[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


11. Honesty of Intention

HOW many times have you bought a 'new and improved' product this week?

It could be anything from toothpaste to another car. The words echo emptily round the corridors of the advertising agencies. We are so used to products becoming 'improved' every time we buy some more, that it is easy to become totally cynical: maybe the only thing different about the toothpaste is the flavour. Maybe it is just a gimmick to persuade us to buy more.

If a tube of toothpaste is already testing your credulity, then what about the world of art? You walk into an art gallery to be confronted by three piles of sand on an otherwise empty floor. Be careful not to damage it, because it is a Work of Art! There is a sneaking suspicion that this is all a rather clever practical joke -but you can't be sure.

This sort of dilemma presents itself all the time, not just in art galleries or supermarkets, but in the fields of music and instruments as well. Our rule-of-thumb way of dealing with it has something to do with trying to work back to the original intentions - what we might call 'honesty of intention'. It works rather like a court of law. If the piles of sand were put there by a famous artist during a phase of exploring natural textures, then it must be art. If the sand fell out of a packing crate during the delivery of an African vase, then it is rapidly heading for the bin. There are, of course, problems here. If the only information you have is the existence of the sand, how can you tell? Not only that, but what happens to the idea of 'honesty of intention' if the famous artist is also a well-known practical joker?

Even if you decide to give the artist the benefit of the doubt, you are not really out of the woods. Take the example of a caller at the door of obvious goodwill and honesty from the Society of Interplanetary Union. The problem is that the inhabitants of Mars are falling on hard times and desperately need our financial support to prevent a more serious famine than Ethiopia. You are sure that this person is honest, but do you part with the money?

The world of art is a minefield of such difficulties, at least in part because art is often so abstract - visual philosophy, if you like. Sadly, we must put art and toothpaste to one side, and try to unravel some of the contradictions as they apply to music and instruments. A maker may well find him/herself involved in abstracts, and (s)he will certainly have some kind of guiding principles. But there the similarities with art end. Our works, unlike those of the artist need no interpretation, no philosophy. They need no underlying ideas by way of justification - they just are. As a result, instruments are much easier to evaluate than, for example, paintings.

What then are we to make of the two instruments in the examples? First, there is the suitcase guitar, heavy-duty and complete with handle. Then we have the pyramid guitar, built so that the body, using the same proportions as the Pyramid of Cheops, will echo to these mystic resonances. How do we sort out genuine improvements from gimmicks, or valid ideas from well-intentioned misunderstandings?

There are two fairly direct ways to assess instruments. The first is by function, for the maker is a craftsperson whose creations are constrained by function. We make tools for musicians, and the test of a good tool is how well it does the job. Because instruments must be practical and workable, new ideas can be quite quickly sorted into those that have potential, and those that are too impractical. Some clever new ideas can be rapidly eliminated while others can be used once they prove themselves.

Both our strange instruments would fail this test. The first certainly is practical but, as a piece of luggage, is not an instrument. It completely misses the point. The second could certainly be made, but would undoubtedly be neither as easy to play nor as good in sound as a conventional guitar. It too fails the test of function.

But we should not be too cynical about our world of constant improvements'. Not all innovations fail the test. In fact, in the world of science and technology, each generation takes over where the last one leaves off. Our grandchildren will take for granted the technological miracles of today, and it seems probable they will live with a rate of change at least as fast as we experience in our own lives. Change, you might say, is here to stay.

Our ability to evaluate new ideas with more confidence is improved when we put instruments into context (this also applies to our Works of Art). It is very rare that new ideas just appear out of nowhere, and the creative process seems to be mostly evolutionary, and painfully slow at that. To coin a phrase, it is more perspiration than inspiration. Through long years of development, individuals stamp their own personality on the things that they create, whether paintings, instruments, or performances. It is a curious thing: as a maker you make decisions at every stage about the way you wish things to be, and many aspects of the instrument are the result of conscious thought. But part of the process seems to have a life of its own. It is rather like a dream - it is completely your own, and yet you do not seem to have control over it all the same. Somehow acts of creativity seem to resemble dreams in that they sometimes give vivid glimpses into the depths of our personalities. It is a language that we all speak and accounts in part for our fascination with things that are "hand-made".

We are sometimes encouraged to see the world of the "subconscious" as a sort of dark, brooding Hammer Horror stage set, but when I look at the work of all kinds of craftspeople, I experience something quite different. An article made with care by an individual has a totally different character from one mass-produced by machines. It was made by a person just like you with life and hope and fear, to celebrate the act of living. Let us hope that it may help us to find an honest way through the increasingly hazardous technology of the 21st century.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", September 1991

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