Traditional lutherie is not a mummy!

Behind the spirit of the Traditional Art & a talented Luthier! 

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Last week I had the privilege, honor, and great pleasure,to speak with one of the most renowned, master luthiers of the Greek Traditional Lutherie, in a short but highly interesting interview.

Mr Xristos Spourdalakis ( ) captivated me with his in depth views regarding technical topics, but also with  his poetic expression regarding his personal life experience from this sacramental relationship between luthier and musical instrument which fulfill his life for the last 35+ years.

-Dear Mr Spourdalaki, for many years now, your name is connected with the Traditional Lutherie, the sweet, characteristic old-era sound -which your musical instruments produce-, and the application of technological achievements and new materials with greater strength and better acoustic properties.
What prompted you to turn towards the technology sector and search there, solutions for application in traditional Lutherie? 

Xristos Spourdalakis
-Please forgive my wordiness to this first question.
But the question needs a complete and detailed answer. This is important, since it will help the readers both to generally understand our work, and especially the reasons that led us to search for and adoption of innovative applications.

Behind this search, exists a baseline understanding of how I see the much-discussed notion of "Tradition" of "Traditional profession", and in particular  of 'Traditional Lutherie"

My opinion is that tradition should not be treated like a museum inheritance which travels from generation to generation, with the only scope the rigorously and repetitive imitation of past pre-standard techniques.

Most of the times when the cultural inheritances encountered as sacred, unreachable, totems,  which we have  to deliver to next generations exactly as we received them, then - and this is my subjective opinion- then, we do not respect at all the spirit of tradition, since we block its life within the contemporary reality.
Generally speaking,  I understand the "Tradition"  and especially the 'Traditional Lutherie"  not as a mummy, but as a living and evolving Art - Technique, similar to a project delivery, with a main scope the continuation by our successors  to develop it even further.

So in my workshop the techniques which we apply in musical instrument making, are nothing less than a blend from very old methods, (Greek, or more generally from the European Art Lutherie), supplemented by innovations that leverage the modern technology. Of course we care so the result is exposed to public judgment.

For example, the well known method engraving  the fret-board, by using the small saw by hand, practically superseded permanently in my opinion, since the computer now days drives the  CNC which engraves most accurately,  collaborating to the undeniable benefits in terms of tonal accuracy of the musical instrument.

Another example could be the replacement of the well-known wooden laminated neck (in the lute-type musical instruments)  by carbon fibers, as their proper placement,  solves in an absolute way the problem of deformations in the neck  due to moisture changes (see. ). From the above examples its obvious that the new technology often has a lot to offer in upgrading of  older techniques.

In contrast, as long as the technology does not offer us - so far - some new glue or adhesive which has a superior sound performance for wooden musical instrument, the option can only be the ancient psarokolla (hot hide glue). That is why the creation of  all parts of our bowls (bowl - braces - soundboard, and  decorations) are connected with this unsurpassed up to this day ancient material.

In conclusion I would say that the tradition in my judgment is a living river, and the responsibility  we have is to let it run its course in time, without stuttering in creative continuity, because the water will become mud, smelly and source of mental retardation-infection.

Of course, only time can be the final judge, who will decide how many and which of the new elements will be included in the body of tradition, to form the organic part of it for the prospective heirs of the future.
As you can understand the issue is substantially wider and more demanding to be completed  within a response. But I hope to be able to give you a clear outline of my perceptions and orientations.

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- Dealing myself with Art I would be the first to say that there is usually no "Parthenogenisis" in Art.
But looking at the decorative elements of your musical instruments I must admit that they carry really beautiful and unique designs.
As sponsor of such designs which are characterizing your work, where you draw your inspiration? For me your designs refer to themes of Byzantine times and Hellenic folk Art

Xristos Spourdalakis
-The adoption of these specific designs initiated by the need of legibility of our musical instruments from the first glance. For this purpose in the mid 90's we asked the help of Leonidas Angelopoulos, -then young artist-, so we bought the exclusive use of specific designs, which as you guessed correctly refer aesthetically in ancient Greek, Byzantine, and our  newer Tradition.

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Apart from specific exceptions of older luthiers (such as Stathopoulos, Gkelis etc.) and few modern luthiers, I would like to point out that, - in my opinion - it is a pity that the modern Greek Lutherie seems to be showing no interest in personal aesthetic and decorative signature by its creators.

I believe that would only benefit our modern Lutherie,  if we were avoiding to repeat some familiar patterns which undermine, in my judgment, the credibility of the musical instrument and bouzouki's overall presence in the global  Art Lutherie. 
The thing - always in my subjective aesthetic judgment - is compounded when the dominant materials are all kinds of plastics, with questionable aesthetic, which often are trying to imitate the natural materials such as abalone and mother of pearl.

We can easily observe that also in the field of decoration of the  bouzouki family, there is a trend away from the aesthetics of the middle-modesty of the old pre-war generation,  to the other side of an aesthetic demonstration, and easy sensationalism.

Also we can observe a corresponding shift in the music written during the older years compared to the one composed these days for this instrument. I , for one see an aesthetic ratio. For example, how simple and expressive is the minor of  Xalkia, and how much virtuosic excess and need to show off recorded in the modern improvisational attempts - recordings.

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-You are one of the few distinguished luthiers who openly and publicly with videos and  interviews, diffused your multi-annual knowledge to the general public and to the amateur luthiers.
Is this a personal attitude towards life?
Did you have at the early years of your career some older master luthiers who helped you and transferred to you their knowledge? 

Xristos Spourdalakis
-Unfortunately,35 years ago the  "pre-enlightening"  perception of the need to protect the notorious 'secrets' of Lutherie,  distracted the luthiers whom I met, to share not only secrets but also simple knowledge  of their craftsmanship.
Yes, I surely could narrate an  incident of misleading information instead.

I think that these elements (attitude) of  secrecy - introversion of the Tradition,  need improvement and modernization in a world that is so open to any kind of  information. 
Currently, by protecting some 'secrets' we are doing nothing more than to protect a Mythology,  delaying this way the healthy development of an Art which we must share in order to progress.

Though as time passes and the old mentality of secrecy recedes, unfortunately it still remains so dominant that feeds the biggest problem of Greek instrument construction, which in my opinion is nothing but arrogance leading to 'collegian envy'. 

A fairly extensive report of my perception on this issue can be found at the following address:
Apart from words and practically, I have tried to be helpful to anyone needing technical information - opinions, but also  publicly post on YouTube video of musical instrument's construction. 
Indeed their (YouTube video) content, is not be exhausted on showing -describing familiar techniques, but exposing to the public knowledge and evaluation, of what I think is new and innovative (  ).

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In your very informative website you are selling  miso-bouzouko carrying bowl with dimensions and shape of mandolin with carved staves.
Would you like to tell us a little more on the reasons which motivated you to include in  the category of your musical instruments such a "forgotten", from the most luthiers, "historic" instrument;

Xristos Spourdalakis
-As we know the instruments of the lute family, and more specifically the branch of tampouroeidon has unusually wide variety of sizes, scales, tuning and techniques of construction. In particular miso-bouzouko which originates from mandolin-body with neck that has scale up to that of bouzouki produces in my own taste one of the most enchanting sounds of that musical instrument group.

That is one reason I like to build miso-bouzouka and even if nowadays is no longer a very popular instrument  The most important reason however is that, in miso-bouzouko  I owe my initiation into prewar sound, as became the reason to apply for the first time the technique of the step of the soundboard on tampouroeides.

If I am  not becoming tiring with technical details, I would like to say that in the instrument making of bouzouki the first half of  the 20th century,  the technique with the Neapolitan style step on the soundboard, was dominant  . I appreciate that this is a historical echo of the archetypal influence that had the mandolin on tambouras to give the bowl of the Stathopoulos  bouzouki.
So if we consider very roughly and in general terms that the bouzouki - as we know it today - is a descendant of tambouras, and incorporating construction techniques of mandolin, we see that retains elements of both its "parent" instruments,  and that rather the step on the soundboard, prevailed in the prewar years as technical influence by the mandolin.

Briefly, regarding the step on the soundboard,  can be said that this is the division of the soundboard in two levels, and indeed with  their intersection been curved. This technique gradually until the mid 50s abandoned. I evaluate that one of the reason for this (abandonment) is  the additional work required, and the difficulty in the proper implementation of this technique.
However - always along a hypothesis - the dominant reason must have been that the pressure on the soundboard from the strings is much greater than the one which would be applied by the bridge on a flat soundboard. This conclusion is reasonable since the beginning of the strings in the tail-piece is significantly below the base of the bridge

 In this technique I was introduced by an inherited mold (of D. Mourtzinos) for implementation of the soundboard's step. To protect the original mold, I use mold made by  aluminum , part of which is shown in the photo below.

The excess pressure which applies on the soundboard is equal to as much pressure would accept a flat soundboard by a bridge with total height equal to the maximum gap that distinguish in  the photograph bellow, plus (+)  the height of the real bridge.
This high pressure had as a  result, (in the musical instruments of that period) -due to the higher load applied on soundboard- to have considerably thicker soundboard something that has an effect on the sound but also on the longevity of the musical instrument itself.

The successor method, which eliminated the soundboard step,  developed nowadays in reverse somehow technique. More and more often I see the reverse technique to be applied - even to a degree that is considered the modern established method - the following inverse way to the old technique. In this the base of the bridge is at a lower level than the tail-piece.

It looks like that the construction intended to provide that the soundboard should be from the beginning 'slightly sunken'. On this modern version the bridge applies substantially less force on the soundboard which allows the luthier to construct smaller thicknesses soundboard.

The obvious advantage: the dramatic increase of sound's volume and the corresponding reinforcement of low frequency regions of the musical instrument.
The potential drawback is that due to the chronic pressure by the strings, the thin soundboard can be subsided and the already precarious balance of the soundboard to be proved temporary. The rough sketch that follows tries, without doing analysis of the forces on the axes x, y, to clarify the difference described.

I suppose in this essential difference between the old and the new method is due and the following oxymoron fact:
Maintained in utilitarian state musical instruments  made the 30s,  and have proven temporary constructions musical instruments which were made in much later decades, due to the main problem of 'fallen' - wrecked soundboard. 

At this point, perhaps we can look again the corresponding ratio of what remained between the pre-war songs and what was left from the songs of the last decades. It seems that the need of temporary and easy impression of our times, has a proportional analogy also in the instrument making. As I see it  is wide scope following the axiom of musicology.

"Any development of musical Art is unthinkable without corresponding development of the medium which produces (the Art) "

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- Previously in an older post on this blog I had written an article referring to the Mediterranean  and Asia Minor climate, and the construction growth of tampouroeidon musical instruments with long neck, compared to the tough weather ( (from temperature and humidity) of the United States and Canada, wondered if  the bouzouki eventually would had a completely different construction, structure, and shape if it had originally created in another longitude and latitude with completely different weather conditions.
Finally is the bouzouki as a construction  a "sensitive" instrument; 
How far this thought is,  from such a fantastic scenario;

Xristos Spourdalakis
-Out of  respect  I do not think there is room for a complete answer on the question of whether the bouzouki is a delicate musical instrument  The resistance of such a  kind instrument is almost always such a multi-factorial 'equation' which would required a full answer extremely lengthy, and even incomprehensible for the non uninitiated technically, readers of this blog.

Generally, on the part of your question involving the factor of different climate I will try to cover briefly by saying the following:

Since the musical instrument is composed by different types of wooden parts, it is obvious  that will be affected to the influence of climatic conditions of humidity and temperature. 

At this point it would be useful to quote the following link 

( ), where one can find answers to questions related to the influence of climatic conditions on a musical instrument, focusing on their impact on musical instrument's neck . But I would like to take advantage of  your question because it gives me the opportunity to raise up to you a general observation.

It seems that the institutions with origin from the East (oud, saz, tampouromorfa, etc.) carring thin and loose strings than those of western instruments (mandolin, guitar, violin, etc.) designed for multiple tention. 

Of course such a wording is quite general and several exceptions can be found  from both groups. However, the explanation for the validity of this rule should not be sought in the climatic causes, but rather on cultural causes - aesthetic differences that distinguish these two worlds. 
The low intensity  and slow depreciation of the oscillation  provided by the loose string, -which more frequently than in the West, improvise (improvisation)-, favors the implication of the notes and the frequency-bin approach of the natural human voice. 
Conversely, the tensioned string,  favors the easier pumping of a loud sound, more disciplined, with a shorter sound reduction (less sustain) suited to the performance of polyphonic music. 

I feel the need to reiterate that this observation describes more of a trend with many exceptions, rather than a strict rule. 

It seems therefore - in my personal judgment always, -better to say a personal matter - that the 'relaxed' attitude to life of the old East in relation to the more 'rational' disciplined Western system of life, is recorded through the cultural footprint.


Xristos Spourdalakis
-As perhaps shown by what I mentioned  above, and as the years are passing, the more I discover and admire the wisdom of the prewar instrument construction. 

This preference has led me to study the reproduction of the old construction methods following even original prewar molds, which a good fate brought them into my hands. 

One such example is the mold of the photography below, made by Demetrios Mourtzinos , which  I hope soon to hear its sound as a finished musical instrument.

Before this short interview , I knew that Mr Xristos Spourdalakis, was a reputable , noble, talented master - luthier. But after the emails we exchanged, and this short interview,  I discovered behind the talented craftsman a person with humbleness , unique philosophical attitude towards life,  and a great love for the Traditional Lutherie, great that it can not be limited to the narrow borders of his personal career, but spreads its wings, embracing with his experience and knowledge,  inspiring whoever faithful decided to initiated into the magical world of Traditional Lutherie


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