10,000 Hours: Shem Mackey

The luthier tells Laura Barber how discovering the lost secrets of Baroque construction have revolutionised period instrument-making
HelloVon-Shem-MackeyNo one in my family even so much as picked up a fiddle, so where I’ve ended up is a bit of a surprise. Right from the beginning, though, woodwork and music were both part of my life. There were eight of us children and I was second from last, so knowing I wouldn’t be the one to inherit the farm, I never had much interest in it. But I loved making things, and I was always pottering around with a few blunt tools and any scraps of timber I could get my hands on. Music was my other hobby, and as a teenager I played the whistle and the Irish flute in local pub sessions. I wasn’t good enough to think of making a career of it, and back then my ambitious didn’t stretch much beyond leaving a savagely-run Christian Brothers school and trying to avoid the kind of job that would turn me into one of the bored, worn-out people I saw all around me. I was just desperate to escape.By the time I came back to Ireland after bumming around Europe and America, I’d developed my skills enough to set up a small business making clock cases, but things only really started coming into focus when I began making furniture for my friend John Clark. He was a musical therapist at the local Camphill community, and a real mentor to me. He was the one who gave me the idea of making instruments, and he arranged for me to visit the Camphill community in Switzerland where they made a modern version of the lyre. Gradually, the two different strands of my life – woodwork and music – started coming together and, when I stumbled into the workshop for early fretted instruments at the London College of Furniture, it finally seemed like I’d found my place. It was an amazing atmosphere there: a sense of controlled anarchy, as though we’d all been let off the leash and encouraged to work things out for ourselves.

“It was incredible to have recreated a sound that hadn’t been heard for 300 years”

Over the next 10 years, I got more and more commissions, ranging from individual instruments to the entire string section for a Baroque orchestra, but I began to feel that there was something not quite right in the way my viols were turning out.  Because there’d been a period of over 100 years when the instruments weren’t made, the traditional method of construction had been lost. Through my research, I came to believe that the original viols weren’t constructed around an internal mould like you would use for a violin, but by making the back first and then building up the rest. Using this technique, I began to create instruments that show similar characteristics to the old ones – but the real watershed discovery of my research came when I went to the Musée de la musique in Paris to look at the oldest surviving model of a seven-string viol and I saw immediately that the wood had been wrongly identified as broad-leaved mahogany.It was an uncomfortable realisation, as I was up against the entire French musical establishment, but they allowed me to make my case and ended up agreeing with me. The first public performance of the viol I’d made using the correct South American wood was one of the highlights of my career – it was incredible to have recreated a sound that hadn’t been heard for 300 years. But I get equally excited about every instrument I make. I love the whole process: from carving all the separate pieces and the “seasoning” while you’re waiting for them to acclimatise to the workshop, to fitting it all together, giving it a couple of coats of varnish and adding the strings. Each one has small oddities that give it character, but the thing every instrument needs is a great musician on the end of it. It’s a nice feeling to know that when they leave my workshop the instruments are only just beginning their musical existence, opening up as they’re played to find their own voice.

Illustration Hello Von