I’ve been working on this design for several months. One of my customers contacted me to float the idea of a commission for a new model viola. She has one of my 15 inch two-cornered violas, which she is generally happy with, but felt that a new instrument with a few changes would suit her even better. She wanted an instrument even easier to get round, particularly to reach higher positions. Also she has a long neck and struggles constantly with finding the right chinrest and shoulder rest.
My idea was to make an asymmetric viola; not at all a new idea as a number of violin makers have developed this idea, notably David Rivinus with his Daliesque Pellegrina viola. I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of asymmetry in violin making; some of my all-time favourite instruments, those of the early Brescian maker Gasparo da Salo, show no interest at all in matching up the left and the right side, and these sound fantastic. And the dendrochronological research on the fronts of historical instruments (dendrochronology is the science of dating wood by analysing the patterns of the annual rings, which like supermarket bar codes give data of the time and location of the tree’s growth) shows that often the two jointed halves of the fronts come from different trees of differing dates. So I was really enthusiastic about developing the idea of asymmetry even further.
I wanted to start with a simple shape, so picked as a basis a treble viol, scaled to the required body length. Then I squashed the outline so that there was less wood in the upper treble bout and more in the upper bass bout, then more wood in the lower treble bout and less in the lower bass. From there I drew and redrew, adjusting the proportions until it looked right.
To accommodate Liz’s long neck I will increase the rib depth from my normal standard, and the viola will have lower arching to fit with this. An interesting idea from David Rivinius’ work is to taper the ribs from bass to treble, so that the neck of the viola is canted significantly to the treble, meaning less twisting of the player’s left wrist as she reaches onto the C string. I was eager to try this, so I’m making the ribs significantly high on the bass side, tapering more than 10mm down to the treble, and still leaving a good height at the chinrest position.
We batted ideas backwards and forwards, and I sent Liz drawings of my proposal. She’s no slouch in the craft department herself, and sent me photos of a wonderful cardboard mock-up she made.
In early December I was ready to start work, and prepared the templates and mould. I spent a long time thinking through the implications of the tapered ribs, and prepared drawings of everything carefully in advance so that (I hope) there will be no nasty surprises as I proceed with the work. It’s quite strange making each corner block a different height.
With the ribs finished, it’s time to turn to the back and front. For the back I’ve chosen a nice piece of poplar with some attractive small knots. I often use poplar for violas and cellos; it’s a little lighter in weight than maple, always an advantage, and lends richness as well as an immediate, responsive quality to the sound of the instrument. The front is of spruce. I’ve continued the asymmetrical theme and jointed two pieces from different trees, as was commonly done on 18th century instruments. Both the pieces are quite broad-grained, which I think works well for violas, and I’ve used the slightly wider-grained piece for the bass side.
After roughing out the arching shapes, I’ve finalised the outline and then fitted the purfling, prior to finalising the arching shapes.
The arching is now finished. It’s slightly strange working on the asymmetric outline. I found that mostly it flowed quite logically but there were places where I instinctively left too much wood, until I checked by looking from the ends and could then correct. As the viola has quite deep ribs, I’ve left the arching correspondingly low to compensate, and I found that this low, strong arching fits well on the outline.