Collections: Jon Kay - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Indiana Musical Instrument Makers and their Craft: Field Interviews and Demonstrations (2005)

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Ehsan Kousari with handcrafted santour, Indiana, USA, 2005. Image © Jon Kay.

Instrument builders select, cut, carve, scrape, and bend materials to sculpt sounds and tones. From violins and guitars to ocarinas and berimbaus, Indiana boasts a rich heritage of instrument playing and making that reflects the diversity of Hoosiers. Indiana is internationally recognized as a center of instrument manufacturing, but the state's tradition of independent instrument builders is less well known. Some of the finest handcrafted instruments in the world are made in private workshops throughout Indiana. These include familiar instruments like violins, silver flutes, and guitars that represent a musical heritage common to most of the U.S., while instruments like santours, kannels, and tamburitzas, show the cultural variety found in Indiana.

This collection is part of a National Endowment for the Arts project to document musical instrument makers from across Indiana. The six builders featured in this collection represent the first month of my research. While many folklorists would not consider most of these artists "traditional," each build for a specific community, their instruments reflect the aesthetics of that community, and they learned through studying old instruments and/or from the instruction of older builders.

Artists Featured in this Collection:

  • Ehsan Kousari builds santours, a Persian form of hammered dulcimer. Inspired by the instruments he heard and played in Iran, Kousari began building santours for himself as well as for professional players like his friend Kiu Haghighi from Chicago. Ehsan's instruments are unique in that he adjusts sound posts within the instrument to produce a more perfect sound. While he uses native hardwoods for his boxes, his tapered zither pins and bridges are ordered from overseas.

  • Richard Seraphinoff teaches French horn at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and performs on both natural and modern French horns. He has traveled the world studying old horns and explains that his job is "to recreate what was actually used at a particular time in history." When he copies an instrument that was made in 1750, his approach is to craft a fine instrument that plays well but stays within the parameters of what was done in that period.

  • Kurt Simmerman was a woodworker looking for a craft that he could make and sell to supplement his income. What he found was a community of dulcimer players that helped him perfect his craft and taught him to build fine mountain dulcimers, which are played by professionals and hobbyists throughout the United States. People often think of dulcimers as simple folk craft, but Kurt's instruments are elegant in shape, exquisite in tone, and built for contemporary dulcimer styles. Kurt Simmerman died unexpectedly in his shop in December 2007.

  • Patrick O'Riordan was born in England to Irish parents. He immigrated to Indiana in 1959 to work as a mechanical engineer. He retired from "real work" in 1991 and now faces a backlog of orders for his whistles, which are played by many groups and artists. Today his whistles are considered to be among the best made and are in great demand by professional players.

  • Bruce Taggart started building mandolins in his family's service station in Nashville in the 1970s. He studied a Lloyd Loar Gibson mandolin and worked to emulate its shape and tone. Today, his instruments have evolved to have their own voice and subtle reinterpretation of that classic design. Taggart also makes violins, but chooses not to sell them because he invests so much of himself in their crafting.

  • David Straubinger and his son Joel are innovative builders of handcrafted concert flutes. David learned the basics of flute manufacturing from Bickford Brannon, of the Powell Flute Company. However his brief apprenticeship was only part of his training. Long before he learned to build flutes, he was perfecting his knowledge and skill by repairing and rebuilding flutes. David invented the Straubinger Pads, a new felting system, which he sells throughout the world to other builders. Players such as James Galway and Thomas Robertello use his pads. It is David's knowledge of what was done in the past that allows him and his son to be modernizers in a craft that has evolved slowly since prehistory. Straubinger's innovations are significant to the greater tradition of flute making.

This collection is peer reviewed and available online in the EVIA Project Archive.

Image © Jon Kay

Jon Kay directs Traditional Arts Indiana, a statewide folk and traditional arts program based at Indiana University. Kay conducts fieldwork, supports public programs, and produces exhibitions and documentary videos about Indiana's traditional artists and art forms. He also provides professional development training for artists, community scholars and tourism professionals. Prior to working at IU, Kay directed the Florida Folk Festival, the oldest continual state folk festival in the United States.

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