare in younger timber, Van Arsdale says. He recently used this superior Lake Superior wood to carve a fiddle, modeled on a 1693 Stradivarius, for John Sherba of Kronos Quartet.
''I really liked the feeling and the sound, the ringing quality," says Sherba, who sought out Van Arsdale after reading about him in a Strings magazine story about instrument-makers experimenting with wood from long- submerged timber.
''It's a very personal thing. Every violin is different, and every person who plays the particular instrument is different. This one felt right," Sherba says. He played the new Van Arsdale when he wasn't bowing his main ax -- an 1884 instrument from the hand of American violinmaker George Gemunder -- on Kronos' just-completed European tour, and will use it for a work by Ethiopian composer Getatchew Mekurya at the quartet's Cabrillo Festival performance Aug. 8.
The piece requires Sherba, who plays second violin, to tune his bottom G string down an interval of a fifth to C. Tune some fiddles down like that and they just don't sing (''They can't take the shock to the system," Sherba says). But when he tried it on his new Van Arsdale, ''it worked fine," Sherba says. He raves about the care the instrument-maker took ''with every aspect of the violin; if one thing's wrong, it affects everything else. It's a holistic approach, like acupuncture," adds the violinist, who'd heard of Van Arsdale's needle work before he became aware of his carving skills.
A pleasant guy who began playing violin and doing carpentry at the age of 10, Van Arsdale also sees a connection between the ancient Chinese medicine and the 17th century Italian violin-making traditions he practices.
''Acupuncture works with vibrational energy, and violins are nothing but vibrational energy," says Van Arsdale, 59, sitting in the workshop of his North Berkeley home, surrounded by pliers and files, carving gouges and finger planes, a bundle of white Mongolian stallion hair (it makes the best bows), jars of maroon-brown varnish of the sort Stradivari used and a bottle of Elmer's glue of the kind he probably didn't (''I hardly ever use that," Van Arsdale laughs, snatching the glue behind his back).
''In Chinese medicine, we take the pulses to feel the vibrational energy of the body," Van Arsdale says, ''and it's sort of the same thing when you're building a violin; you're constantly feeling the tension of the wood and tapping it, listening to it," hoping to achieve a balanced energy flow.
Like the body, he adds, ''the violin is alive, in a lot of ways. When you watch someone like John play, it's like an extension of the body. The music is coming from here," he says, tapping his heart, ''coming through the instrument. "
Van Arsdale, who has variously worked as a Fort Bragg salmon fisherman, a carpenter and herbalist (the empty blue mason jars on his shelf once contained gnarly ginseng roots and other Chinese medicinal herbs), became a licensed acupuncturist in '86 and started making instruments about six years ago.
''I can't really afford good violins," says Van Arsdale, who also makes cellos and repairs instruments. ''That's one of the reasons I make violins: I can make a much better violin than I can afford." His sell for around $10,000.
He'd made a handful of violins based on various Guarneri models before deciding to build one based on the 1693 long-bodied ''Harrison" Stradivarius (named for the 19th century British solicitor and amateur fiddler who once owned it). He'd read about the Lake Superior wood in a Smithsonian magazine piece about Timeless Timber, the Wisconsin firm that specializes in ''reclaiming" virgin logs from American waterways, and wanted to build his instrument with it.
Van Arsdale spent a week at the Shrine of Music instrument museum in Vermillion, S.D., studying the Harrison Strad that's on display there in a glass case. The museum's curator let him photocopy the complete file on the fiddle, which included design patterns and measurement charts, created by the violin expert Charles Beare, detailing the minutely varying thickness of the wood. The curator also let him set up a workbench in the museum and begin carving his violin there. Van Arsdale did a sort of still-life carving, like a painting student copying the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, except he couldn't set up shop right in front of the violin; he worked in an adjoining room, going back and forth to study the instrument, then resume carving.
''I worked from visual memory and the measurements," says Van Arsdale, who went to the Vermillion museum with his violin-making mentor, Boyd Poulsen, who lives in the Sierra foothills town of Arnold.
The Lake Superior timber is ''beautiful virgin-growth wood," he adds. ''It's pretty impossible to get that quality of wood nowadays. A lot of the wood is probably four or five hundred years old. It's been submerged for more than 100 years. In my mind, it's been down there dreaming of being a violin."
It carves differently than young timber, says Van Arsdale, who worked while listening to the great Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, who owned the Harrison Strad for many years, on a recording Sherba gave him. The wood ''is very dense, very hard, especially the maple. In some way it's easier to carve because it doesn't run on you. It's more resistant. But it's harder to carve. One of the theories is that Stradivari submerged his wood. The Po River runs through Cremona (the Italian town where the master lived and worked), and they probably used the river to get the logs they used. We know that the French violinmakers submerged their wood."
Van Arsdale spent a couple of weeks in Cremona studying with the violinmaker Gaspar Borchardt, who showed him some of his methods and gave him his recipe for making varnish from linseed oil and tree resin.
''It's like cooking," Van Arsdale says. ''How do you make paella? Well, you get some rice and you get some fish and you get some chicken and you throw it all together. The trick is the throwing it together. Gaspar showed me step by step how he did it -- how he mixed it, the temperatures to cook it at, how he applied it. All those techniques that you can't learn from a book but can only really learn from word of mouth."
Van Arsdale, who named a violin after his late mother-in-law, Mary Kathryn, a fiddler he never got to meet, and another after his late dog Daphne (his current canine is a sweet brown-eyed Australian shepherd named Woody), spent about three months making the Sherba. Toward the end he was so jazzed about it he'd get up at 5 a.m. to work on it. ''It's very responsive," he says modestly, picking up the instrument and playing a toe-tapping Scottish jig (he used to play classical music but ''broke free of the orchestral shackles").
''I know this sounds kind of cliche, but it almost plays itself," says Van Arsdale, who performs with the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers (his father's background is Dutch, his mother's, Scottish). ''You feel like it really wants to play. It has a beautiful tonal palette. It can play very soft and very sweet, or very aggressively and hard."
Sherba first played the instrument the day after Van Arsdale strung it, and was amazed by how it sounded like an old violin, not a new one in need of breaking in.
''I think the quality of the wood and the fact that it's so old has something to do with that," says Van Arsdale, who's going to Cabrillo to hear Sherba play the fiddle in concert. He had the pleasure of hearing the gifted violinist work out on the new ax at Sherba's San Francisco home.
''It was so cool," Van Arsdale says. ''John spent about two or three
hours just kind of talking with me and playing the instrument. I got this
private little concert. He didn't want to put it down. He just kept playing.
Yeah, it was rewarding."
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music: The festival begins Tuesday and continuesthrough Aug. 15 with performances at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and Mission SanJuan Bautista. Kronos Quartet performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 8. Tickets: $22-$44. Call (831)420-5260 or go to www.cabrillomusic.org.
E-mail Jesse Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.