Violin Maker Otis Tomas: Exploring the Link between the Trees and the Tunes
Otis Tomas, originally from Rhode Island, has made Cape Breton his home for the past twenty-five years. Otis' violins are valued and played by many traditional fiddlers, including Brenda Stubbert and Paul Cranford. Also an accomplished musician and composer, Otis understands the important relationship between his raw materials and the end goal -- music. This interview took place in Otis' workshop in St. Ann's, Cape Breton.
How did you get involved in violin making?
Well, I started out actually in my late teens. I began making guitars, and I still make them. I was about twenty when I started playing the violin. The more I got into the violin world, my interest started shifting more and more to violin making.
So it grows out of your own passion for traditional music?
Oh, yes, definitely. I think if I didn't play it, I wouldn't have the same kind of connection with it.
You used to work in the house there, for years, in slightly smaller confines.
Yes, the house started out as one room, and I had a bench in the corner, so I started on the kitchen table with a trunk of tools I'd pack away under the bed every night. Gradually as the house grew, I was on the porch for awhile, then I built a room on the back Finally, when we got tired of sawdust in the bed and in our dinner [laughs], it was time to move out Probably five years ago, I built this workshop, about seven steps off my back porch. We've had a lot of good sessions out here -- many wonderful players and wonderful tunes have passed through these walls. That's all part of [my] violin making -- there's good acoustics in here, very alive sound.
Is a violin more than simply a tool to play music?
Yes, it's not strictly functional. Like the music itself, it's a whole aesthetic experience You spend the time trying to make a nice varnish, to make it look good and feel good -- that's all part of it, too. Certainly, it has to play [well] and the voice is the first thing But it has more dimensions than that -- the artistry, the conception, the methodology. That's why I like to play around with the designs, the circles, the proportions
Could you tell me a bit about those shapes and proportions?
Many years ago, the mathematical Pythagorean structure was seen as an order that went through everything. Do you know that old story of Pythagoras hearing a blacksmith banging on an anvil with his hammers, and they were playing intervals in the ringing of the hammers? He asked the smith about it and found that the weights of the hammers were, for example, two pounds, four pounds, and eight pounds. They had a nice simple ratio in the weights of them, giving out tones that played this musical scale. He took that as a mathematical harmony that went through all of nature and [theorized] that it ordered the planets and the heavens -- this archetypal harmony. He mathematized the ideas of music and harmony that describe our musical scale of today.
So you played around with some of those ideas?
Yes, you can take those same numbers that generate the musical harmonies and treat them visually or geometrically in these simple ratios; the curves and the arches can be built out, an arrangement of circles, describing the lower bouts -- composing with them the same way you'd compose a tune, something that has nice little echoes and resonances. You see them and work with them mathematically. I'm not claiming these aesthetics have any direct relationship to the way an instrument plays and sounds -- that's a whole other side of it.
Does an instrument take years and lots of playing to mature its sound, its voice?
Yes, I think a lot of the magic of the great old instruments comes from the fact that they've matured that voice for three hundred years. I think an instrument, a violin especially, should just get better as it gets olderyou like to think that something nice is left behind after you're gone. I certainly thought about mortality when I went to cut that big old maple tree. Music is the real eternal element. You take strips, the flesh of the tree, and you bend it around and carve it and put it under all kinds of stresses, stretch these strings across. It's nothing like it was after spending two hundred years growing straight up, feeling the wind blow through it and the seasons change. You try to build it in a way that all the parts are comfortable and relaxed, but even so, the wood has to get used to these new stresses and has to come to a new equilibriumThat all takes time and the varnish hardens and changes over the years. It's a bit difficult to send them off as soon as they're done. They're just babies and I don't get to know them very well.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as Otis' tunes "Bell's Waltz" and "Stewart Applegath's Reel," purchase the Cape Breton 2000 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
Otis' website: www.fiddletree.com
[David Papazian makes and repairs violins, mandolins, and octave mandolins and plays the fiddle. He can be contacted at 44435 Cabot Trail, Little River, Cape Breton, NS, Canada B0C 1H0; (902) 929-2953.]