JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Robert Gordon III can hear, and even see, the music inside a piece of wood before he transforms it into a finished violin.
To demonstrate how, Gordon, a second-generation luthier, twisted a Douglas fir top to a violin made based on a Guarneri mold that was handed down to him from his father.
The wood moved like a wave.
He then tapped it about two dozen times.
“The resonance coming off of it, how light it is, how stiff it is,” Gordon said.
“For instance, a lot of it is, see how flexible that top is? You’re trying to get the lateral flexibility, as well as the longitudinal. Instruments are really thin. This is down to 2.5 millimeter. You’re looking at that thin. You can actually see through them when you hold them up to the light. You can kind of see what your arching is, and between the flexibility and the tap tone, so I’m tapping right where the sound post would be, and that’s kind of determining how it’s ringing in my ear. There’s a lot of artistry that goes through in making (violins),” he said.
He describes his violins’ sound as “darker,” like those made by 18th century Italian luthier Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, and not “as bright and brilliant” as others.
Gordon’s violins have been used to play a panoply of music, from fine classical arrangements by the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra to pick-and-fiddle bluegrass tunes.
“I like it when somebody is playing it and they look like they’re happy,” Gordon said. “That’s what makes me happy. You see it in their eyes: ‘Oh, man, this is what we’re talking about.’ ”
He said, at their best, the violins “can mimic the human voice.”
Asked to play a song on one of his own creations, Gordon drew a horsehair bow across the four strings and the sounds of “Ashokan Farewell,” an American folk tune, and then “Faded Love,” a western swing song, filled his house.
“As far as inspiration, I play a little bit,” Gordon said. “I’m not very good at playing. Somebody asked me, ‘Do you play?’ I think you should play some if you’re making them. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re hearing. You’re only hearing it from somebody else playing it. My wife plays upright bass and sings, and we have a little band.”
‘You can hear it’
Sitting at his work table, Gordon looks out the window at his yard and the nearby woods where the seasons transform, over and over and over again, from the new growth of spring, to the vibrancy of summer, to the reds, yellows, browns and oranges of autumn, to the frozen white winter landscape.
“I have an idyllic situation here,” said Gordon about his property at the end of a gravel road in Belsano, near Johnstown.
He shares stories about bears passing across the land, an owl swooping down and grabbing a pair of frogs who were being quite romantic in their final moment, and an array of birds that he watches with his ever-present binoculars.
“Nice feeder over there,” Gordon said. “There’s a feeder hidden behind that one tree. I don’t know if you see it. I entertained turkeys this morning. Deer every day. We’re birdwatchers. We do the Christmas bird count. We do all that kind of stuff.”
Inside, a humidifier sprays mist to keep the humidity level ideally between 40% and 60%.
Neatly stowed plastic Planters nut containers hold parts and tools. A ceiling fan and light hang from above. There is “a bandsaw over there that I don’t plug in.” But, except for a few modern conveniences such as those, the workshop appears as a luthier’s space might have been decades or even centuries ago.
“You’re looking at 400 years of tradition, too,” Gordon said. “Nothing really changed a whole lot in 400 years. It’s very hard to make anything different.”
There is no sound of electric tools grinding on wood and sending sawdust into the air. Gordon does all the work by hand.
“I like the sound of the scraper or a sharp chisel going through wood,” Gordon said. “You can hear it. You can hear when you get down to some place where you like the thickness or something like that. It’s so much better than a power tool.”
Dozens of violins hang from the ceiling in his workshop and nearby vestibule.
He still adds to the collection, making two or three per year, although now, at 65, he no longer does repair work or accepts commissions unless he has the freedom to make his own creations.
“I quit doing commission work just because I want to be able to make what I want,” Gordon said.
Gordon said he could do repair work for steady pay and probably charge more than the standard $8,000 to $10,000 for his original violins, but, as he explained, “I live modestly. … I’ve never had a big drive for money.”
‘Definitely on the rise’
The Guarneri-pattern violin he is currently making for his brother will include a back, ribs and neck crafted from native Pennsylvania sugar maple that Gordon harvested with his father in the 1960s.
Robert Gordon Jr., a minister and factory worker, made more than 200 violins – and gave away about 50 of them – by his son’s count.
“He was more prolific than I am,” Gordon said.
With his father’s assistance, Gordon made his first violin at age 13.
Luthier work remained part of his life throughout the years, even when working other jobs.
Then, in 1988, Gordon opened a shop in Pleasantville, Venango County, before moving to Belsano in 1998.
Gordon often attended the Violin Society of America’s Workshop at Oberlin College, Ohio, directed by master maker Vahakn Nigogosian, of the Stradivarius Studios of New York City, and later Christopher Germain. Gordon at times served as a staff member at the workshop, where he got to share ideas with luthiers from across the world, including Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Norway.
“I think that the violins are experiencing a rejuvenation because of the schools,” Gordon said. “A lot of people really want to make instruments. In America, I think it’s definitely on the rise. I get calls.
“There are many people that want to study. I recommend that they go to the schools. You can get a four-year degree in it now. It’s hard to break into the market. You don’t come out of school and think you’re going to be a millionaire.”