This past week, I was invited by the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the world’s premier music conservatories, to watch a movie about the people who make bows used by string-instrument players. Specifically, the movie profiled bow makers who live right in my neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest), in and around Port Townsend, Washington. It is wonderful! In fact, the movie will be streaming through October 11, and you can get tickets here if you wish to watch it. Highly recommended.
It was exciting to meet the bow makers, whom I had heard of but did not know much about. We were treated to tours of the workshops, and stories about bow makers Charles Espey, Robert Morrow, Paul Siefried, Ole Kanestrom, and Cody Kowalski in Port Townsend; and Noel Burke in Portland. Then, it was off to Paris to visit Stephane Thomachot and his daughter Josephine, both bow makers!
I was actually very pleased to learn also about the wood that the best bows are made of, called Pernambuco. The movie gave some history of that wood; starting from the 1500s, Portuguese explorers who discovered what is now Brazil, bringing back with them some of the logs, which have a heartwood center that became the source of an excellent red dye, in addition to wood for stringed instrument bows. The strength of that wood allowed bow makers to make them in a new design, so that they could produce better sound from the newly-invented metal strings.
The movie also profiled chamber groups Brooklyn Rider, and the Dover Quartet, its members commenting on their bows. Our local makers have a great reputation!
Above are pictures of a pau-brasil tree, and a log cross-section, showing the red heartwood. In the past, loggers in Brazil cut down too many trees, nearly decimating the forests, and the wood for bows, so that the tree was declared endangered. This caused much consternation within the string-instrument community, as everyone was worried that the best bow-wood might no longer be available. The movie showed that there are local organizations who are re-planting these trees, and keeping the new forests safe, so there will be wood for today’s, and tomorrow’s fine bow-makers to use. We also were introduced to a couple of youth orchestras, where the players come from peasant backgrounds, learning to play music that may take them far outside their home territory. The kids had fun, and were very good.
I myself have a beautiful pernambuco-wood bow, made by a Port Townsend-resident bow-maker, Christopher English. It is beautiful, and draws great sound from my David VanZandt violin. I consider myself very lucky to have it.
So, get your tickets now, and go online to see the movie The Bowmakers. You will love it!