Discovering Vancouver's hidden music makers
What does Crab Park and the Orpheum have in common?
They are both venues where Vancouver’s other music makers—the locally based makers of fine musical instruments—can be heard. Last week, I interviewed two of them. Both highly creative inspiring craftsmen, one lives in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the other in upscale West Vancouver, and what I discovered is that what connects them far outweighs what separates them.
Up in the hills of West Vancouver, there is a house entirely furnished with harpsichords and other exotic early keyboard instruments. They are the work of Craig Tomlinson, one of Canada’s two makers of early keyboard instruments.
When Craig starting building musical instruments at 16, he began with a simple dulcimer. It now hangs on the living room wall, a reminder of his modest beginnings amidst the collection of harpsichords, clavichords, virginals, and fortepianos, not to mention the family’s Yamaha grand piano.
The revivalist movement in musical-instrument making began in the 1930s and, by the 1960s, classical music circles began to appreciate what original instruments could bring to performances of the great Baroque masters (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and so forth).
In 1975, Craig was asked to work on a two-manual French harpsichord. The challenge of this task opened up a new world for him. He worked on kit instruments over the next few years, but could hear and see the limitations factory-produced kits. So in 1978, Craig headed down to Berkeley to learn the craft of building early keyboards. This led him to a rediscovery of the building methods of old-world craftsmen, after whom he modelled his instruments.
“The harpsichord I envisioned combined a perfect balance between the tonal intricacies of the sound and the beauty of the instrument and its decoration," he said.
My tour across Craig’s living room was chronological and, although time seemed to fly, I know 350 years of keyboard development had passed before I reached the other side.
Gazing at the collection, I asked Craig if people who buy his instruments are performers or simply collectors. He said that most buyers are in fact performers, although he cited one large glossy magazine in Palm Springs, California that posited the notion that you're not really on the 'A' list until you have your own French Double Harpsichord.
The grand old lady by the front door is an exquisitely ornate 1608 virginal. She was inspired by two 17th century Flemish instruments made by the Ruckers family of Antwerp. I was so entranced with the sheer beauty of this instrument that I could hardly follow his description of its nifty short octave bass, which expands the lower octave downwards by replacing the chromatic black notes with diatonic white tone pitches (although, you wouldn’t know to look at it). Sorry for the tech-speak, but I think this means that the player can play down to a G below the expected low C, but as I said, I was drooling over the trompe l’œil, elaborate Latin mottos, and swirling arabesques. This instrument is a feast for the eyes.
As with all of his instruments, the virginal was painted by Craig’s mother, Olga Kornavitch-Tomlinson. An artist in her own right, she decorates the instruments by combining historical authenticity and her own instincts as an artist.
Still drooling, I found my way to the next instrument—a harpsichord.
Perhaps to dispel the notion that early music people don’t have a sense of humour, Craig told me a funny story about the 1769 harpsichord. To research the instrument (this one was based on a Pascal Taskin of Paris, now residing in a collection in Edinburgh), Craig received a Canada Council grant to travel to Scotland to photograph, measure, disassemble, and incredibly, even get inside it. So much so that one day, while he had his head in the instrument up to his shoulders, a wiseacre Scots curator snuck up and thundered the “biggest and loudest chord” Craig had ever heard played on a harpsichord.
Once again, there was a techie segment to the tour and Craig showed me the transposition block, a slab of wood used to shoehorn the instrument up and down in pitch.