Houston-based luthier Dorian Barnes has been cutting, sanding, and fashioning violins for over three decades. The son of a concert pianist and violinist, and the grandson of the first female member of the Detroit Symphony to boot, the Philadelphia-born luthier should have been a shoe-in to make music.
Yet something happened on his musical journey. Instead of taking the concert stage like his luminous predecessors, a rebellious streak got the better of him. Barnes snubbed following in his parents’ footsteps. That doesn’t mean he never picked up another musical instrument, though. Based in Houston since 2002, Barnes spends hundreds of hours each year bent over a workbench making sure that others can make music. In the process, this luthier is keeping a tradition as old as humanity alive.
“I come from a family of musicians,” Barnes explains. “My mom started me off on piano at three, and then violin around seven. (But) when I was around twelve, I didn’t want to play anymore. That was as far as I made it playing stringed instruments”
While he may have turned his back on a venerated musical family tradition, Barnes actually found a vocation in making instruments for others, thanks in large part to his father’s efforts.
A respected violinist in his own right, Darrel Barnes helped get his son hired as an apprentice under the well-known violin maker Al Stancel at Casa del SOL in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the family was living at the time.
“I liked working with my hands. It was a good fit,” Barnes says.
Stancel passed away over a decade ago, but the highly regarded luthier’s presence is still felt in Barnes’ small home-based workshop.
“The shop was (bought out) later, but I was able to get my boss’ workbench,” he says, tapping it. “This is a man I learned a lot from.”
Barnes later went on to do a specialized program at Indiana University. The violin maker is also carrying the torch of instrument-making forward in another way. Whether seen through the cosmic lens of supernatural faith or buried away in the sediments of the archaeological dig pit, instrument-making is a surprising, if not often forgotten, piece of the puzzle of human history that scientists are trying to put together.
For those with more of a spiritual bent, the Book of Genesis teases us with the obscure footnote about Adam and Eve’s toe-tapping descendant Jubal. The writer of Genesis describes him, with the flourish of our King James English, as: “The father of all such as handle the harp and organ.” The love of music is equal-opportunity employer, and science has done much to help us fill in some missing notes from our harmonizing history.
A raft of recent scientific finds indicates that even early man made music in between the life-sustaining demands of hunting and gathering. Case in point: some of the earliest known instruments made by homo sapiens are a set of flutes made from bird bones and mammoth ivory—over 42,000 years ago. Research published in the Journal of Human Evolution a few years ago has helped back that up.
From the ancient caves where our human ancestors drilled holes into bird bones to mimic the sounds of nature, to Barnes’ suburban workshop where he spends “tedious…patient hours,” sanding and detailing handmade violins, one thing still matters: Quality.
“You have to be like a chef and start with the finest ingredients. You have to get the best. Bosnian Maple. Italian Alpine Spruce. The smallest discrepancy in the thickness in the wood matters,” he says. “But you get a feel for the wood when you work with it from start to finish. It matters. You have to start with the best.”
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Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and non fiction have appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Synesthesia Literary Journal,and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas where he tells his children that he has done worse things for less money.
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