By Scott MacClelland
SOQUEL VIOLINMAKER David Morse began carving wood at age six. He couldn’t have known then how the course of his life would lead to an internal struggle that played itself out in his instruments themselves.
Morse no longer tracks the history of the scores of violins he has sold to musicians who play in the San Francisco Symphony, Symphony Silicon Valley, the Monterey and Santa Cruz Symphonies, as well as symphony orchestras in Los Angeles, San Diego, Eugene, Portland, and Seattle. Among his clients are Herbert Blomstedt, Victor Romasevich, Herbert Holtman, Raymond Koebler, Cynthia Mei and Cathy van Hoesen. How many has he made? “I have no idea. I don’t even want to know.” Anyway, he says, it will take 50 years for his violins to ‘season’ and, at 68, he doesn’t expect to be around then.
(He also said the same seasoning time was true for the master luthiers of Cremona—the Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri and Begonzi dynasties.)
I might not be wholly objective in writing about a man I have known for decades, admired deeply for his craft and artistic vision, and argued with over aesthetic v. commercial priorities. (Indeed, I acquired an 1813 Neuner-Hornsteiner cello that he returned to glorious life from damaged fragments he found in an Arizona school district’s ‘dead instruments’ storage room).
What initiated the conversation for this article was a report from Norman Lebrecht, an internationally known classical music gadfly, who on March 27 published a brief note, titled “Shock result: Carbon-fibre violin wins 2015 German instruments prize,” that I forwarded to Morse. This had to be a sacrilege along the lines of MP3 digital recordings of music that squeeze out 85 percent of the original material while being noticeable to only relatively few ears sensitive enough to hear the difference.
Morse came to Santa Cruz in 1973, bearing a load of post-traumatic stress incurred in Vietnam during that ultimately futile war. He set up shop making guitars behind the startup now known famously as Kuumbwa Jazz Center. He made bluegrass mandolins, acoustic and electric guitars, both flattop and arch-topped, and basses. They were beautifully crafted. He sold them to local musicians and to several famous ones, like jazz artists Earl Klugh and John Abercrombie. “I’m making one now, first time in 25 years.”
He began making violins around 1987, and, moved to a shop on Soquel Avenue called The Soundpost, where he busily tended to the needs of violinists, violists and cellists, amateurs, professionals and students alike. By and by, he narrowed his focus to making violins and more and more withdrew to his property just off Old San Jose Road, near Soquel High School.
“In the beginning a novice instrument builder either has to follow his master slavishly, or perform thousands of experiments,” to find his way. Morse chose the latter. He traveled to Europe—“until 2008, every other year for two decades”—to acquire spruce (for the tops) in the mountains of Northern Italy, maple (for the sides and back) in Croatia, and Central US for one of the hard, black ebonies for fingerboards, tuning pegs and tail pieces. “I now have enough wood to last a couple of lifetimes.”
Shipping the European wood, cut into blanks from trees he had personally selected, allowed him to keep the best and sell the rest to other luthiers. (He explained that Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ only made about 400 violins using the best woods available while Stradivari’s shop turned out 1300 to 1700, some made of less than top quality materials.) Much of his wood has been drying for years in preparation for his hands, saws and chisels.
Morse is semi-retired now and makes only two or three violins a year. As for new sales, he says his has four on hand right now.
The ‘thousands of experiments’ led Morse to add original design elements. He took delight in skewing the scrolls above the peg boxes slightly off true symmetry, flaring the peg boxes, redesigning the f-holes and adding other distinctive touches. His instruments are known for power. (Itzhak Perlman once put a bow to a Morse violin and looking around asked, “Where’s the amplifier?”) But the choice for power v. tone is “always a compromise,” Morse says. “As the wood fatigues over years of playing it will add depth and warmth.”
Morse has been a meditator over the last 30 years, to try to “deal with my stress since Vietnam.” About two years ago, “I became personally reawakened in spirit and simultaneously started a journey to decouple from The Story of David Morse. What came out of that was no longer caring about the specifics of what I have contributed and of surrendering some personal innovations that I had imposed.” He says he came to realize that creativity is a symptom of ego. “It came out of a conversation I had with Baba Hari Das,” a yoga master, now 92, and a founder of the Mt. Madonna Center, with whom Morse has spent many an hour. “I don’t need all the deities,” he says. “My path is going directly to jnana yoga. Being aware every moment of the opportunity to be in that moment. What holds you from it is ego.”
Having largely abandoned those special touches that gave his violins the Morse look he now favors honoring the great violin tradition of the old Cremona masters. “I’ve had confrontations over aesthetics with people who buy my violins. I was an iconoclast.” Now he admits he was taking a hard stand that was “none of my business.” He says, “The metric for measuring the sadna, the practice, the discipline, is how peaceful are you, Not necessarily happy, but peaceful. I made the changes because I could not find any peace.”