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Meet the Maker Clive Titmuss
interviewed by

Gordon Gray

(The original interview appeared in The Guild of American Luthiers magazine. It has been edited for length and readability.)

Clive Titmuss has been a lute and guitar player, teacher, and builder since the early 1970's. His recent solo CD, The Twilight of the Lute, features music of the German Baroque period performed on the 11-course and 13- course lutes, and theorbo. Subsequent recordings consist of music by Reusner, and the music of the vihuela. He was interviewed at his home in British Columbia, Canada.

How did you get started in music?

I started playing the guitar when I was sixteen, and was never and electric-guitar, garage-band type of guy. I was always a classical guitar player from the beginning. Then before I went to university, I went to a lute seminar in England, and made contact with the beginnings of the early music movement there.

Where was that?

I began my formal studies at the University of Calgary. I studied first English for two years, then musicology and the guitar, with piano and harpsichord. After that, with the help of the Canada Council and grants from Alberta Culture, I went to Basel, Switzerland for two years of post-graduate study at a special school with concentrated only on early music. I studied the lute with Eugen Dombois and Hopkinson Smith and took classes from Sterling Jones in Medieval music, as well and historical improvisation, continuo playing and choral singing and dance. I saw and played some exceptional instruments. I was able to hear some superb musicians and hear what they had to say about the music. For me, exposure to that culture was a life-altering experience.

What was it about that period or style of music that attracted you?

I was listening to Julian Bream and Walter Gerwig when I was in high school. I discovered music as a child, and my mother was very particular that I should be exposed to great music. Then my tastes evolved from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to Bach, Mouton and Gaultier, Dowland. I remember in high school--I was already playing the guitar seriously--I researched the lute, and found out form the dictionary that it was "anobsolete instrument". I wondered how music or an instrument could be “obsolete”. I heard some lute music on recordings I borrowed from the Calgary Public Library and immediately felt I had to have one. I got one from Donna Curry and started playing it and went through university studying musicology and playing the lute. Near the end of that time I got a baroque lute and began to play Bach and Weiss.

At that time in Canada, I was probably the only lute player in a very large radius, though now it's much more widespread. There are lots of guitar players who have tried the lute, though many of them have probably just bought lutes and become frustrated with them. There is a certain amount of difficulty involved in playing the lute compared to the guitar. It's an object with more difficult mechanics and a technique which is remote from our way of playing the guitar. You have to be aware of an older tradition, one which is not so easily picked up aurally. Playing early music is an entirely different tradition; performing with an emphasis on the rhetoric of music at the expense of its element of theatre. I like the idea that a certain amount of introspective thinking and research has to take place. There a strong element of abstraction in early music.

Can you place the lute in an historical context for me?

The period of classical development of the lute and its printed repertoire was before and during the Renaissance, roughly 1450 to 1600. During this period the principal composers were Italian, French and German. Then came the English composers during the Elizabethan and Tudor reigns--principally John Dowland, but many other composers as well. The lute was a lingua franca for the Elizabethans, one which influenced keyboard and vocal writing as well. After that there is an efflorescence of unpublished or manuscript music. In the early part of the 17th century there's the Golden Age of French lute music, and finally the German predominance in the early 1700's. The baroque lute composers are now better known, principally Weiss, Reusner, Falckenhagen, and others. There is Bach, although he never actually wrote for the lute directly. He was influenced by it, attracted to it. His music is one of the main reasons to play the lute, at least for me. The lute speaks his language.

There's a period when the lute starts off at a high level and goes downward, and the guitar starts of very low and goes upward, during the end of the 17th century, and into the 18th. As a lute player, I am drawn to French music of the later 1600's and as a guitarist, I like the French and Italian music of the end of this period. My first CD concentrates on a single decade, the 1740's, with German music. The largest number of my lutes is from this period, as well. It's an instrumental dream, both from the point of view of the luthier, and for the player.

You mentioned at a recent performance that there was a recording of Julian Bream that was very inspiring for you.

That had to do with a concert I gave of the music of Robert de Visee--music for baroque guitar and theorbo. Bream came out with a recording in about 1968 called Baroque Guitar. That’s when I heard the music of De Visee for the first time. It's the crossover point I mentioned between the start of the guitar's ascendancy--the Rococo period of the 1720's--and the ending of the lute's reign in France. The lute had a really fertile period before that, at the end of the 1600's and it died off after that. There was a whole school of composers who wrote fine music during the 17th century, almost a cult.

De Visee complained in his guitar book that no one read the tablature any more. He was a Spaniard and someone who brought the guitar to the attention of the French court. He's what we would call a cross-over artist today, he straddled the divide between North and Southern Europe. His music is brilliantly successful as guitar music and it joins the worlds of Lully and the opera traditions, and the old classical lute tradition. He effected a change in the guitar's music from being the music of amateurs, a kind of simple music, into being a vehicle of art music in the style of the lute. That fusion really attracted me, and it eventually inspired me to spend an entire year making a Voboam guitar with all the décor. Later I made a large 14-course theorbo. His music has wonderful melodic ideas and details. I've played a lot of it in concert.

You attended the University of Calgary. Was that because you were from Alberta?

Yes, at the time I didn't think anyone else would have me. When I first inquired about going, one of the highly regarded professors actually told me to go elsewhere! I remember thinking that that was kind of an odd thing to say to a prospective student. Anyway the first years were very difficult for me; there really was no instruction in my instrument, guitar or lute. I had to play catch-up with theory and ear-training. But I was in the choir and had many opportunities to perform. I had some excellent teachers. One day I saw a poster for the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis on a bulletin board, and the idea seized me that that's where I should go. It took a few years, but eventually that's where I got what I wanted: an education in the field of early music. I also got to visit the instrument museums in Paris, Nuremberg, and Vienna. I saw my first lutes from the period. I can remember seeing Voboam guitars, Tielke lutes, Raillich lutes, Harton, Tieffenbrucker, and Widhalm--all the instruments I have now built. I’m interested in early keyboards too, and I saw and heard plenty of those.

When did you start building?

When I came back from Switzerland. First I repaired an Indian sitar, and then I completed a double-manual Hubbard harpsichord. I was already skilled in maintaining and voicing harpsichords, and with historical tuning systems. That, and some woodworking skills my father taught me, got me started at the bench. What you could do with a table saw was a part of my early life. I built a workbench, got some hand tools and sharpening stones. All that came together and after hiding in the basement in the summer after I came back from my first year in Europe, I built my first lute. After that I got really hooked on it.

Was your father a craftsman?

Well, he was a builder. He built our house, the kitchen, garage, all kinds of cabinets. He loved concrete, bricks and drywall! I was usually an unwilling part of it--holding things up, mixing concrete, digging fence post holes, and yes--ripping plywood. You learn something from doing things with your hands--a kind of control of your environment, and independence from whatever consumer imperatives are around you. Why buy when you can make?

Did you build your first instruments for yourself?

Yes. I've built all the instruments that I usually play in concerts. It's only recently that I decided to offer them to a market. I never suspected that I would be able to make anything good enough for my own tastes as a musician. These things take a long time to develop. Eventually I was able to be proud of my work, and to actually play many of my instruments in performance. Building also stimulates the ability to play more obscure music on the proper type of instrument. You have literally no limitations there. All it takes is some research and the motivation to explore the music on its own terms.

When I first began to make instruments designed for a specific repertoire I had to rationalize certain ideas about the design and purpose of each one, each part of the instrument, and the sound it might make, the tuning systems, the ornamentation, how it would appeal to a composer's ear, and what would be idiomatic for that music.

Are you a self-taught builder?

Pretty much. I have never studied lute or guitar building with anyone, but then I learned the guitar on my own, as well. I was fortunate to own fine instruments to copy their secrets. Beautifully made, brilliantly made. Goethe has a famous expression--"A good rider also learns from his horse." That's as true of music as of lutherie. If you play good instruments well, you'll have a much better idea of how to build one.

I've got two lutes by Bob Lundberg, and he was a very inspiring figure, both a scholar of the body of extant lutes, and as a maker himself. He knew how to work with simple means. I think he is one maker who has had an influence on many other makers in North America and he was a craftsman who used local woods. The other fine instrument I have is by Richard Berg, a theorbo, and this instrument has inspired me to improve my work and gain skill with the tools. A theorbo is very daunting instrument, both to make and play. You better have something important to say with anything that large in your hands.

When you teach people to play music, you teach two basic skills. One is to play the instrument; the other is to deal with the ideas of music, notation, theory, the social context of music. The dichotomy is also true in making instruments. The skills of learning to use tools, to sharpen them, make them cut where you want. You also make decisions about the basic materials--which woods to use for which parts. Deciding the tool and the material, those are central problems for luthiers, dealing with the structure of the instrument. A maker has to know how to look at a drawing and understand what musical ideas brought it to life.

I think that being a musician first and foremost has had an effect on my lutherie, because I understand the actual demands that the composers made, I know what I want in the music. The joy of actually stringing up a lute and playing it for the first time--to know what it should do musically and have expectations of it--that's the underlying secret of lutherie. Instruments are tools. Tools of long standing ideas, ideas that took centuries to grow and mature. It’s all there in the music.

No one expects a violinist or a pianist to make their own instruments. But there's actually a long tradition of guitarists who make guitars, and luthiers who come from families of musicians: The Neusidlers, even the Bach family. There was a long standing relationship between craftsmanship and musicianship in the Renaissance and afterwards, which today we think of as being a kind of culmination, a high point of culture.

Today we have a market mentality in relation to music: it sells something else--movies, cosmetics, cars, anything with capital-intensive manufacturing at its core. That idea came along after the Industrial Revolution, which altered the relationship between artists and their audience. It made them into workers, servants of a profit machine, of a production technology.

In music instrument manufacture, this began with the piano and spread to other instruments. The brasses and winds were developed for their use in military bands in the period of nationalism at the beginning of the 19th century. The conception of the lute and the guitar--and their classical periods--predates the Industrial period. For me that is what gives it a personal dimension. To be able to play one's own instruments in public, that's a great thrill. It's the defining idea of my life. And it is why I undertook building my own lutes and guitars.

How many instruments have you built?

I get two questions after "How many strings does it have" (answer: "Either enough or never enough") One is "how long does it take to make it?" I'm never adequately able to answer that because life goes on as well and I don't just make instruments. I play them too, and that takes plenty of time. I try to divide my time reasonably, so I'd estimate a few months to make a good quality lute or guitar. The other question is "How many have I made". So far, about 60 since I began. Lately I'm trying to do short runs of early guitars. I make lutes one at a time. Two take twice as long.

Is the design of a lute specific to the period of music performed on it?

Yes, and even to individual composers, one lute per composer and even then a given composer may have explored new tunings or other design features. French composers of the 1630's are a good example. Two composers whose music I admire, Mesangeau and Dufaut had dozens of tunings, each one represented by only a few pieces. The guitar was like that too. Almost every guitar book in the early years of the 17th century has suites in Nouveau Tons--new tunings. Composers were constantly looking for ways to expand the possibilities, to achieve new effects: over ringing strings, non-diatonic tunings, and tuning that would make playing in certain keys with certain chords easy. That's very true of the lute. The lute was in transition from the “veil tons”--old tunings in G, for a tenor lute, in fourths with a third in the middle to new tunings in D minor. This was the standard tuning from the end of the 17th century and into the 18th. Then the lute more or less died out. At the end, many lutes were converted to guitars with single strings, especially in Eastern Europe. These differences in tunings reflect stylistic changes. There really was never any standard instrument, as there is with the guitar.

Though the guitar may have a traditional shape, think of the internal differences. There are rarely two guitars with the same barring scheme, or even materials. Everyone has their own way of making the joints-- dovetail neck joint, German or spliced head, sawn joints, how the linings are done. What kind of tuners or pegs--these things are always changing, they only appear to be standardized. Even violins, which have such a well-established classical shape and structure, appear standardized, but they really aren't ever. The woods, the way they are glued up, thicknesses--these are always unique to the maker. The morphology of lutes is differentiated by the size and shape of bodies, the number of courses, the length and width of the neck. But the actual technicalities of joinery, the body, neck joint, the top, the peg box, these things changed little. They are done the same way, with minimal material, though sizes change.

What instruments are you building now?

Right at the moment I have been building 11-course lutes. If there is anything resembling a standard instrument, this may be the closest we can come. The Renaissance lute has come to typify lutes in our world, because it is most similar to the modern guitar in tuning and technique. The music often requires little or no adaptation, and people have always wanted to play Dowland and his Renaissance forebears. A few of these people are going further into the 17th century, which is often intended by the composers to be a more artificial style. That is, they designed the music to be art music, less linked to vocal or dance models, more to be heard on its own terms. There was less of a utilitarian intent. Art music of the early Baroque has a sort of ceremonial quality, almost like a cult. The composers played up this aspect of their music, to create a kind of secrecy about the style, to make it exclusive. They were hired by the famous and wealthy, they taught famous students and their music was mainly spread by hand copies.

The 11-course has a mystique and a large repertoire of wonderful and serious music. You can play music from a fairly large time span with it, from the French composers of the 1630's right up to the 1720's. Even a lot of Weiss and Bach may be played on such instruments. Weiss himself wrote at least his early, very appealing music for this kind of lute. Some of Bach's cello and violin music can work very well on it, in addition to his own transcriptions. (BWV 995, 1006a)

So this is my attempt to appeal to a "larger" market. Most people who play the seven or eight course lute wouldn't have much trouble adapting to 11-courses, but 13 represents a whole change of style and technique, something like learning pedal technique for a keyboard player. It's a new dimension, and a lot of work, for most players.

Compare for me building a guitar and building a lute.

Well, a guitar is a box. It's got right angle joints, top and bottom, even though it has a curved exterior. It's rectilinear in its basic ideas. There isn't really much attention paid to dealing with end grain, except to cover it or leave it exposed. A lute is not like that. It has only angled joints, although the joinery is quite simple. Its interior structure is quite simple, but its morphology, the relationship between its surfaces and its interior volumes--that's complex. The thing about the lute that is surprising is that it is a very elegant solution to the problem of minimizing the exposure of end grain. There is hardly any end grain on a lute that you can see. It's all been resolved. The forces are completely static--it's like an egg.

A guitar is a relatively flexible instrument with two plates which vibrate in concert. The guitar is a sort of manufacturing expediency. It's cheaper and simpler to make, which is one reason for its being so widespread. The lute is an art object, an object of legend and mythology, very ancient. It represents a kind of introverted mentality, whereas the guitar is extroverted. The lute is an instrument of art music which looks inward, whereas the guitar is an instrument of dance music, which is social. One is the intellect, the perception of the player; the other is rooted in the physical, directed to the needs of the listener.

You can express this concept many ways--yin and yang, extro and intro, economy of means and abundance, Dionysus and Apollo. It's a kind of manifestation of the bi-polar nature of the human personality, and geopolitics too. The guitar may represent the Latin or Christian world, while the lute is Islam, the east, Byzantium. The rose of the lute is a mandala, which absorbs and concentrates the psyche inwardly. The guitar has a window, an opening, which ventilates the sound cavity and makes the instrument louder. The guitar is designed to push the music out, whereas the lute keeps music in. These are not my ideas, they are archetypal, established by thousands of years of tradition in Asia and the old world. When we build these instruments, we must be aware of this.

You mentioned Bob Lundberg and his emphasis on the use of wood. What woods are you using in your instruments?

The thing about the lute is that, during its peak period around 1600, the pre-eminent material was yew wood. In the Northwest of the US and South-western Canada, we are fortunate to be surrounded by rain forests on the coastal areas. These forests have yielded not only soundboard softwoods like cedar, cypresses and spruce at high altitude, but also the yew tree. The yew was a mystical tree in the medieval period, and in pre-Roman Celtic Europe. It was used for poles, weapons, bows, spears. It was used as a poison, because of the taxamine under the bark. The fact that it's a conifer, softwood, but with many of the properties of a hardwood because of its very slow growth, that makes it ideal for lutes and period guitars. It may be built up in strips for the guitar sides and backs. It can be mixed with tropical or deciduous hardwoods for contrast and combination of acoustical properties. Beach ball lutes for example. I've also built baroque guitars this way. These multi-acoustical structures built up from heterogeneous woods can have surprising properties. They bend very smoothly, they are very light and rigid and they are very penetrating instruments, with a characteristic reediness and emphasis on higher partials.

Yew wood has unique acoustical diffraction. It resonates easily and at many frequencies, it’s easily worked. I do most of the making of a lute with chisel and small and large planes. You don't need elaborate tools to make a lute. It's pretty simple and straightforward, but skill is required, and very sharp edges. Guitars are more industrial in how they are made, because they require larger flat plates, but lutes are made up out of little strips. The yew tree does not yield enormous slabs of wood. There is only a small about of useful wood in a yew tree, so there's a lot of labour involved in taking a log, cutting it radially, discarding anything with knots and reaction wood, which is common since it’s a conifer, to get the really straight, fine grain wood for a lute.

Give me a feeling of the sizes, thicknesses, the scale of materials involved in building a lute.

For guitars, normally we work from material around 2mm for the tops and backs, a bit thinner for the sides, depending on the specie. For lutes, 1.2 to 1.5 mm is preferred. For the lute maker the most crucial tool is the scraper, and for the guitar, it may be the saw. That's because you are essentially sawing wood from wider blocks for guitars, but a lute needs thinned ribs, essentially they are like veneers. When things are thinner, the material is more critical. You can't make a lute out of anything; it must be the right material. Guitars are often made of composites, and the vast majority of guitars are made this way in mass production. You can't make a lute out of plywood! The lute is dependent on the lightness and the air inside the structure. That's what gives it that otherwordly sound, its ability to resonate with many frequencies from a single nodal point far down on the body. The guitar has a more flexible top, because it is more multi-purpose; we play more of the string length. It has two cavities built into its shape, it's bicameral. The lute is a monocoque. Originally lutes, long necked lutes, like the sitar or the Central Asian lutes, had one string with drones added, and they play in only one tonality. The guitar is more diverse, a more consonatal sound, an impact sound; the lute is more of a vowel sound, which comes from maximizing the energy that can be amplified from a very fine string at low tension. The guitar's design concentrates more on producing a certain volume of sound. It’s bridge is in the centre of the lower of the cavities.

From the point of view of style, the lute emerged from a contrapuntal tradition; the guitar comes more from homophonic ideas. This is why it has a longer neck, to make chords work over a length of the string band. This is why the guitar has resisted attempts to add strings like the lute. The added strings of the lute are in essence an adaptation to increasingly homophonic structure in the music. This gives the voices polarity, like a voice and bass line. The guitar comes from accompaniment, the chordal style of song and dance. There is no real bass, it is a tenor and alto instrument, with a baritone extension added in the early part of the 19th c.

You mentioned earlier that the lute basically disappeared from the public eye, but has recently become popular again. Why do you think this has happened?

Broadcast media, CDs, the internet, and the communication technologies of the modern world have really affected the dissemination of music. The kind of influences that shaped the lives and work of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Debussy, Satie, are that same kind of things that are changing our lives now. The underlying social changes are very similar. We've had a period of unprecedented growth in the middle class, which has put money in many hands. That allows for microclimates, smaller scale economies of culture. It’s possible to see the culture of the past in a new way, because of the reproduction of these many sources of music from the past. Now we have virtually unlimited access to what has been stuck in libraries and ignored for hundreds of years.

I feel that to some extent, interest in the guitar and the lute has an element of counter-culture, a reaction to the dominant aesthetic of post-19th century Romanticism. In the period of growth after WW II the guitar and lute really became subjects of interest. Even though Segovia and his contemporaries were active in the pre-war period and between the wars, it wasn't until 1950 that the guitar took off and became something that the audience could respect. The idea that the guitar could be an object of art music is relatively recent. Before that there were instances, Fernando Sor in Paris, Tarrega in Spain, but it has really only been in the last thirty years that the guitar has attracted attention from the mainstream conservatory tradition. That's pure economics. I have a friend who distributes my CDs and he told me the biggest seller, inside and outside the classical tradition, is the guitar. It's hard to imagine such a small voice making a dent in sales of piano and violin recordings, but that's been the trend.

Probably the personal dimension--there is no mechanism other than the human body--that has a lot to do with it. Many people feel alienated by technology and maybe we've been victims of our own success. The guitar reaches beyond that and reaches everyone at many levels. Another thing is that the guitar crosses barriers--commercial, class, geographic. It's at the same time an instrument of art and popular music, dance, world music.

Who is a typical person who becomes interested in the lute?

Almost everyone who plays the lute now, unlike the musicians who plied their trade in the heyday of the lute, has come to it from the guitar. It's possible that it may change in future. There are people who have learned other early instruments, like the viol or winds, who then take up the lute. Arnold Dolmetsch, for example, is one--he did so much to revive old music, the lute and lutherie. He played and made many instruments.

But whereas we are familiar with prodigies on the violin or piano, we do not see so much of this phenomenon on the guitar or lute. The reason may be that the neuromuscular development of fretted instrument playing takes longer to learn. It's a very complex knowledge because the hands do different things. There's something unique about players of the guitar, which I recognize from being a teacher. There's a kind of separation in the brain, a slightly different mentality of individual distinction. A pianist or violinist has more of a tradition of the mainstream, the conservatory, but the guitarist is almost alone.

The bifurcation in the technique is very marked. The plucking hand controls all the musical parameters and inputs, the phrasing and dynamics. The left hand, controlled by the right brain, performs a mechanical function, but has a contrapuntal element. To do this well a schism may have to develop over a long time. The intellect and the physical side of music have to be separated, and later re-united. Perhaps the technologies of our time have accentuated this split to some extent. There is a lot going on at the very highest levels and on the lowest; we seem to have become more polarized. It's a resemblance to the polarizations of the end of the Enlightenment period of the early 18th century: we are very wealthy, very poor, highly intellectual and organized, but still chaotic, and turbulent. There has been a loss of the middle ground. A person who plays the lute realizes many cultural forces remote from out time, they are aware of the old and the new, they must read and absorb the sources from several languages, and she is able to make them relate to our unstable world.

For a lute player and maker, what does the next decade bring?

If you walk into a music store now it's dominated by electronic instruments intended for electronic media. The lute has become an interesting case of "nothing new, thanks". It has a dedicated coterie of highly educated and media-aware amateurs who celebrate the recondite and the obscure. There are more recordings than ever before, there is parallel interest in early guitar and many of these people are lutenists.

Guitarists must pay more attention to their classical literature and the lute literature in order to have a complete education in their traditions. So much lute music of the Renaissance can be played effectively on the guitar, though it probably works best on the original instrument. Baroque lute music is a bit more limited to its own medium, but plenty of guitarists are interested in Bach, Weiss, and the numerous other minor masters. There's a frontier of Baroque guitar as well, with many fine pieces by Guerau, de Visee, Corbetta, Roncalli and others. There’s not need to rely on transcriptions of music for other instruments.

The lute and early guitar also present opportunities for improvised ensemble playing—continuo, which is rare for the guitar. So much of the early printed repertoire of these instruments was social, intended for amateurs, lovers of music, to play at home for their own pleasure. Early music frees us from the prescriptive forces of commercial music. It is great music and will always have magnetic qualities for us. It's a frontier for all players. These are our origins.

Web page update:

Since this interview was published there have been more recordings and new instruments have been made. A website with downloadable tracks of lute, guitar, piano, harpsichord and duo music and many electronic lute and guitar tablatures has increasingly become a focus for Clive’s work.

He continues to make instruments in his new home in West Kelowna, BC, with new German-style 18th century baroque lutes and period guitars produced most recently. His music is now available from the biggest retailer of music: iTunes.

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