Local violin-maker follows in the footsteps of Italian masters

Violin-maker Brian Lisus is quite happy to be called a traditionalist. In fact, he’s been doing it the old-fashioned way for the past 30 years, and sees absolutely no reason to change now. Shunning modern construction techniques, he relies instead on experience, intuition and a finely tuned ear to produce exquisite-sounding string instruments that have won him international acclaim.

A well-crafted violin in capable hands can make a grown man weep. In fact, for music aficionados the world over, the sounds that resonate from string instruments crafted by Italian masters such as Giuseppe Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari three centuries ago provide something akin to a religious experience.

Masterpieces such as the d’Egville, Pennette and Milstein violins produce a sound so complex, yet so sweet – and to this day, no one knows why. The density of the wood, the constituents of the varnish… theories abound, as do efforts to replicate them. Some luthiers (makers and repairers of string instruments) have come close, and it must be said that many fine violins are being produced today – some of them horrendously expensive.

However, no matter how good they are now, only with time will they develop that special, indefinable quality that elevates a good instrument into the pantheon of greatness. The violin makers know it, the musicians know it, and so do the music connoisseurs and collectors. Actually, it’s been a hot topic in the classical music fraternity for the past 250 years.

This goes a long way towards explain why a well-used, slightly tatty violin with a Stradivarius label (Stradivari’s Latin name, which he used to sign his instruments) can fetch anything from R8 million to R33 million when sold through top end dealers. One luthier who seems on track to uncover Stradivari’s secrets is Capetonian Brian Lisus. Some of his satisfied clients include the late Professor Walter Mony, former principal violinist for the London Symphony Orchestra; David Juritz, concertmaster of the London Mozart Players; and Avigail Bushakovitz, one of South Africa’s upcoming violinists and advanced student at the Julliard in New York. But the instrument that placed him firmly on the international stage was a cello named “Mischa”. Made in 2003, its quality and purity of sound has led it to be hailed by devotees as one of the best cellos ever made.

Like we said, Lisus – who crafts his masterpieces at his Plumstead home along with assistant Sharon Peddie (incidentally, one of SA’s leading goldsmiths) – is a traditionalist. The only concession he makes to the modern era is a band saw (for cutting out the rough scroll), a drill press and electric lighting. For the rest, he relies on the same Italian techniques used 300 years ago to produce his fine instruments. Says Lisus: “I’m often asked how the various parts of a string instrument work together to produce its distinctive sound. Everyone has his own theory. As for me, I simply don’t want to know. I prefer allowing the magic to unfold on its own.”

His reasoning isn’t as strange as you might think. Consider this: a violin is a highly sophisticated instrument comprising about 70 parts, and its rather provocative shape has more to do with acoustics than aesthetics. It’s the sum of all its parts – including the complex inner spaces and other variables such as the quality and thickness of the wood, and the instrument’s final finish – that determine the quality of the sound. Also, as a violin ages, its sound quality improves.

Even scientists have found it impossible to analyse all these factors adequately and come up with an explanation; it seems there are just too many variables involved. Lisus explains his unusual approach to crafting his stringed instruments: “My style is not to know anything intellectually… I’ve always resisted analytical reasoning. My philosophy is that the old masters managed to produce exquisite-sounding instruments – and with aids like elaborate acoustic technology, so can we today.”

Lisus’ interest in string instruments started early. Joe Sack, his godfather and next-door neighbour, was a fine cellist as well as the music critic for the now defunct Rand Daily Mail. An accomplished musician in his own right, Sack always had top musicians passing through his home. Lisus carries fond memories of the days when, as a five year- old, he would visit Sack’s place wearing his pyjamas and listen to the impromptu chamber music and lively debates that centred on instruments and their sound. By the age of six, Lisus was learning to play the cello.

After completing his stint as a national serviceman, he decided to give violinmaking a go. In 1976, he was accepted into the Newark School of Violin Making in England – a huge honour considering that only 12 of the 500 applicants were accepted each year – and of that group, only four foreigners got in. “I was very lucky; practical woodwork wasn’t a strong point for me at school.” Fortunately, this did not prove to be a problem, and three years later, he graduated with an A. But what really set the tone for Lisus’ successful career was an unmitigated disaster that occurred on his return home. On opening his bags, he discovered that all his moulds and templates were missing. The only solution was to make his own – a bold and novel concept, not to mention a huge break from tradition (most violin makers use templates to meticulously copy the various Stradivarius designs).

Lisus is philosophical about the challenges of those early days. “Often in life, your greatest problem can become your greatest gift.” It took him a full year to research, develop his own technique and make his first violin. He concedes that his early work did not necessarily follow convention. “In those years I made a few strange violins by today’s standards!” But he never looked back, and today he’s one of very few individuals who rely solely on their own skills and designs to ply their trade. That he was so far removed from other luthiers also proved to be an advantage – mainly, he explains, because no one was around to pressure him into conforming. Eventually, however, Charles Beare, one of the world’s top violin connoisseurs, took notice of the South African upstart, decided that he liked the man’s spirited individuality, and helped him to develop his own, unique style.

Says Lisus: “It’s an ongoing process. I seldom make two identical violins – there will always be some kind of variation. In fact, if I was continually making the same instrument, I’d soon lose interest.”

Some of the techniques Lisus developed then, and still relies on today, will never be found in a violin-making manual. One example: when he’s working on the form of a new instrument, he props the unfinished shape on a chair at the foot of his bed at night, then goes to sleep. When he wakes in the morning, it’s the first thing he sees before his conscious mind kicks in. “When I wake up I invariably find something that could be changed. I feel some of my best ideas come in that state of half awakeness.”

Later, when he’s busy with final adjustments or tuning his instruments, Lisus slips his mind into neutral. He explains: “The idea is not to think when listening to a violin – that’s the only way to interpret the sound. But it works for about five seconds; then your mind takes over and you lose it.”

How Stradivari and other masters during the “golden age” of violin making (1650 to 1750) produced instruments of such fine tonal quality is still debated today. Some suggest that “stewing” the wood in a salt solution to lower its hemicellulose content is the answer. Others hypothesise that some form of mineral treatment substantially altered the structure of the wood while it was being cured for years under water. A strong majority believe that the application of the varnish is the key. Then there are those who rubbish all theories, reckoning that craftsmanship and design are all that matters. The sages maintain – and this is one point on which everyone seems to agree – that there’s no substitute for 300 years of graceful ageing.

Lisus is a firm exponent of the varnish theory. As a consequence, he has spent most of his working career researching and experimenting with the sticky stuff. Protecting a violin from the elements follows a process we’re all familiar with; namely, applying a primer, adding a colour, then finishing off with a few layers of varnish. In the case of violins, however, it’s a considerably more fiddly affair, requiring a much finer technique than most of us would understand.

According to Lisus, the primer and ground coat influence the instrument’s sound, so this is the most important layer. It also protects the wood from dirt and moisture. For colour, he uses ground madder roots or Brazil wood. Finally, the varnish – made from linseed or walnut oil mixed with spruce resin (Lisus uses a specific resin sourced from Russia) – has to have the following qualities: it can’t be too durable and must be flexible, it needs to be extremely thin and completely transparent – and it must never penetrate the wood. Says Lisus: “Applying the varnish is just about the most important part of the process. If it’s too soft, the instrument will sound mushy, but if it’s too hard, the instrument sounds harsh. It’s taken me a long time, but after 30 years of research, I believe I’m pretty close to what the Italian masters used.”

Brian Lisus makes cellos, violins and violas. He also teaches hobbyists the fine art of string instrument making from his Cape Town home. For more information, contact Lisus on 021-797 2861 or visit his Web site at www.violinafrica.co.za

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