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Issue 79 - Sounds from the Sycamore Tree

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015


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Sounds from the Sycamore Tree

Alastair Guild meets luthier Steve Burnett

he sycamore is one of nature's great colonisers; its winged seeds finding their way into the most unpromising of nooks and crannies. It is a characteristic which has earned this member of the
maple family a somewhat unflattering public reputation.

Yet its various attributes such as a fine grain, strength and colour tones make it one of the favoured timbers for furniture makers, wood carvers and turners while Edinburgh instrument maker Steve Burnett won't hear a harsh word said about the sycamore.

He grew up on a smallholding on the outskirts of Edinburgh, hills on one side, woods on the other, the setting for great adventures, carving shapes with his penknife and listening to birdsong. There was no music at home or school. Aged 17 he chanced on a guitar and formed a punk band. “A good friend said 'punk music is one thing, but listen to this.’”

His friend put on the Disiree from Mozart's Requiem. “I felt I'd just been hit by a hurricane and realised I'd been missing a huge dimension from my life,” he says.

Steve then enrolled on a piano tuning course, starting a long road to understanding musical tone. At the age of nearly 30 he discovered an old violin in a junk shop with a box of tools and a half-made violin front made by a violin maker from the Scottish Borders from the 1890s.

“The musty smell transported me back to sitting in the wood with my penknife,” he recalls. “I was immediately drawn to stringing the violin up and to the beauty of the instrument's curves.”

Steve still had to find out what gave the instrument its tone and got out a book on violin making from the library. This was the start of a very long journey to discover what made the tone of a very fine Italian instrument he had heard played.

Entirely self- taught, unusual in the world of luthiers, he has been making violins, violas and cellos to order in his small workshop in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh ever since, for customers in the UK and overseas. He has been researching, refining and applying the techniques of the early Italian makers as he goes. His main influences are Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (the maker of Niccolò Paganini's famous violin), Matteo Gofriller, Domenico Montagnana as well as others.

Some of the wood he sources in Italy, for example pine for the front of instruments is from the Dolomites. The ingredients for his varnishes include bee propolis from Tuscany and volcanic ash from Vesuvius.

But Steve revels in using wood from local trees, those that may have been blown down in a storm, for instance, or limbs that may been removed for safety reasons or as part of general pollarding. It concerns him greatly that we may not fully value the contribution that trees make to our way of life, as 'lungs of the earth' and that often trees don't seem to receive the respect and protection they deserve, unlike in many other European countries.

He has a particular passion for wood with connections to historic people, places and events. He also talks about 'giving a tree a voice', so that through music his instruments can raise awareness about and speak in support of nature, the environment, children and others in need.

Take for example the five instruments – three violins, a viola and a cello – he made from a single sycamore with connections to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The medically-trained spiritualist and creator of the violin-playing detective Sherlock Holmes spent part of his childhood in Liberton Bank House, a small cottage on the south side of Edinburgh.

In 2009, Steve received a call from the school now occupying the cottage, asking him to create an instrument to celebrate Conan Doyle. The 175-year old sycamore growing in the garden was being felled because of diseased roots. By May that year, the 'Sherlock violin' was ready to play on the 150th anniversary of the author's birth. The remaining four instruments soon followed.

The critically-acclaimed 'Sherlock' was accepted into Edinburgh University's Collection of Historical Musical Instruments and in the succeeding four years the instruments would feature in a variety of benefit concerts for a range of children's and environmental charities. A concert in support of SOS Children's Villages Haiti Orphan Appeal, for example, and others, as part of Scotland's official celebrations marking the United Nations International Year of Forests and benefit concerts for marine and
bee conservation.

One of Steve Burnett's most recent projects has been the creation of the Wilfred Owen violin. The wood for the violin came from the limb of a sycamore tree growing in the grounds of Craiglockhart in Edinburgh.

During World War I Craiglockhart – now part of Napier University – was a military hospital where Wilfred Owen, fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon and other officers were sent to convalesce and recover from shell shock, and where they would no doubt have passed the tree on walks round the grounds. Owen returned to the front, and died with just one week of hostilities remaining.

“As a child I suffered from chronic asthma and spent time in a ward with veterans from the First World War and recall vividly listening to their stories. I have long had it in mind to create a tribute to that generation and an instrument that could be used as a musical envoy for peace and reconciliation.”

The limb from the tree was felled in January 2014. The branch was taken to his workshop where it laid until March 18 – Wilfred Owen's birthday. By July the violin was complete, in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War when it was the subject of a half-hour documentary on BBC Radio Scotland called The Sycamore Sings. Stuck to the inside of the violin are the words of Owen's poem Written in a Wood September 1910, embracing nature and Owen's homage to Keats.

The violin was played recently at the launch of the national tour of the play Not About Heroes, There are plans to use the violin in concerts and schools over the next four years.

Steve Burnett's journey of discovery continues. He has recently started using willow for his violins, which, he says, gives them a marked mellowness of tone.

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