[Interview] Luthier Roland Feller Discusses His Experience with Pernambuco

Roland Feller at his shop

Roland Feller at his shop

I was really excited to go see Roland Feller at his shop and talk to him about his experience as a well-known luthier. Walking to his tiny shop on Divisadero Street in San Francisco brought back a lot of memories, as I remembered going into his shop for the first time nearly 10 years ago to rent my first violin. When I arrived, I rang the bell and then eagerly walked up the staircase until I saw him standing at the top with a big smile on his face and wearing his working apron. I gave him a hug and said hello to his wife who was working behind the counter. The place was just how I remembered it. Instruments and bows filled every surface of the room and the walls were covered with photos of famous musicians and beautifully designed instruments. I noticed multiple “certificates of merit” for his instrument making hanging over the doorway as he took me into the front room of the shop.

Poster from Mittenwald, Germany

Poster from Mittenwald, Germany

The walls of the room were lined with rows of cellos and when we sat down we immediately jumped into the subject of music and how he got into it as a child. Feller grew up in a small town in Switzerland and started to play the cello when he was 9 years old. He said that he eventually realized that his real calling was in instrument making—it combined both his love of music and woodworking into one.  He went to violin making school in Mittenwald, Germany, where there was a rich history in the instrument making industry. He told me that a man by the name of Matthias Klotz got interested in violin making in the 1700s, and brought the trend with him to Mittenwald. It evolved as the town’s main industry and in the 1800s they started an official violin making school, which is where Feller ended up attending. “It was an exciting time for me” said Feller, who was only 15 years old when he began attending this state school of violin making.

Violins at Feller's shop

Violins at Feller’s shop

After finishing school, Feller moved to New York to do his apprenticeship with a famous Italian violin-maker by the name of Simone Fernando Sacconi. Feller eventually came to work in the Bay area, where he met his future business partner Jim Furey. They opened up a shop in 1977 and Furey made and repaired the bows while Feller made and repaired the instruments. Feller explained that it was through Furey that he realized how important bows were and what a difference a good bow can really make. Feller laughed as he began to tell me a story when a man came in to try out different bows in his shop. “The man went into our front room and closed the door to test out the bows,” Feller explained, “after some time I turned to my wife who was also working in the shop that day and said ‘I thought he was trying out different bows, why is he playing on different violins?’” He told me that he then realized that the man was in fact playing with different bows on the same instrument.

I asked him what he thought about pernambuco and how he saw it affecting his line of work. “If you look at a nice piece and it’s properly finished you have a feeling that it’s three-dimensional. The way it refracts light is very beautiful, making you feel like you can look into it.” He explained that although the threat of the shortage to pernambuco is a real concern, the shortage hasn’t really hit yet because there’s at least 50 to 70 years of pernambuco wood already in North America and Europe at the current rate of usage. However, “the time might come where you might not even be able to take a finished bow across the international border of Brazil,” he explained, which could then be a problem in the future.

Sticks of pernambuco

Sticks of pernambuco

Feller recalled a time nearly 10 years ago when he was on the American Federation of Violin Bow Making and they got a call from Horst John down in Brazil saying that they had planted about 100,000 seedlings of pernambuco but that due to weather conditions they couldn’t produce enough water. The people on the organization, including Feller, decided to donate money for them to build a well and better irrigation system. Although the trees that Horst John planted 10 years ago might not be as good as those in the wild, they’re still usable.

Feller stated that organizations such as IPCI have also been working with the farmers and local people of Brazil to encourage them to grow the trees and deter them from chopping them down for grazing lands. “It’s hard to really lay blame. If I was living down there I think about how you have to support your family and you might want to clear some land to get a couple of cows. You can’t really blame those people,” he continued, “it’s the ones who are higher up with controlling interests.” North Americans and Europeans are partly responsible for encouraging the deforestation too by buying their cheap meat. Therefore, “we need to show the people of Brazil that we want to work together with them because it benefits everybody.”

Feller's workspace

Feller’s workspace

We ended the conversation by turning back to the art of violin and bow making. I asked him a little bit about how he viewed the comparison of older made instruments to newer ones. “I tend to look at things fairly matter of factly,” he explained, “Some people think that just because an instrument is older then it’s better. But if it was bad 200 years ago it won’t be good now.” He said that the greatest old instrument might have a slight advantage over a newer one because the wood has had a chance to age and harden, but in the end it boils down to what the maker does with the materials. “People have tried to copy Tourte bows and will often be disappointed that they don’t sound or work as good as the originals,” said Feller. “They think that these old bow makers must have had some sort of secret. But they didn’t have a secret, they just knew what they were doing.” It’s about knowing what you’re working with and dealing with natural materials, he explained. “If you copy a Strad exactly with the same thickness, arching and everything, then yes they’ll be an exact copy, but it will sound differently because the piece of wood that Strad used and the piece of wood someone uses today are now different.”

Hanging violins and bows

Hanging violins and bows

Feller said that he doesn’t think it works to copy something down to the 100th of a millimeter, but it could work if you are making a carbon fiber now. “That’s why now I think we will start seeing more man made material bows, because once you have a manufacturing system figured out with how to make a good working bow, it can be copied much easier than if you’re dealing with natural material.” Feller said that he thought there was definitely a place for carbon fiber bows in the world and he was sure that we would see more of them in upcoming years. “As a wood worker of course those things will never be pieces of art like a nice wooden bow. But they might work just as well. And in some instances there might even be an advantage.” Feller will often recommend carbon fiber bows for teaching smaller kids because if it is dropped then you can just pick it up and go back to work. However, “pernambuco is one of the most beautiful woods that I know of,” he said. “There’s nothing like a wooden bow.”

For more on Roland Feller, check out an article of him from the SF Gate here.

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