Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Strengths, Our Weaknesses

A Cylinder Music Box Made In Prague In The Late 1890s
With Larry's Music Box Mystery Series And His
Nonfiction Book, THE ENCHANTED EAR

This week, Myra and I are enjoying a visit from our friend Dave, a graphic artist, sculptor, and musician who earns his living as a professional restorer of antique music boxes. Dave is widely respected in the field as one of the best in the world at bringing back to life the finest...but hold on. First, a little background information.

Music boxes (self-playing instruments which make music via plucking of a tuned hard-steel comb, in the manner of the African kalimba or thumb piano) were first produced commercially in Switzerland about the time the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. They were manufactured by watch and clockmakers, initially as luxurious embellishments for timepieces, but they quickly became popular and profitable, and before long, were being made as standalone items. Among the people who could afford these baubles, grand opera was the popular music of the day, so by the 1830s and 1840s, one could buy large, magnificent instruments which played stunning arrangements of music by Rossini, Mozart, Bellini, and Donizetti. Steel pins on a rotating cylinder plucked the comb teeth to produce the desired notes in the desired sequences. Each music box was an individually-produced work of art.

By the late nineteenth century, though, these cylinder music boxes had degenerated into smaller, mass-produced items which played humdrum arrangements of music-hall tunes of the time. And shortly thereafter, a different form of music box came along, one which used individual metal discs to pluck the comb teeth, such that the owner could buy any number of tunes, rather than being limited to the three, four, six, or eight melodies pinned to a particular cylinder.

Now back to Dave. Restoration of disc-playing music boxes and later cylinder boxes requires considerable technical skill, but the procedure is usually straightforward. The construction is standardized; the musical arrangements relatively uncomplicated. But not nearly all restorers possess the musical competence, patience and diligence required to bring back a one-of-a-kind early cylinder instrument to where it was when it left the manufacturer's shop. Every one of the thousands of cylinder pins must be set precisely, to pluck the right tooth at the right moment, with the right degree of strength. And that's where Dave shines. It's not uncommon, after hearing a box of mine that Dave had worked on, for a listener to smile and identify the restorer.

But our strengths are often also our weaknesses. Many times, I've watched Dave struggle for hours over a soft noise or a mistimed note, an error so slight that no one else had been aware of it until he pointed it out. Sometimes, as he persists in trying to make the problem disappear, another, worse, problem arises, and in the end, Dave needs to work his way back to where the diminishing returns originated, and then persuade himself to stop. Not that he's satisfied. When he visits us, he listens to boxes he restored years before, and hears things he'd like to try to work out, but knows he shouldn't.

Perfection just ain't a realistic goal. Our best efforts notwithstanding, it's as if we're constrained by an asymptotic barrier from doing more than approaching that ideal. The closer, the better, but still. I'll try to keep that in mind when I start tearing out handfuls of my hair as I go through the galleys of my next book.

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