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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shaping Wood: The Jake Project

This is a paper that I wrote in 2007 for my ethnomusicology class at Brown. I followed New London harpsichord maker Jake Kaeser around for a few Sundays, and this is what I observed...
From a modest basement-level shop sandwiched between Bank Street and the train tracks that follow the shoreline, works F. Jacob Kaeser, a maker of hand-made stringed instruments.  He squeaks out a living as the proprietor and the sole fulltime employee of Kaeser Instruments in New London, Connecticut.  An artist entrepreneur, Mr. Kaeser, known as Jake, has made his living for several decades as an independent craftsman. 

Jake has found a niche market. Many popular instruments are better suited to mass production in a factory, or require many hands to produce, like Steinway employing 425 manufacturing workers for its pianos[i].  What Jake has sought is work that is better suited to being wrought by a single craftsman.  To pay the bills Jake makes harpsichords, about nine a year, because these are high-ticket items that go to a clientele that can pay.

Look at photographs of prominent musicians, or take a quick tour of music profiles on iTunes.  You will see images of music makers in contact with their instruments.  Musicians are defined by the instruments that they play.  If you are a classical instrumentalist or a purveyor of a specialized music style then you may require instruments that are not produced in a factory.  You would seek out instruments made by craftspeople like Jake.  

Jake seeks to create new instruments authentic to the originals.  Authenticity is a highly desirable commodity in the marketplace.  In a an article in a recent issue of FastCompany Magazine, Bill Breen states, “Authenticity is a priceless commodity.”[iii]  It is a brand’s values that make the emotional connection to its buyers.  He cites four ingredients that promote a sense of authenticity: a sense of place, where the products come from; a strong point of view, coming from people with a deep passion for their work; serving a larger purpose, a purpose-driven brand over profit-driven; and integrity, a product that is what it says it is.[iv]

Jake and his products drip authenticity.  He describes his development as a builder of harpsichords as a “backwards evolution.”  It was backwards in that he looked to the instruments of the past for inspiration and instruction.  He realized that the harpsichord had reached perfection in the nineteenth century both for musical expression and design.  Since that time many so-called improvements have been instituted, such as foot pedals instead of hand stops, heavier stringing which requires the casework and frames to be heavier to accommodate the greater string tension, and more durable but less resonate strings that often require electrical amplification.[v]

Dissatisfied with the cumbersome newer models, Jake obtained permission from Yale University to examine their collection of harpsichords.  He took measurements and notes regarding materials and construction.  What he learned was that the eighteenth and nineteenth century harpsichord builders utilized economy in framing with slender boards, and fitted glued joints that did not require screws or bolts.  They were much lighter in construction than their modern counterparts.  This meant that a lone craftsman, like Jake, could move the frames and parts without assistance in his workshop.  This was an advantage because Jake could not afford to pay additional employees.  Here Jake describes his study of these instruments and the how he works in his shop:

The way they put the framing in it was so simple in comparison to what modern makers were trying to do.  They were trying to make huge frames with bolts and screws.  I went, “Hey, they had three times the frame and it was just glued, huh.”  And they’re still around, while I’m already repairing these ones that were made in the fifties.

The tradition in Europe was that an instrument maker, a master, once you were a master you had a master’s shop which meant you could employ two journeymen, and one apprentice.  When the logs came in the wood was picked out by the master or by the journeymen.  The apprentices were the guys who were in the sawpit and did all of the cutting down to size of the pieces, so that the journeymen could work them, and the master, when he could take care of business and wasn’t with customers or schmoozing, could come in and do his touches.  That’s how the instruments were made in great number.  The guild system was very strictly regulated.  After serving a certain amount of time as an apprentice you could become a journeyman and after an extensive length of time as a journeyman you could become a master, by getting approval of the guild.  Then you could open your own shop as a master.

My apprentices are the planer, the band saw, and to some extent the table saw. The journeymen, they’d be the table saw the milling of the little table saws, the drill press, and the work benches for the gluing up of the parts. Then the master can put all of the parts together.  So the system has sort of remained the same, it’s just that we sort of went to machinery instead of people.  People come to me requesting apprenticeships.  I can’t really offer them much because that system doesn’t exist in this country.  You get thrown into the production mill.  You either make it or you don’t.

A brief history of the harpsichord:

Plucked keyboard instruments were first recorded in the second half of the fourteenth century[vi].  They were made in three forms, the grand, the upright grand, and the square, and go by several names including harpsichord, virginal, and spinet.[vii]  The virginals and spinets are rectangular or square in shape offering relatively simple mechanisms with one string per key and no other assisting devices.[viii]  The term harpsichord is generally reserved for the wing-shaped instruments, more in the style of a grand piano.[ix]  Over several centuries the harpsichord developed a complex system of multiple string plucking systems controlled by hand operated stops.  The sixteenth century innovation of multiple strings with contrasting timbres being plucked with the same keystroke was a means to vary the limited sound dynamics of the instrument.[x]  The introduction of the piano in the eighteenth century led to further attempts to improve the sound dynamics, but by the nineteenth century the piano, with its versatile playing options, had surpassed the harpsichord.[xi]

A tour of a “Fremish” (a hybrid French and Flemish styles) harpsichord:

In his shop Jake has one nearly finished piece.  Its resonator board is elaborately painted with vines, birds, and flowers.  In the sound hole is an Orpheus Rose made of pewter that is Jake’s signature disc.  Inscribed in the design is his chop-mark, “J. K.”.  He carved the design out of sculpting clay and had it cast by a pewter smith.  The total man-hours invested this piece, discounting the time his partner Laura took to paint the cover, is about five hundred hours.  An instrument like this will fetch anywhere between $12,000 and $16,000 when it is sold.  A portion of that will be split with his agent, of which he has several, depending on which part of the world the harpsichord is bound.  Jake removes the cover and takes me on a tour of the instrument, including a demonstration of its sound:
See how it plucks this string first, and then the other string.  What’s tricky about these things is when it is plucked it has to deliver enough energy, but you also have to able to play it, and then at the same time that plectra has to flip back under the string, without making any sound, and reset.  So in order to do that there’s a little tiny spring and an axel. They’re (the pieces that pluck the string) carved.  They’re probably eight to ten strokes with a knife to carve that plectra so it has exactly the right voice.  So it doesn’t stick out in the crowd, it blends in to give what the string can give.  So with a new instrument, with all rough quills, you’re a choirmaster who’s been given a hundred and eighty-nine singers and they all know how to sing but they don’t know how to sing together. My job is to make them all sing together. If I push this stop back, it’s only the front one, if I pull this out – (he demonstrates) then I put in that octave.  No matter how hard I pluck this, it’s going to give me the same levels.  It’s not going to change the dynamics at all.  That was the downfall of the instrument.  You can’t change the dynamics.  It was great to hear what composer for the harpsichord did to create an illusion of dynamics, the grouping of the notes and the changing of the stops, so that there was an illusion, and it was so masterful.  To hear a harpsichordist play today, who really knows the music, you can swear you hear the dynamics, huge shifts in dynamics. There was limitations but through those limitations, it allowed for something much greater.
Jake seeks to reclaim the heritage of the instrument makers of old.  He has taken great time and pains to study the originals, and to recreate them for modern players who wish to have an authentic playing experience.  The harpsichord itself is an anachronism.  Very few new compositions have been created for the instrument.[xii]  To want to play this instrument is to want to play the work of the old master composers.  Its traditions are kept alive by enthusiasts of that earlier style.  Jake’s instruments enable these enthusiasts to recreate that style.

Jake is himself an anachronism.  Sporting rounded glasses, a bearded chin, a ponytail, and a muffin shaped hat, he makes the most of his eccentric habits.  As he indulges in a hand-rolled cigarette, he tells me the story about how he began making instruments, and how eccentricity led directly to his becoming an instrument maker for hire:
I wanted to learn how to play guitar, but I just started college and I couldn’t afford a guitar, but I could afford to go to the library and check out a book on guitar making, and my landlord really didn’t need that door anyway.  So I built it from my bedroom door.  The amazing thing is, the sound of it, it was great.  It sounded like a door.  But that’s what my start was.  Then I was in my third year of college, I was fired from the job at the hospital for being a wee bit eccentric, don’t you know, in my dress, they didn’t like that.  So I supported myself for the final year making dulcimers and a couple of guitar commissions.  Living in a house with four others going to college, we managed to scrape by. I was working with myself, which had its good points, but also had a real strong downside that came later when I was working at Zuckerman Harpsichords in Stonington. It’s awful hard to make a living making guitars.  I could have never raised a family making guitars, even if I’d have accepted a position at Guild Guitar it wouldn’t have been enough.  Harpsichords, they’re big ticket items, and I was able to raise a family being an instrument maker which was, it was sort of, in defiance of my father that I was bound and determined to be an instrument maker and raise a family.  He said, “You fool, no one can make instruments and raise a family.  What are you crazy?  Damn fool kid.”  That just gave me all the punch I ever needed to succeed or die trying.  My father now is very, very proud of my success.
Jake in his New London Shop

 Here is a master harpsichord builder whose instruments are sold to musicians all over the world, working alone in his basement shop in New London.  But Jake’s shop is more than a work place.  Spend more than an hour there and you will be visited by prospective customers, passersby, and a local artist or two looking for scraps of wood for a project, or a word or two with Jake about the local arts scene.  Walk down the street with Jake and you will be stopped every block or so by people saying hello or catching up on arts activities.  “It’s like being the mayor,” Jake chuckles as we try to make our way to a coffee shop a few blocks away, after we are stopped for the third time.

Jake is a hub for the local arts community.  Hygienic Art, one of the alternative art galleries in New London, will be hosting some of Jake’s work in an exhibit scheduled to open in March 2008.  Just Wood will highlight artists and artisans working in wood.  Says show organizer James Stidfole, “Since Jake is, according to a number of people to whom I have talked, ‘the premiere independent harpsichord maker in the country,’ this makes his work a natural to be in the Hygienic Galleries.”

On Sundays Jake and his family gather at his shop to prepare for the show.  His partner Laura is working on a dulcimer that she has designed, and his two sons are completing projects as well.  The show will feature instruments, drawings, tools, and some of the elaborate and strange-looking jigs that are used to create some of the instrument shapes.

Jake’s youngest son Noah has become a professional instrument maker and restorer working for a shop in Mystic, CT.  He is preparing a journeyman project, a violin that is still in the design phase.  For Christmas he presented his father with a double bass that he had made himself.  The instrument features unique scrollwork that is Noah’s original design, and is distinctive enough to warrant a patent.  With Noah’s interest in the work, Jake imagines a time when their two companies might merge.  He beams as he describes Noah’s innate talent for the work, “He’s taught me things, which is so cool.”

The story of a ukulele

Throughout my visits with Jake over the course of March and April, he has been working on a baritone ukulele.  During my first visit he had assembled the body, and had tape covering the seams.  On subsequent visits the instrument came together bit by bit.  As we talked, he would work the wood, shaving a sliver off here, adding a strip of inlay there.  He showed me how to listen to the wood, to hear its resonance as it was tapped, to listen for the sound of loose parts, and told me the names of the various woods involved in its construction.  The names of the wood are like a poem, the neck and the body are mahogany, the fretboard is rosewood, and the pegboard is Carpathian elm.  While he continued to shape the contours, he recited a poem he has composed that he calls Wood:

Splendid flesh of forest kings
Once you shed your autumn cloak for me
And now I shape your flash
your vein, not unlike my own
To sing

He is constructing the ukulele for a young acquaintance who happens to come by the shop during my second visit to check on the progress of the commission.  The ukulele is being built to the specifications of a sample instrument, one that had been accidentally smashed and sits in a box in several crushed pieces. Jake takes the young man and his father on a tour of the growing instrument.  They spend just shy of half an hour going over the different parts, naming the wood, and discussing where to have a case made for it so that it will not suffer the same fate as the instrument it has been commissioned to replace.

When I arrive for my last visit, Jake is stringing the ukulele.  He has the two strings on either side in place and is trying to get them to hold their tune.  He continues to tinker with the pegs, and works his hand along the neck and over the body.  He loves this thing that he has made, and his hands tell him secrets about the wood that his eyes cannot.  When the two end strings are able to hold their tune, he strings the middle two, starting by roughing up a string end with sand paper.  He explains, “These are really difficult to tie off (the nylon strings), they’ve been driving me crazy all morning.  I can see them slipping.  Gut never does that, but nylon does.  So I rough up the ends with sand paper.”  He shows me the procedure.  I ask him where he learned to do that.  He responds laughing, “I just learned it.”

Once all of the strings are on Jake pulls a pitch pipe from his pocket and tunes his latest creation.  He will not be compensated monetarily the total worth of his hours on this instrument.  He took it on because it had been a few years since he had made one, and welcomed the opportunity to get back into practice, to relearn the skills.  Strumming for fifteen minutes or so, we dance around the shop and we talk about happenings in the local arts scene:
There’s this great synergy.  Like with the Westerly arts community, the fine arts have a huge community, and there’s a lot of synergy created with they’re work with each other.  Pushing the envelope of excellence continually.  It’s really great because it really keeps me stupid.
 Building the instruments for the community, and then the fine arts, I’ll build things for artists, and sit for portraits.  There’s a lot of communication about our arts and what is similar and what is different.  That’s what I mean about the synergy.  What you’re doing currently will dovetail into what they’re doing and perhaps answer a question that they don’t even know they’re asking.  It’s like a university here, all the time.

The strings hold their tune reasonably well.  The ukulele is done, but Jake will continue to tweak it until it is out the door.

More people visit the shop, including one fellow who is new to the area and met Jake at the coffee shop the day before.  Of course he was invited to come by the shop.  Again, Jake is an arts hub.  James Stidfole from the Hygienic Art Gallery describes Jake’s role in the arts community, “In many ways Jake does not ‘fit into the arts community,’ rather the arts community evolves around the presence of Jake.”

To know Jake in one of his other multiple community arts capacities does not hint at his skill or world-class reputation as a maker of highly valued rare instruments.  I have known Jake for a number of years as and actor and a playwright, but it was not until I began work on this project that I began to understand what a Kaeser harpsichord means within the music world.

He is an integral part of the New London arts community, serving it in multiple capacities, as a contributing artist, as a communicator, and as a supplier of instruments that are used by other local musicians.  A self-made man, he has cobbled together a skill-set through self-tutoring, an inquisitive nature, and the necessity to support a family.  Like  Don César Muquinch, who for a time was both a harpist and a hat maker until his health dictated a choice,[xiii] Jake works in many worlds, and like an Ecuadorian harpist, he is in demand around his community. 

Jake and his son Noah examine the uke.
Now Jake is working with his family in his shop as they prepare for next year’s art show.  His son Noah has gone a step further, and is now himself an instrument maker.  Jake’s skills as a craftsman are being handed down, and in fact, are being surpassed by his son’s natural talent for working with wood.  When Jake plays the double bass that Noah built for him, he dances with it, “I hold it like this, like a cello, so I can dance with it.  Drives the other bass players crazy.”  He has been sitting-in with several local bands this spring, toting his double bass.

He creates instruments for others to make their art.  He sums up that experience, “The art is your imagination, what you can do with the possibilities in front of you, involving all of your senses in the creation of them (the instruments), which then, like a play, are passed off to someone else to perform.”  Jake is an authentic presence in both the larger world, where his harpsichords and other instruments are important additions to the ancient and classical music traditions, and in his community where he serves as a local touchstone for arts involvement.  

[i] J. Barron, Piano (Times Books, 2006), p. 56.
[ii] J. Schechter, J. Titon, ed., Worlds of Music 4th Edition (Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 404.
[iii] B. Breen, ‘Who Do You Love? The Appeal and Risks of Authenticity’, FastCompany, issue no. 115 (May, 2007), p. 82.
[iv] Ibid., pp. 86-7.
[v] A. Baines, Musical Instruments Through the Ages, New Edition (Penguin Books, 1975), p. 81
[vi] C. Sachs, The History of Musical Instruments (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1940), p. 336.
[vii] Ibid. pp. 334-5
[viii] Baines, op. cit., p. 72.
[ix] Ibid., loc. cit.
[x] Sachs, op. cit., p. 341.
[xi] Ibid., p. 378.
[xii] Baines, op. cit., p. 82.
[xiii] Titon, op. cit., p. 437.


Versailles Rose said...

How great to find a blog post about Jake! Hubby and I have known him since he worked at the Zuckermann shop eons ago.

Kato McNickle said...

He's a pretty great guy, and quite the versatile artist. Thanks for your comment!