ROSALIA – A world-class performance takes place every day in a sprawling old house in tiny Rosalia.
Morgan Andersen takes raw hunks of pernambuco wood, ebony and ivory, and meticulously turns out violin, viola and cello bows. Not just any bows, but the best bows in the world.
Andersen returned a few weeks ago from Paris, where he received the Grand Prix for violin bows in the Concours Etienne Vatelot-City of Paris Competition, the world’s most prestigious bow-making contest.
The man who handed him the medal? The mayor of Paris.
Still, Andersen is uncomfortable with that “best in the world” label.
“That’s not really accurate,” said Andersen. “Other people are as good at what I do as I am.”
Yet Andersen admitted that this medal is, in fact, “the apex for a bow-maker.”
“It’s the culmination of my professional life,” said Andersen, 55. “You do this in relative isolation. This tells me that I haven’t wasted 32 years.”
Fine violinists around the world are already aware of Andersen’s bows, including the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Guarneri String Quartet’s Arnold Steinhardt, both of whom have used his bows. Spokane Symphony violinist Jeri Bentley owns one of his bows because his bow is “much more powerful” than her other bows. And a bow, she said, is more important than non-violinists realize.
“The bow means everything to the sound,” said Bentley. “It’s like the voice of the instrument.”
Another player who uses his bows? Morgan Andersen himself. Andersen moonlights as the fiddle player in the Spokane Celtic band Floating Crowbar.
“I don’t pretend to play as well as a great classical violinist,” said Andersen. “I am not a great violinist.”
Rick Rubin, his Floating Crowbar bandmate, begs to differ.
“He is really, really good,” said Rubin.
Andersen certainly plays well enough to understand the nuances of flex, weight and balance – and how it all affects a violinist’s tone and technique. This deep well of knowledge and experience makes every Andersen bow worth $4,200.
Make that $4,800. Winning the Grand Prix instantly boosted the price.
Check out any music store and you’ll quickly realize that nobody has to pay that kind of money for a bow.
“If your kid is just taking up violin, you don’t get them one of these,” said Andersen. “The vast majority of bows are made in factories. Some of them are pretty good. You can get one for $50.”
What makes Andersen’s bows so special?
It begins with the raw materials. All of Andersen’s bows are made of Brazilian pernambuco wood, from Andersen’s own personal stash, which he purchased way back in 1991. Pernambuco is a dense, heavy wood, and bow-makers realized centuries ago that it had the correct strength, flexibility and “memory” to make the best bows. Andersen carefully cuts the pernambuco into “blanks” – sticks of roughly the correct shape and size. Dozens of blanks are arranged on a rack in the workshop of his historic house in Rosalia.
“This is like an artist’s palette,” he said, gesturing toward the rack. “There are different personalities to these sticks, believe it or not. Some are heavier, some are lighter, some are tip-heavy, some have the weight back in the hand.”
Then he assembles the rest of the exotic materials: Ebony for the black “frog” piece near the violinist’s hand, silver for the metal parts, lizard-skin for the grip and mastodon-tusk ivory for the tip.
Mastodon tusk? As in, the prehistoric mammal?
“Yes, there’s a little in every bow,” said Andersen. “It’s from Alaska or Siberia. They find good quantities of it every year in the river banks of the Yukon, for instance.”
A single piece of tusk lasts Andersen many years. The quality is superior to elephant tusk and it does not promote elephant poaching.
The final material is the horsehair, which is actually the item Andersen spends the least time on, since the violinist will change it every few months.
He does most of his work by feel.
“I cut the blank with power tools,” he said. “And that’s it, as far as power tools go.”
Everything else – the planing, the shaping, the bending, the sanding and the finishing – is done the old-fashioned way. He does it because he believes the old ways produce a superior bow. He also does it because … well, because it makes him happy.
“It’s also a lifestyle choice,” said Andersen. “Do I sit here guiding my knives, planes and chisels in peace and quiet? Or do I stand in front of a roaring machine, worrying about whether I can take a finger off?”
This Old World craftsmanship takes time. Andersen makes only two bows a month, or 25 a year. Some are commissioned by musicians, some are commissioned by collectors and some are sold through wholesalers.
Andersen believes there is one more thing that makes a handmade bow special. Each of his bows is subtly different, which actually makes them more consistent. A factory does the “same thing over and over” to every piece of wood. Yet Andersen gets to know every piece of pernambuco and makes “a whole lot of decisions” to make the bow that best suits that piece of wood.
Andersen was brought up on Mercer Island, near Seattle. As a young man he attended the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City and before long gravitated to bow-making, which he discovered was every bit as fascinating and challenging as making violins. He worked under a renowned violin-maker and dealer in San Francisco in 1978 and 1979 and then returned to Seattle in 1980 and has been a self-employed bow-maker ever since.
He lived and worked on Lopez Island for a while, but in 2004 he and his partner, Peg Baumgartel, who also is a restorer and maker of bows, decided they wanted to move somewhere even quieter. They began to look for old houses online, and stumbled across a 100-year-old house in Rosalia, pop. 550, amidst ponderosa pines and rolling wheat fields.
“We like the peace and quiet,” he said. “And people leave us alone.”
He’s happy sitting at his well-worn workbench, winter sun streaming in, turning a hunk of pernambuco into a work of art.
By the way, some violinists spend even more on bows. Vintage bows have sold for as much as $200,000 – made by the Morgan Andersens of the 1700s and 1800s.