Posts for:  September 2010

The Instrument Makers

Oboe maker Mary Kirkpatrick makes her instruments by hand -- and foot.

Last month, my husband Tom and I traveled to the quiet hills outside Ithaca, New York, curious to see the guitar our friend Gerhard has been making. He’d been working all summer under the tutelage of luthier Dick Cogger, and we were invited to view Cogger’s remarkable home workshop, which sits in an ordinary-looking suburban subdivision about twenty minutes north of Cornell University.

Stepping into the house’s lower level, we came upon jigs, table saws, lathes, forms, pieces of drying spruce, cedar, rosewood, snakewood, and ebony. There were sanders, gigantic hoses to suction up wood shavings, shelves of varnishes and glues, and a computer or two. All this looked impressive enough, but Cogger informed us, “There’s an even more interesting operation just down the hall.” He was referring to the workshop run by his wife Mary Kirkpatrick, who is renowned for her Baroque and Classical-era oboes. Astonishingly, Kirkpatrick makes her instruments without the use of electricity.

She had some time that afternoon to show us around. “Let’s start with the raw material,” she said, turning to a stack of logs in a corner of the room. The logs were the color of bisque, and about the length and thickness of my forearm.

“This is boxwood from England,” she said. “Boxwood in America does not grow this large.”

A log of boxwood and future oboe

She grabbed a log and demonstrated how she makes the first rough cuts with quick chops of a hand axe. Then she moved to the treadle lathe, an antique machine nearly five feet tall and seven feet long, also from England. The powerful, large machinery moved into action, driven not by electrical current, but by Kirkpatrick’s pumping the treadle with her foot.

Without breaking the smooth rhythm of her leg and footwork, Mary brought the log of boxwood against the whirring blade of the lathe.

“Yes, theoretically I should be wearing safety goggles,” she said. “But they’re cumbersome. I’d rather just shut my eyes and do it all by feel.”

Once she turns the wood into an acceptable shape, she bores, or hollows out the instrument, and further refines it with saws, drills, and files. For the instrument’s keys, which must move up and down rapidly with only a few millimeters’ play, she cuts and hammers tiny pieces from a solid sheet of brass. The joints of the instrument are made of Corian, which she believes mimics the density and malleability of ivory. The finished oboes are a gleaming dark brown, and beautiful.

Nearly finished

Kirkpatrick has been selling her oboes to period-instrument performers and orchestras around the world. She met Cogger over two decades ago at an instrument-maker’s conference. She discussed with him the need to find an extra piece of metal for one of her antique lathes — a part that she simply couldn’t pick up at the local True Value.

“I might be able to make you something that would do the job,” Cogger offered, and that was how their life together started.

Along one wall in the living room of the Cogger/Kirkpatrick home sits a Steinway grand, which belonged to Kirkpatrick’s father, who was a keyboard professor at Cornell and Charles Ives scholar. Opposite the piano sits a full-sized Martin harpsichord, made in Pennyslvania in the 1980′s, and hand-painted with decorative flowers. I sat down at the harpsichord to play Bach’s B-flat Partita; the clarity and purity of the sound moved me, as this must have been the sound that Bach had heard and intended for this music.

After the final B-flat sounded, Cogger told me, “We used to have a pipe organ, too, up there on the second floor landing. One of our friends would perform all three instruments in one evening – an hour of harpsichord music with wine and hors d’oeuvres, a piano recital after dinner, and an organ concert with dessert.”

Now, fall is upon us, the school year has begun, and after 240 hours of summer labor, Gerhard’s guitar, having received its final varnishing and polishing, is finished. His reward is an instrument that is lovely to look at, and lovely to hear, with its rich, clear, bell-like tone.

Reflecting on all these different instruments, I wonder what first compelled human beings to cut, bore, file, and shape pieces of wood, then fasten them together and fit them with keys, strings, felt, quills, and metal. What compels us, even now, to painstakingly create objects whose sole function is to make sounds in a meaningful way? It’s proof to me that music must fulfill a deep-seated need in us to communicate our feelings and our wordless ideas into sound — that music is essential to being human.