Despite it being his first attempt at making a hurdy gurdy from scratch, Andrew Tan won the top prize at a competition recently, much to his own surprise.
A hurdy gurdy is a medieval European instrument and Italy-based luthier Tan clinched the gold award for his replication of the instrument at the Malta International Baroque Instruments Competition in January.
“Winning the award means a lot to me. It was a challenge to construct the piece in the style of an ancient instrument. The rarity of it being handmade today is indeed notable, ” says the 33-year-old in an email interview from Parma, Italy.
As a luthier, Tan makes and restores stringed instruments like violins, cellos and violas.
The former Foon Yew High School student developed an interest in making string instruments when he was a conductor for the school orchestra.
It was in college that he first came across a hurdy gurdy.
“I was fascinated by the techniques used to construct the antique instrument. The methods are so different compared to how instruments are built in the modern day, ” says Tan, who holds a diploma in violin making from the Parma School of Violin Making.
Although winning the gold award may seem like beginner’s luck, the craftsman admits it was a painstaking effort to produce the hurdy gurdy.
To create the hand-cranked wheel fiddle, Tan used an instrument blueprint, and pored over research material from Italian museums and libraries. It took him two years to construct the award-winning masterpiece.
“To build it, one must have wood carving and wood turning skills, and understand the intricacies involved in handcraft metal accessories. The judges were in awe that these elements were incorporated harmoniously into the instrument, ” says the trained violinist who was born in Johor Baru.
Tan’s job is a specialised one, especially in this day and age where assembly line music instruments are a dime a dozen. But what makes Tan a cut above the rest is his interest in replicating antique violins. He is possibly the only Malaysian who specialises in recreating string instruments made between the 13th and 18th centuries.
“Many European museums preserve the original state of antique instruments as they are not keen on making it playable again. My role is to study these instruments, reproduce them and let interested parties have a hands-on experience.”
In a span of seven years as a luthier, Tan has replicated about 20 antique instruments, including the Baroque era cello, lute and medieval vielle.
He is also keen on researching and conserving European historical instruments.
“I love to study and preserve the history of instrument making. Older instruments need more care as they are delicate and most of the time fragile.
“By practising these long forgotten skills, I can understand the essence of antique instruments, and experiment the way quality instruments were made. Through preservation methods, we can uncover more historical roots and ‘secrets’ of producing instruments that can be passed down for generations, ” says Tan, who also services antique instruments belonging to private collectors.
He adds there are various levels of preserving an instrument. In some cases, it boils down to a simple clean up, restoring it to a playable state or repairing damaged parts.
“My responsibility is to preserve the tradition and pass it down to maintain its vivacity.”
The prolific craftsman has also made 30 commissioned instruments including violins, violas and cellos for professional musicians.
“Before I take on a new commissioned instrument, I have a chat with the musician to understand the sound and reaction they expect from the instrument. We draw plans and decide on materials, then select woods and estimate a time frame to complete the instrument.
“What I love about my job is the satisfaction from seeing musicians enjoy playing the instruments that I’ve tailor-made for them, ” says Tan, who charges between RM62,500 (€13,000) and RM86,600 (€18,000) for each commissioned piece.
The charges may seem a tad pricey but Tan says a lot of hard work goes into making a violin. Unknown to many, it takes him about a year to complete a commissioned piece.
“The materials could augment the preciousness of each instrument. Some instruments are made with mother-of- pearl inlays and animal bones, while others are handcrafted with intricate wood carving.
“The most challenging part about making a violin is knowing the type of sound desired, and the wood material that goes best with it, ” says Tan, who speaks fluent Italian.
Tan is also a member of Coro Paer, a Parma-based choir group that specialises in recreating medieval music using ancient style instruments. In the group, he sings and plays the medieval vielle, handmade by him.
Throughout the email interview, one can sense Tan’s enthusiasm in preserving ancient instruments. His vision is to collate the most informative and historically accurate data on luthiers, while replicating rare and forgotten instruments.
“I want to find out how luthiers worked, and the geographical influences from various parts of Europe. Maybe a study in a luthier’s biography could lead me to know the economical state he lived in, or diseases that might have killed an entire generation of luthiers, monarchs and political figures. Maybe I can find out how technological discovery and development of machinery may have changed the way instruments were made, ” says Tan, the elder of two siblings.
We can only imagine Tan working on his next commissioned violin. While his nimble fingers may ache as he handcrafts on hardwood, we envision him smiling as he completes yet another masterpiece.