Welcome to the Guide to the Week of Music, a round-up of music news, media and releases from the wide musical world. This week, we take a sidestep into the fascinating world of musical craftsmanship, with luthier Tim Manning. We discuss his most challenging commissions and love for music, before exploring some new sounds and music videos from across the globe.
Tim Manning of Music Magic discusses dulcimer making and his most challenging commissions
The hammered dulcimer is an uncommon sight in contemporary Western music. Yet, when one sees or hears an artist such as Max ZT of House of Waters play one, it’s tremendous qualities become abundantly clear. When struck with wooden or leather-clad hammers, the strings of this flatbed, wood-bodied instrument resonate brightly, oozing character and calling to mind centuries worth of music history.
If you’ve heard one used by Anna Calvi or Peter Gabriel, chances are that Tim Manning was the man who made it. An experienced and knowledgeable luthier (although he defers to David Kettlewell when it comes to in-depth dulcimer history) he is also a composer and lifelong music fan. Manning has been creating instruments independently for over twenty-five years and his passion—as well as the commissions he receives—have challenged him to take his craft into innovative territory. With each commission, Tim must consider the requirements of the player, the suitability of each material and the finish that the instrument will require.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Tim about his work, his thoughts on House and Waters and why it might be that the instrument is less commonly used in the contemporary music world.
You’ve been a self-employed luthier for over 20 years now. During that time, what have been the key lessons you’ve learned about your craft, the most challenging commissions and the furthest your dulcimers have travelled?
“I think the key lesson is not to undercharge for instruments, because it’s quite easy to think: ‘oh, I could make it for that and really get going with something…’ and actually, then realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You’ve got to know that you can do it and do it at the right time, for the right amount of money. Otherwise, you’re going to be working for peanuts.”
‘In terms of challenging commissions, one of the most challenging is actually one I’m doing at the moment. I’ve made another one of these instruments before, it’s not actually a dulcimer, it’s called a cimbalom. It’s a member of the dulcimer family, from Eastern Europe and I’m making this one for the Bolshoi ballet. What makes it particularly challenging is that it has got to be played whilst being carried around. It has a strap that fits over the neck and the player is on stage for quite a long time. About three of four years ago, the Royal Ballet made a new ballet around Shakespeare’s A Winter Tale and the guy who was playing that piece (Greg Knowles) commissioned me to make the instrument [for the Bolshoi ballet]. What’s amazing about it is that you can hold it with one finger. Not for too long, but enough to demonstrate that fact! Finally, the furthest any of my instruments have gone is Australia and New Zealand.’
Sustainability is an important consideration you make when producing instruments. Why is it such a vital matter and do you have any other, equally important working practices?
‘I was making instruments for a while, but then I did an instrument making course with a Lute maker called Arthur Robb. He’s an American guy and at that time was studying the sustainable use of timber (he was very keen for a CITES report to come out, and was very keen on English timbers). His main instruments were lute and guitar, so he was investigating the things you could make in England [with English timber].
I mean, there are really interesting timbers you can get which some people don’t even know of: London Plane for one is fabulous and Cherry, Walnut…I collect timbers, things like Box (Buxus), Hawthorn and Scottish Elm…sometimes when I see tree surgeons down in somebody’s garden, I’ll go and ask for a piece of wood. Especially if it’s something I’m not used to. Scottish Elm is something I didn’t even know you could get anymore, but I’ve discovered that in Scotland, they still have reasonable sized elm trees. That’s interesting looking timber. As well as my feeling that we shouldn’t be using loads of tropical timbers and ousting primitive tribes from their natural habitats, helping criminals make money–it gives me a bit of an edge over American makers. They’re very keen on using Mahongany for instance, but really I can’t see the point. America has got lots of interesting timber [native to North America] so there’s not a reason to use it.’
Compared with the acoustic guitar, the hammered dulcimer is equally as portable, potentially as versatile and arguably, as easy to play – plus its sound is captivating. Why then do you feel it is so under appreciated/under used in comparison?
‘It’s quite interesting…a dulcimer definitely is heavier than an acoustic guitar for a start. There’s a lot of tension on a dulcimer; on a standard 12×12 dulcimer you’ve got about a ton pulling from side to side. They need to be pretty robustly built if they’re going to survive. The funny thing is, for some reason—and guitarists seem to do this too—dulcimer makers/players will take their dulcimers and play them out in the fields in full sun, in the rain and do all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t do with a violin, for example. You’d be much more circumspect with a violin!
The other thing is that a standard dulcimer arrangement doesn’t give you the complete range of notes. You’ve got this kind of diatonic arrangement where you’re missing a few notes, which can be quite frustrating if you’re someone who likes to have all the notes! For folk playing they work quite well, because the way they’re laid out is so different to a guitar, it’s kind of refreshing. You can come up with new ideas and melodic phrases that you wouldn’t necessarily have come up with on a guitar. But, you’re still left with that problem of sometimes wanting to play a note and it not being there.
I’ve got in mind making a version of a Belarusian dulcimer-type instrument, which has all the notes. It’s a nice arrangement! They’ve got another instrument called a cimbalom which also gives you all the notes, but it’s a slightly peculiar arrangement. For Hungarian players, they’ve learned really well how to use that arrangement. From what I’ve seen of the cimbál players from Belarus, the layout of the strings is quite nice and logical. It’s a national instrument, so the kids grow up learning them at school. They become really proficient players and can play all kinds of music: from folk music through to contemporary music, classical and jazz. The good thing is, if you’re playing something and you want to go up a semitone, you know exactly where that semitone is going to be, which can be a bit tricky on a dulcimer!
The other thing with dulcimers is that they’re not necessarily that good at doing all the work. Let’s say you wanted to sing a basic song: with an acoustic guitar, you can very easily play a straightforward accompaniment with open chords, whereas, it’s more tricky on a dulcimer. I think a dulcimer is great if you’re going to concentrate on being the accompanist, or if you’re going to play as the soloist–it cuts through really nicely across other stuff, as it’s got a really sharp sound. But trying to play and sing can be a bit tricky!
Because they’re not made in the same quantities as acoustic guitars, they’re more expensive. You can go to a shop and buy a reasonable [beginner] acoustic guitar for £50 these days. But dulcimers: individually made, one-off things, are generally made in the UK or the states, where wages are higher and so they’re more expensive. So far, there aren’t really many people out there in popular music playing dulcimers. Unless people see the things, it’s difficult to discover something you don’t know of!’
Do you listen to music in the workshop, or do you prefer a quiet atmosphere to concentrate? If not in the workshop, what do you like listening to to unwind?
‘I love listening to music in the workshop. I use YouTube and that’s how I discovered Snarky Puppy. I really like to start off with something I know of—a wikipedia tab open for the artist I’m listening to—and then maybe it throws up a few other things and I discover an artist I’ve never heard of.
I discovered a band, only in the last couple of weeks, called Khruangbin. Also, on Snarky’s label, The Funky Knuckles…Anderson Paak & The Free Nationals…there’s so much more. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing is listening to bands, or individual players, that I knew in the past: like Gong or John McLaughlin and discovering their whole back catalogue! I might have had some albums in the past, say three or four, but there’s so much more out there, as well as live performances. I also quite like listening to radio plays, but quite often I’m making a noise in the workshop, so have to let it go and rejoin when I’ve turned to machinery off!’
Max ZT of House of Waters is a contemporary player we’re familiar with, that you have met and spoken with. What discussions did you have about the instrument and what are your thoughts on how House of Waters are using the instrument and the sound they’re achieving?
“Yes, I had come across Max on YouTube before with House of Waters. What happened was, I discovered Snarky Puppy and wondered ‘do they ever play in England?’ So I searched for gigs and there they were, coming to Poole. It happened to be almost on my birthday and the fact that they were playing with House of Waters made me think ‘I can’t not go to this gig!’”
‘So after their set, House of Waters came out in the foyer of the hall and sold their CDs. Max was there with the bass guitarist and we had a nice chat. He told me that he studied with Shivkumar Sharma, who has written a lot of Indian film music and plays the Indian version of a dulcimer, which is called a santur. So he went out to Bombay to study and I’d loved Shivkumar Sharma’s music for a very long time, so that was very quite interesting [to me]. Shivkumar Sharma has played with some people I mentioned before, like John McLaughlin and the great tabla player Zakir Hussain and introduced him [Max ZT] to the modal style of playing. It’s a completely different way of thinking about how to get melodies out of the instrument.
And Moto Fukushima and I had a chat as well—he plays a thunderous five-string bass. The other interesting thing is that the drummer is Argentinian, Moto has Japanese heritage and Max ZT, Czech heritage, so that’s interesting! I did express my disappointment [to Max] that he didn’t actually talk about the dulcimer while he was playing, as when I’ve been to see Shivkumar Sharma play at WOMAD and various places like that, he talks for a good five minutes before he plays, if he’s going to play Indian classical music. He talks about the instruments itself and how it fits within classical music.’
Find out more about Tim’s Music Magic dulcimers, the history of the instrument and the artists who’ve used Tim’s creations, here.
Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed announced her La Saboteuse Remixed EP this week, sharing Hector Plimmer’s fantastic remix of The Lost Pearl. The EP is released in its entirety next month, via Niam records. DJ Khalab of On the Corner records and Blacksea Não Maya are among the other artists contributing to the four-track collection.
Melbourne-based Balearic/Tropical house producer Len Leise premiered TFTC, lifted from his forthcoming 12” on General Purpose, via Les Yeux Orange this week. The eight-minute epic begins in gentle territory, with sharp percussion and purring synth elements gradually assembling through the melodic wash. Beautifully chilled, understated yet weighty!
London-based MC Avelino dropped a new single this week. Boasy features hooks and verses from Not3s, one YouTube commenter describing the pair as ‘two of the most wavy artists in the UK’. Elsewhere, one-man psychedelic-rock project Futuropaco dropped a pair of epic tracks from his forthcoming debut with El Paraiso records. The label described the sound as ‘the shape of things to come…a wet, enigmatic cocktail of part 1970’s Italian library music, part krautalicious beat-galore and part riff-driven heavy psych.’
Having recently announced their series of 7” singles, Ishmael Ensemble premiered the video for Full Circle this week. Created by Amie Nowlan of Cut film, the revolving technicolour aesthetic is a beautiful accompaniment for the atmospheric, nu-jazz stylings the ensemble are crafting.
Thabang Tabane, son of the late guitarist and Malombo member Philip Tabane,released his video forNyanda Yeni this week. Directed and edited by StraitJacket Tailor, it comprises primarily of archival footage taken from apartheid-era South African cinema. The video subverts the meaning of those divisive pictures, as Okay Africa explain in their accompanying article.
Finally, the awe-inspiring Algerian rockers Imarhanshared a lyric video for their trackAlwa last week. The group have made clear sonic progressions on their latest record and the arrangement of this track is chocked with incredible instrumentation: acoustic piano emphasising the beats of the chorus and Afro-Latin percussion providing further depth throughout. Lyrics such as ‘A vast earth, brimful of riches, inhabited by a community in distress’ perfectly encapsulate the perspective from which Imarhan are writing.