A maestro without a market

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A maestro without a market

Good music can bring much brightness into people's lives. But violin-maker Kim Nam-hyoun prefers the darkness.

"I need shadows to do my work," Mr. Kim said, explaining the dimness of his small workroom in Mok-dong, southwestern Seoul. When he carefully turns the shoulder of the violin under the room's single, incandescent lamp, one can see why: By looking at the barely discernable shadows created by minute irregularities in contour, Mr. Kim can check if the wood's finish is even.

The results of these shadows, however, can be stirring. At the recent Violin Making Exhibition, held by the Violin Makers Association of Korea at the Keumho Art Gallery in Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, local makers of Western stringed instruments got the chance to show off their finely-tuned craft. The 50 instruments on display included the whole range of the string instrument family, from the imposing bass to the elegant violin.

The exhibition showed seven odd-shaped instruments -- Mr. Kim's replicas of baroque-period stringed instruments such as the viola d'amore, the poccetta, a small violin that clowns carried in their pockets, and a copy of a 19th-century English violin in the shape of a cane.

Mr. Kim got into violin making by chance. After studying business administration at a university for three months, which he did not enjoy, Mr. Kim joined the military as a trombone player in the military band. When not marching in the band, he whiled away the time making shelves and other knickknacks.

"A guitarist in the band who had studied in Spain noticed that I was good with my hands and told me about a violin making school in Italy," said Mr. Kim. After getting out of the army in 1994, he left for Italy, not knowing a word of Italian. For the next four years, he studied violin making at the famous Stradivarius Violin Makers School of Cremona, Italy. Cremona, about an hour south of Milan, has been a center of violin making since the 1660s when the legendary Antonio Stradivari set up shop there. After receiving his maestro certificate, he spent another year specializing in baroque instruments.

Three years ago Mr. Kim returned to Seoul where he repairs violins for a living and makes Baroque stringed instruments as a hobby, a hobby that takes up most of his time.

On the shelves in his workshop are thick files filled with pencil sketches of violin designs, their measurements written next to the designs in tiny script. More than 20 drawers hold the various parts and materials, while wooden molds of violins hang on the wall along with chisels, gouges and an assortment of other tools. The radio plays softly. "This is very lonely work, and I like to hear the sound of a human voice while I work," Mr. Kim said.

For his violins, Mr. Kim uses maple for the back, ribs and neck, and fir for the belly. "Maple is a hard wood, while the softer fir allows the belly of the violin to vibrate," he explained. Mr. Kim takes his pick of wood from the cold regions of northern and eastern Europe. "Trees that have grown in areas with short but very cold winters yield evenly-spread annual rings, about 1 millimeter apart," Mr. Kim said.

Only after the wood has been air-dried for 5 to 10 years is it ready to be turned into a violin. The arduous process of making a violin, which can take up to three months, starts with making the rib with strips of maple measuring only 1 millimeter in thickness.

The exterior contours of the back and the front of the violin are carved into shape using gouges, planes and scrapers, while the interior of the plates is hollowed out. Arching the exterior gives the thin plate of wood resistance to the tension of the strings, while the interior, thick in the belly and gradually thinning toward the edges, produces better vibrations.

Violin making is not only an art, but a science as well. The f-shaped sound holes affect the timbre of the instrument. A bass bar glued to the interior surface of the front plate reinforces the belly against the pushing of the string. The sound post, or what the Italians call the anima, or soul, inserted between the two plates, influences the sound of the instrument by affecting the vibration pattern of the plates.

As for the deep glow of the violin, a typical violin receives 50 coats of varnish with a flat otter brush. After each coating, the violin must be left to dry two to three hours.

Violin making is a labor of love for Mr. Kim. There is no market for Korean-made stringed instruments.

"Violinists shun local violins," said Kim Hyun-ju, president of the Violin Makers Association of Korea. Even high school students use old instruments made in Europe that cost more than 10 million won ($8,300), he said.

So why is Mr. Kim toiling away in the dark in his workshop in Mok-dong? "It is the anticipation that one day they will meet their players and have their sounds heard," he said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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