My travels through the world of music bring me all too often to meet the products of luthiers' workshops, be it on a stage somewhere where I have to do a concert or recording, an instrument someone has rented for me, or through international trade fares and exhibitions. Sometimes local builders or restorers have instruments from their or other builders' workshops in for repair. Colleges are another source for musicians to happen upon instruments by builders they didn't already know. Visiting colleagues and friends with instruments is another way of course to see instruments hitherto unknown to me. And lastly, but not least of all, there is the internet and a plethora of websites, YouTube recordings, photos and so on.
As careful as I am in listening to recordings, knowing all too well what can be done in post production after the fact, I can sometimes hear things through or despite the post production to understand something of the personality of an instrument. Seeing one up close and playing it is of course the best way forward. But even then, one has to be careful not to bring the owners' attentions to possible shortcomings, as this would be unkind. So throwing oneself on the floor under your best friend's brand newly delivered eye-apple to see what's under the hood, might not be the wisest thing to do always. Speaking to an instrument builder also lets us look into the mind, the ideology, the methods and principles of a builder and often even into their mindset and tonal concepts.
One luthier I became acquainted with struck me as a little different, a little more poetic in his approach to building than I was used to seeing. There seemed to be a more earth-bound attitude which reminded me more of my time as a child on a tropical East Asian island, a feeling of trees swaying by the sometimes gentle, sometimes hurrican force of the wind and somehow I felt that this wind in the boughs of the trees was being translated through the woodworking into instruments which still carried a memory of this wind, the briny air fresh from the foaming spikes of the ocean's waves, the tension and the relaxing of the trunks of these trees still perhaps reflected in the dissonances and the resolutions of them in the music these instruments were to play.
There was a feeling that the instruments were not made from wood but were made from trees; a subtly different but gratifying thought for me. Trees are something which have always been close to my heart. Trees perhaps were thought by my ancient Brythonic ancestors to be the carriers of all things good from the underworld beneath foot through the soil by way of their roots, to deliver them to us for our enjoyment and sustenance. And really, that is what trees do. They take water from rain which has filtered through soil rich in nutrients and the tree or other plants convert this raw nutrient into leaves, flowers, fruit, grain. We see at Seahenge off the Norfolk coast in England, where ancient Brtions had shown their gratitude by inverting an oak trunk and submerging it into the soil so as to deliver back to the world underfoot an impression of our side of reality.
I asked to hear an instrument built in this atelier in far off Portugal, and was sent some recordings of instruments built there. At once I heard and felt a timbre directly from the heart of the timber. Suddenly, and unusually, I heard the kind of vowels I had always pictured in my mind's ear that would have been the passion of the first builders whose instruments these were based upon. Somehow, oddly, I felt a strange and yearned-for link back to my most ancient of roots in prehistory, to the sound of the soil turned into wood by trees to let the mystery of nature have its own voice. There was a haunting sound in the instruments. There was something important to be heard, even aside from the music to be played upon them. There was something I had not known before, something I had only imagined but now heard for the first time. These were sounds I felt which had been forgotten, long forgotten sounds from long lost people, a long-lost folk still drenched in the mystery of being. These sounds were being rekindled in my ears. I was listening to trees resonating, talking, I was listening to the sounds of the world beneath, the world long gone, transported in the resonance of wood and through the interpreter of classical music. Obviously, I had to ask Pedro a few questions:
What made you decide to build musical instruments and why historical instruments from before the 19th century?
I always had a great interest for music, musical instruments, their construction methods and their contexts. At some point I started making instruments for myself, to play them and to hear them. Actually we don’t dedicate our work to any specific historical musical period. We don’t establish any kind of hierarchy between "musical genres", "musical periods" or "musical instruments".
You don’t use your own name on your instruments do you? Why do you use "Rumor" instead?
Rumor is a very interesting word. It condenses murmur and fama, the place where all voices and all sounds resound or resonate. Wouldn’t this define a musical instrument? Isn’t a musical a instrument a place of resonance?
What kinds of instruments do you make?
We make musical instruments of different "families"; from keyboard instruments, to the Viola da Gamba family, Guitars, Harps... We have an inclination for string instruments, either plucked, bowed or with a keyboard. But there are exceptions such as the regal.
Are all these instruments historical replicas or do you also make small adjustments to the original designs for the customer?
We have access to a certain number of musical instruments made in the past. These instruments were made (and remade) within a certain context and for a certain purpose. If the intention is to respect those two aspects then the "small adjustments" have to be very careful in order to be accurate. I would say that this kind of work is similar to experimental archaeology. If the intention is to create a "new" instrument derived from that one, then the result will be completely different and done in a different manner. But sometimes these lines are not so clear... Aren’t all instruments, with very few exceptions, derived from a previous instrument? I would say that a musical instrument is created in relation to a human body and gesture in order to achieve a certain sound. There is a certain spectrum of "adjustments" or "developments".
And what kind of wood do you use, do you import wood or do you use wood from local trees?
We essentially use local woods, most of them from Portugal and a few species from other places in Europe.
And what about glues, what kind of glue do you use and why do you use that type?
We use animal glue for almost all the work. It works very well and has passed the test of time.
You have an accomplice who works with you on the design and overall appearance and atmosphere of the instruments. How closely are you able to work together to arrive at mutually gratifying results?
Yes, Rita and I work together at the atelier. I do all the construction work, she does essentially all the decoration. We see a musical instrument as a whole. We discuss all the aspects of each instrument and together we reach a point of "unison".
There is a poetry to the look, texture and sound of pieces of wood. How much do these aspects play a role in your work?
We believe that a musical instrument is the result of how it is made. There is a principle, a medium and an end. The medium, or the relation between the principle and the end, will tell us what the musical instrument is. The time we spend on each instrument, the tools, the materials and the methods we use, how the materials are obtained and where they come from; all this defines the work. Of course this is a broader question, maybe to be developed elsewhere...
What kind of public do you hope to see using your instruments?
Everyone who appreciates them.
As we see in many of the ancient engravings depicting luthiers workshops, your studio makes a very large variety of instruments which is almost unheard of today. How do you manage to maintain such a broad skill base?
Indeed, in the past instrument making wasn’t such a specialized field. An atelier would make instruments of different families. Such as written music wasn’t necessarily composed for a specific instrument... We don’t follow any kind of dogma regarding this matter, it feels only natural that we make a large variety of instruments if we, in fact, can do it with quality.
Do you find that building instruments as varied as harpsichords, guitars and gambas helps to inform you in a sort of inter-discipline way, that building a guitar helps to form decisions during the building of, say, a gamba?
Indeed, they all influence each other and are constantly telling us new things. First we see the similarities between all musical instruments. Then they start to be divided in groups of families. Then we have a specific kind of instrument. And then we have historical periods and contexts. And so it goes on... We look at musical instruments from a common perspective. From a common origin. Then we follow a certain path, our own.
Would you say that there is a particular aspect which all your instruments have in common, a “Rumor” personality?
Maybe we are responding to the unheard. We aim to make it possible to hear again what became unheard. And we also want to make it possible to hear what as never been heard before.
Do you have a favourite kind of instrument when it comes to building?
I don’t think I have a favourite instrument... I only make instruments that I like very much.
I can only imagine how happy you must be when you hear your instruments being played in public.
It is wonderful when an instrument is ready and we are able to appreciate it in all of its aspects, either in private or in public.
Rumor’s public image, the website and the media files on the website, are somewhat unusual, more like a high design art gallery. Does this reflect your feeling towards the modern world and the modern market place?
This is a small atelier where musical instruments are made. We just try to show as accurately as possible what we make and how. This isn’t only another job, this is a way of life and all the aspects of the work reflect that. For us it isn’t possible to separate quality from ethics; again, we are defined by what we do.