I first came to the lute and its music in the early 1990s, during a year of classical guitar
study. For a while I played lute tunes on my guitar, but soon realized that I wanted a real lute -
the instrument's magical sound and beguiling form had already cast their spell. I also knew, from the start, that I would
build my own instrument. People often ask how I got into lute making, and it's about as simple as that. I learned
that the lute existed, and pretty much knew right away that I'd build one.
It took me a while to assemble the tools, materials and know-how, but I built my first lute - a 7-course, based on Ian Harwood's instructions in Charles Ford, ed., Making Musical Instruments - evenings and weekends in my garage, in the autumn of 1997. It was a thrill to do it, and to have an actual lute that I could learn to play, but I already knew that I'd build another, better lute as soon as I could. It took a while to find the time, but I built an 8-course lute in 2002. This time my instructions came from Robert Lundberg, in the form of his series of articles (the "Erlangen Lectures") that were eventually published in book form by the Guild of American Luthiers as Historical Lute Construction.
The second lute was a big improvement - it looked better, and worked better as a musical instrument. But the process of building again, while very satisfying, revealed to me more clearly the limits of my craft skills and the limits of working from books. I had decided by then that I wanted to pursue lute making as a profession, and realized that if I wanted to build really fine instruments, I couldn't continue to work on my own - I needed to connect with the best teacher I could possibly find.
In the summer of 2002 I traveled to Vancouver and introduced myself to master lute maker Grant Tomlinson in his workshop. I had known about his work for a long time, having seen pictures of his lutes in Opus, the catalogue of an exhibition of fine musical instruments by Canadian makers, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I had also visited his website numerous times and pored over the photos there of his immaculate instruments. I showed him my second lute, asked for his critique, and held my breath.
Grant was very encouraging, and very clear in his advice: that to build well, to make fine instruments for knowledgeable and discriminating players, one would need to study closely the work of the old master makers and apply the principles of historical construction. This was exactly what I had hoped to hear. I asked Grant if he would help me pursue the goal of building fine, historically informed instruments, and he said that he would. I don't think I quite understood it at the time, but at that moment my apprenticeship in the craft and profession of lute making had begun.
I returned to my workshop in Saskatchewan, and over the next few years, I developed historically based models of lutes, and built my first professional, commissioned instruments. I called on Grant often, by phone and in person during isits to Vancouver, and occasionally I was able to work with him in his shop on specific topics, such as varnish making and carving a lute mold.
During one visit, Grant taught me the procedure he had used to measure and document historical lutes in European museums during his research trip in 1979-80. I put this procedure to work in 2006 when, supported by a grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, I traveled to Vermillion, South Dakota, to measure and photograph the two fine baroque lutes by Thomas Edlinger of Prague, which had recently arrived at the National Music Museum. Working closely with these lutes has been one of the highlights of my career, not only for the data sheets and drawings that I took home with me. Observing at close range the work of a past master gave me a new point of reference against which to compare my own work, to develop my eye and my own working style. At the same time, handling these well used, working instruments gave me a connection to a craft and music-making tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
Of course, the connection I felt was purely imaginative, for as everyone knows, traditions of lute playing and lute making were essentially dead by the end of the eighteenth century. The craft of lute making has been resurrected through painstaking research only since the 1960s, and though the skill level of makers is by now very high indeed, there isn't a formal means of passing on knowledge from one generation of lute makers to the next. In the old days there was the Lute Makers' Guild, a highly structured organization that laid out the terms of apprenticeship and the criteria by which, after much work and many years of practice, a maker finally gained the designation of "master". No such organization exists today, and so we are left to create, as best as we can, modern approximations of more formal rites of passage from days gone by.
One such modern equivalent is the residency, where one works for a sustained period of time in the workshop of an acknowledged master and is trained in all aspects of the craft. Grant Tomlinson undertook such a residency himself in 1986, when, after working on his own for a number of years, he spent a full year with the esteemed English lute maker Stephen Gottlieb. For quite a while Grant and I had talked about the possibility that I might come to Vancouver and work with him for a similar period of time. Of course, I was very keen to do it - it seemed the ideal way to consolidate the learning I'd done on my own and with Grant over the years, and to take my craft skills to higher level. It also seemed like the best opportunity to be welcomed into the re-born tradition of lute making, as the recipient of a couple of generations' hard-won knowledge and experience.
Grant had extended the invitation, but I knew that it wouldn't remain open forever. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of it. In 2009 I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which allowed me to move to Vancouver and work alongside Grant Tomlinson in his workshop for a full year. Over that year, Grant taught me everything he knew or, more precisely, everything I was capable of learning about lute making. It really was like lute making boot camp, where the recruit is torn down and built up again from the ground up. Everything I thought I knew about lute making was set aside, and for that year I worked in the style of the master, building lutes under his direction. Every piece of work I did had to pass Grant's close inspection, and meet his high standard of craft. Each instrument I built or helped to build during that year bore the workshop label of Grant Tomlinson, and in accordance with tradition - the tradition of the old Lute Makers' Guild - I was allowed to sign my initials on that label. It was an honour to do it.
In 2010, my year's residency with Grant was done, and my long apprenticeship in the craft of lute making was complete. I moved into my own workshop space in Vancouver, BC, where I am now a full-time independent lute maker. I'm fortunate to have benefited from the advice of Grant Tomlinson, and many other fine teachers, over the years - it's given me a very solid technical knowledge that forms the basis of every new instrument I build. At the same time, I started out as a player of the lute, and that's the approach I continue to take. My goal is to build a beautiful, playable, musical instrument that fits the needs of the player - size, shape, playing technique, musical goals - as closely as possible. My quest today is the same as it was when I built my first lute all those years ago: to create the potential for a sound to be made, and for new beauty to be brought into the world.
Travis Carey, Luthier
207-8696 Barnard Street
Vancouver, BC V6P 5G5