Culture  Strings that speak

A strange encounter with a St. Urbain violin-maker

I. Etc…

Mr. Gilles Blouin, of seventy-so years, of white face and beard, of gentle white casualwear, points to sprawling blotches on a lone violin back. They’re the result of a cancer in the tree, and as an experiment, he plans to make two violins from this 100 year old piece of wood that he was given as a gift 21 years ago (I’m twenty-one years old). He runs his fingers along the clusters and invites me, a cautious customer, to do the same. He’s rapt, and moves through the cancer like a mouse arrow would over pixelated lily pads – “look at these unorganized phenomena.” His voice trails, my attention flags. Behind him there’s a pile of horsehair bows beside a late-nineties laptop.

Mr. Gilles Blouin talks history on one seamless plane, where asking about his wood-cutting family background results in a requisite greater-Quebec geography lesson, which in turn becomes a digest of the violin-making tradition in North America, which comes back to how his father made his first violin with a pocketknife. He then extols the virtues of pocketknives beyond mere self-defense. “Everyone in Quebec countryside had a pocketknife.” He brandishes the knife. He says sorry when it gets too close to my face.

My notes are a mess, but I have his story: his family lived in rural Quebec, actually cutting trees and actually making things like tables, chairs, violins – everything made on the spot. At seven or eight (all time is fluid and uncertain here – in lieu of precise dates he often prefers to say “the old days”) he learned how to use certain tools, how to sharpen knives, chisels, saws, how to work with wood. When he was of age, he went to Université de Montréal and theorized about language and generative grammar. He identified that Quebecois “joual” was actually how old Parisian French was spoken. He briefly spoke with Noam Chomsky at McGill in order to better understand his work, but was no sycophant. He soured of linguistics, and of the reality that he could only take more examples and regurgitate evidence for papers to be published in obscure, unread journals.

He felt he was writing these papers alone in his room, words to no one, and being from a family of Makers, he was Depressed.


II. Violins

He tried jewelry. Here I must note he speaks superlatively about beauty, and it’s beautiful. Mr. Gilles Blouin liked the trade, but he didn’t have the expensive tools, mainly, precious stones. You need diamond to break jade. From there, he returned to Wood. At 22, he read a book on violin-making, its social allowances as well as its history, detailing the 1850 Parisian market, where it was the social equivalent of an HD TV, when artisans made 2 to 2.5 violins of the highest quality each week. Mr. Gilles Blouin was amazed that humans could make an object so beautiful – “it is a fight with nature” – from American lumber, white spruce and maple, ebony, steel. He felt a fruitful kinship between linguistics and violinmaking – by hearing plosives and the like in the strings, he could replicate the mouth’s sounds in a machine.  He’s been a luthier (violin-maker) now for some time, among many in Montreal, whether official or basement based. It’s a trade he insists is not at all secret or lost. And he’s here in 2011 on St. Urbain, creating a violin a week, where “the emotion is in the next one.”

The cancerous violin was unique, he said, because of its old age. Trees begin low and get scathed in stone, sand, and dirt. Once they get taller, they bend subtly because of the wind. Mr. Gilles Blouin notices that Montreal trees tend to bend in a certain direction because of a dominant wind. But when the tree takes on enough wind, it develops a fiber for this wind-induced internal stress that’s better for a violin. He points me to the skeletal beginnings of a piano soundboard, lines of silver pegs where keys will go. Long white hair covers everywhere it can on his face, and I never see his mouth.