In a mini doc, Galen Hartley offers an inspiring look at the work of crafting stringed instruments.
“We’re working in the service of someone else’s creativity,” Galen Hartley says while the camera zooms in on his hands carving a detail in a violin. In a short documentary, Hartley shares what it takes to bring a violin to life. As a teen, he worked at a music store and stumbled upon the craft of building stringed instruments. Four years later, along with a friend and colleague, he built his first violin. It took them a year and they sold it, and Galen has continued the noble pursuit ever since. We caught up with the luthier for insights into his ongoing work, and you can watch his inspiring documentary below.
Where did you grow up, and where do you live now?
I grew up in Victoria, BC, on the west coast of Canada. I moved to Montréal when I was around 30, which led to several apprenticeships in France, which in turn led me to Bordeaux, where I’m currently living.
What were some of the specific circumstances that led you to become a luthier?
It was really just a “right place at the right time” kind of thing. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 14, but it never once occurred to me to explore lutherie as a career option. Kim Tipper (a very fine luthier in Victoria, BC) had recently set up a workshop in the music store where I was already working, and after hanging around with him for a while, I just kind of quietly stopped doing my other job and started setting up double basses all day.
Almost 20 years ago, your first violin took you and your friend/colleague a year to complete. How long does it take you now?
It usually takes me about two months if I work at a reasonable pace.
What are the greatest challenges and rewards of making violins?
It’s hard to choose among the many challenges of making a violin… The overarching challenge, which encompasses a whole pile of smaller ones, is simply to make an instrument that can compete with all the other fine instruments out there in terms of sound quality, projection, comfort, character, etc. For a violin to be really great, it has to satisfy on so many levels. That said, judgments about the various qualities of violins are often very subjective, and there’s no surefire recipe for success. I think I have an idea of the sound I’d like my instruments to have, but it’s not always what a customer is looking for, and it’s sometimes not quite what I expect either…so, challenging!
Reward-wise, the best part is when someone decides that one of my instruments is right for them. It feels pretty fantastic to create something that becomes a part of another person’s creative process. It’s a real honor.
What are your everyday inspirations?
I’m still regularly inspired by all the folks I’ve worked with over the years, particularly their attention to detail. I’m always asking myself, Is this good?” and sometimes the answer is “Not good enough for Kim…or Isabelle, or Tony, or Travis…”
The musicians I get to meet and work with are also pretty darn inspiring. The things they can bring out of an instrument are way beyond my limited capacity as a violin player. It’s good to be reminded of the extremely high standard an instrument will be held to once it’s ready to play.
There are plenty of other artists whose work inspires me, but folks like Nina Simone and Van Morrison and William Carlos Williams give me this feeling like “Holy crap, you are committed to your vision of beauty and nothing will stop you!”
You have to be committed, right?
What’s one truth you’ve learned as an artist?
You really have to work hard. But it’s fun!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Seriously, folks…we’re all in this together. Let’s do what we can to make the world a better place. That is all.
Visit Galen’s site to learn more!