by Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Spencer Hamann
What is a bridge? For many the term “bridge” conjures imagery of architecture: a structure, perhaps a grand triumph of engineering and design or simple lash up of ropes and boards, spanning a body of water, canyon, or some other difficult geographic feature. Taking a step back abstractly, a bridge is something that connects. A bridge allows one to move from one place to another place that would have otherwise been unreachable or at least difficult to reach. In this way, a bridge can also represent unification. This imagery also arises when we sever ties (“burn bridges”), prioritize planning (“cross that bridge when we come to it”), overreach (“a bridge too far”), and resolve conflict (“bridge the gap” leading to “water under the bridge”).
A bridge is also the name given to a critical component of many musical instruments, including bowed orchestral strings. Violins, violas, celli, and double basses all rely on a component called a bridge for their functionality, playability, and sound production. As the instrument’s strings pass over the top of the bridge, the bridge holds the strings in a particular alignment, in a carefully calculated position, and in a precisely fitted union with the instrument itself. What appears on the surface to be a fussily carved slip of wood actually contains far more mystery and complexity than first meets the eye.
To begin with, not just any piece of wood is suitable to become an orchestral string bridge. The traditional timber of choice is maple, specifically maple from particular species of old-growth trees which have grown in such climate, region, and situation to have even grain, solid density, and clear consistency. But the selection process goes further than that. The tree itself must be felled, prepared, and cut in a careful and mindful way as not to damage the timber. Only some parts of the tree trunk itself are of the quality required to become a stable and acoustically fine bridge, and this wood must be further cut and prepared specifically with consideration to grain orientation to become a bridge.
All of this material harvesting usually contains the additional element of time. Raw maple cut from the tree is aged for years, often decades, to allow for the gradual and controlled release of moisture from when the tree was alive. Without this drying, aging, and stabilizing, the maple will be too flimsy to support the load of the instrument’s strings and will buckle under the pressure. It is a rather curiously poetic aspect of the luthier’s art that depending on his age or the aging requirements of the material, the person putting in the work to prepare the raw wood for a specific purpose may confront the fact that he himself will never get to make use of it in his own lifetime: his preparation work becomes an act of selflessness and hope for a future craftsman and the craft he loves.
Having finally obtained the piece of wood specially prepared and destined to become a violin’s bridge, the luthier needs to establish the general parameters of the bridge itself. Each bridge is an individual: like a fingerprint, no two will be exactly alike. However, there are some traditional conventions for how bridges are formed. The bridge itself will be carved to have several distinct features, most of which carry anatomical names within the luthier’s craft. To name but a few of these features, from the bottom up, we have feet, ankles, kidneys, arms, and moustache. Establishing these features requires the careful and strategic removal of material using fine tools including drills, saws, knives, and chisels. When the piece has been carefully divested of these base superfluities, it resembles the finished shape, but is not yet a true bridge. A luthier would call this piece a “blank”, and it contains within it the potential to become a functional bridge.
The luthier next turns his attention to the instrument that is to receive the bridge, as the parameters required to further refine the blank bridge rest within the instrument itself. There is much to prepare, and fitting a bridge is one of the final culminating steps in the process of giving an instrument a voice. Before the bridge can meet the instrument, a slender spruce rod must be meticulously fit within the instrument, connecting the top and back plates from within. This piece is called the soundpost, or “anima” in Italian: the soul. Although the soundpost is tucked away inside the instrument, all fitting and preparation work on this piece is done from outside of the instrument. The contact points of the soundpost must match exactly the curvatures and contours of the INSIDE of the instrument’s top and back, and it is only through careful work, concentration, and patient trial work that a luthier brings it into perfect upright fit and positioning within the instrument.
The soundpost is what makes a violin family instrument fundamentally different from other stringed instruments such as, say, a guitar. The strings of a guitar vibrate primarily only the top of the instrument, and the back of the “box” which forms the guitar’s body serves to primarily reflect the vibrations up and out of the instrument. On a violin, the soundpost transfers the vibrations of the instrument’s top to the back as well, causing the entire instrument to vibrate together. This effect can be imagined as the difference between having one speaker playing alone, or two speakers playing together.
Returning to the bridge from this digression, the soundpost influences the shape of the instrument’s top, which in turn influences the shape of the bridge. The location of the bridge on the instrument’s top is determined by what is called the “mensur”, which is a 2:3 ratio calculated between the length of the instrument’s neck and the resting position of the bridge on the top of the instrument. With this location established, the bottoms of the bridge’s feet are carved to perfectly match the complex contours of the instrument’s top, creating a positive and stable foundational stance and excellent transfer of vibration.
Next to be considered is the height the bridge will need to be. A bridge must lift the strings above the instrument’s fingerboard, the part where the musician’s fingers interact with the strings to produce different notes, which must also be specially prepared to be smooth, true, and of the proper angle relative to the instrument’s top. If the bridge is too tall, the strings may play more loudly but be difficult or even uncomfortable for the player to control. If the bridge is too short, the instrument may feel very easy to play, but have limited depth or even a choked sound. If the space between the strings is not carefully established, precision and articulation can suffer. Balance is key.
Additionally, the height at which the bridge holds the strings is different for each string. Each string has a different diameter, is made from different materials, will tune up to different tensions, and as such, require different amounts of space to vibrate. If all strings were fit equally to the same height, the instrument could still play but not all strings would be able to speak clearly, and the result would be imbalance with favor toward particular tones while others are drowned out.
At this stage, the bridge has been prepared, and it has even been mechanically introduced and fit to the world around it. But the bridge is still not finished. The final steps in the process are the fine tuning and carving which strategically remove excess material, artistically distinguish the bridge’s shape, and acoustically fine-tune the way the bridge will vibrate. It is not enough for the bridge to simply be of the correct material, or the correct mechanical fit: only skilled adjustment stemming from the luthier’s years of trial, error, triumph, failure, and refinement can allow it to reach its potential. As these methods of adjustment are internalized and refined, so is the instrument’s voice.
It is also of particular interest to note that an orchestral string instrument’s bridge literally stands on its own two feet. There is no mechanical connection between the strings, bridge, and instrument: the pressure of the strings hold the bridge upright on the top of the instrument. If the bridge has been made from well prepared material, and further patiently and knowledgably fit, it will be able to withstand the tension and purpose placed upon it as it bridges the body of the instrument to the pure vibrating strings above it.
These pure vibrations are the ultimate purpose of a violin, but the bridge must undergo considerable transformative work in order to realize them. From a rough and raw state, the bridge is prepared for the great work to come as it is hewn from the superfluous material around it using tools designed to properly establish its foundation and form. From here, the bridge undergoes precise refinement to shape it and equip it for its eventual purpose. Yet even after considerable time spent and skill invested, the bridge is still only a piece of material. It is the final transmutation, when it is fit to the instrument, that the bridge ceases to become just a piece of wood, and sheds its pervious identity to experience rebirth in unity with the sublime vibrations of the musical instrument.
In the great cosmic scheme, each individual is but one small manifestation. In and of itself, a violin’s bridge is but one component of the instrument. The bridge does not alone define the macrocosm of instrument, but it does allow an instrument to exemplify itself only if the microcosm of the bridge (and each of the instrument’s other components) is in order. A musical instrument is a magical thing in that it can be used to reach far more people than can physically see it. That is, the vibrations it produces through its use in making music can transcend language, country, creed, and even time and space. Quantum physics is ever expanding our understanding of how vibration is at the core of all matter, and music distilled is nothing but a collection of vibrations.
Vast as the implications and applications of producing sound are, they only come with work. Knowledge of how to guide a tool counts for very little if it is not applied in a constructive way, and no one can hold the tool for you. Willingness to learn, adjust, practice, and correct our own vibrations is the first step in bridging the expanses between ourselves and those around us. It is inevitable that we will occasionally fall short, but this may be the will of something far greater than ourselves at play guiding us to where we are meant to be. This work can be painful as we are divested of what is unnecessary, but mastery starts within, and often silently. It is not until we are able to master the art of crafting ourselves that we can hope to build true bridges between the things that divide us, and realize that we are all notes in the same grand transcendent symphony.
RWB Spencer Hamann is a luthier and musicologist working in northern Illinois. He is an avid woodworker and artificer, and enjoys antique restorations and custom commissions.Curatorship and adding value are core to his personal philosophies. Spencer was Raised in 2013, and served Libertyville Lodge No. 492 as Worshipful Master from 2017-2018. He is the Senior Warden of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183, and serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois as their Grand Representative to Wisconsin, District Education officer for the 1st NE District, and is a Certified Lodge Instructor (CLI). He can be contacted at email@example.com
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