With a Hey Nonny – no?
Interview Mark Hooper
Photographs Julian Anderson
The traditional, intricate instruments that Claire Dugué painstakingly makes by hand may be the butt of folk music jokes, but she asserts, ‘We really are living in the golden age of the hurdy-gurdy!’
How on earth did you end up making hurdy-gurdies?
‘I made my first guitar in France while still at school preparing for my A-levels. I spent my Saturdays in the workshop of a guitar maker and loved the experience, ending up with my very own handmade guitar. The plan for the future was simple: finish school, go to Spain, become a guitar maker. I finished school all right but then didn’t find a workshop that would take me on to train as a guitar maker.
‘I had almost resigned myself to go to university and study history when a friend from school handed me the address of what used to be the London College of Furniture in the East End of London. I had only rudimentary English and no real attraction to Britain (I was going to go to sunny Spain!) but it was better than the alternative. The guitar course was full up, so I took the offer of a place on the early string course, making essentially baroque guitars, lutes and viols, which I enjoyed.
‘Then one fateful night a friend from college took me to a French dance event in Central London. The band featured two hurdy-gurdy players. I was blown away by this extraordinary instrument and I knew: “That’s what I am going to make!” When I stated this to my tutor the following morning, the reaction was well below lukewarm and boiled down to: “If you are sure, ok, but you’re on your own”. And there the journey began. I still don’t see the end of the road. The instrument still fascinates me as much as it did then, and its sound really haunts me.’
Do you play the instrument yourself?
‘I used to play classical piano and guitar but nowadays leave the playing to others. Most people are amazed that I am not much of a player, but it’s not a problem. In hindsight, it was better not to play the instrument. A lot of the traditional instruments have squeaks, rattles and wolf notes, which the experienced players knew and simply accepted as part of the overall sound and nature of the hurdy-gurdy. Not me though: I was always looking for a purer, more even sound, pushing harder than others to cure what I saw as problems – and that others just took as part of the instrument. I think this set me apart from other makers from the beginning.’
How long does it take you to complete a single instrument? ‘It depends on the model and options required (number of strings, amplification etc), but overall between four and six weeks. The setting-up of the instrument will add another full week. I take great care and time over balancing out the strings, making sure the instrument is at its best before leaving the workshop, and that still takes time.’
What is the most frustrating part of your job?
‘I love my work, so it’s not so much frustration that creeps in but tedium. My instruments are made up from more than 200 parts and they need to fit perfectly. I usually make up all the key boxes as well as making and fitting the keys for all the instruments that I am going to make in that year. Precision is vital – and setting up machines and jigs takes a lot of time and care. The final fitting and polishing of the keys is done by hand and makes all the difference in the feel of the instrument. It’s tedious but worth it. I need to prepare mentally for it and make sure I choose well the music I am going to listen to during the process.’
What one thing makes the difference in creating a perfect instrument?
‘The “perfect” hurdy-gurdy is just a concept – an illusive ideal not based in reality. My own idea of perfection has evolved over the years and keeps changing. The hurdy-gurdy is also going through tremendous changes, with players pushing the boundaries of its playing techniques and searching new sounds and possibilities, constantly pushing the makers to develop the instrument. I am amazed how much the instrument has evolved in the past 30 years, and it keeps moving. We really are living in the golden age of the hurdy-gurdy! For many of us, the goals keep shifting. So I suppose the perfect instrument is achieved when it manages to full-fill the requirements of the musician at a certain time.’
‘Listening to a musician enjoying the instrument is the reward for my labour and makes me forget the long hours spent on it’
Which do you prefer: the making process or hearing the end result?
‘The end result! While the average making time is, say, four to five weeks, the time elapsed from first contact with the musician and defining the exact specifications to hearing the instrument played might be many months (and in the past, even years). The process might involve research, sourcing new materials, trials and experiments – which can be exciting on its own, but it is all part of the path towards the end result. You look, you listen, you evaluate. Listening to a musician enjoying the instrument is the reward for my labour and makes me forget the long hours spent on it. ‘Even after 18 years of making, this is still a very special moment for me. Each finished instrument is the stepping stone towards – and inspiration for – the next one.’
What is the best feedback you’ve been given by a musician?
‘The best feedback was at my very first exhibition, by two of the best players. They came, tried the instruments and told me all that was wrong with them and also showed me what they played, how and why they needed certain things the way they were. I took lots of notes, came back to the workshop and changed everything. In some ways it was very hard to take, the criticisms were harsh, but they were so right and I knew they meant well and wanted me to build good instruments.
‘I have never forgotten that and can never thank them enough for their advice. We keep meeting and they come back to try my hurdy-gurdies, always making comments… and I’m happy to say, they do approve of my work now!’
How much does aesthetics play a role in your work over practical considerations?
‘As instrument makers we are always working within constraints. The completed instrument is the sum of its parts: the sound, the ease of playing, ergonomics, the stability, the looks. At the end of the day I must never lose focus on the fact that I am producing a tool for a musician to express his or her creativity, otherwise it would just be a pretty box. But design and aesthetics have traditionally always played a major role in instrument making, and the analysis of classical designs and proportions is a subject much written about and often revisited – and I am part of this tradition.
‘When I design a new instrument I start with a sound in mind and, combined with the pitch, this gives me the general proportions. Add in the mechanical aspects, ergonomics and limitations of certain components and then I am free to play with the design. You have to maintain constant vigilance though and check each aesthetic feature against your constraints. Sometimes a beautiful or seemingly clever design feature will have to be abandoned because it interferes with the functional aspects and your creativity is then stretched to get around the problem and find an elegant solution.
‘On the other hand, you might have a feature that seems just a part of the overall design to the onlooker but has a profound acoustic or mechanical reason for being in that particular position or shape. The majority of instruments are codified, and you stray from the path of the accepted design at your peril. Nowadays in the world of hurdy-gurdies you can let loose and create, as long as it sounds and works well. As a result there is a huge variety of designs and some truly amazing designers.’
‘Nowadays in the world of hurdy-gurdies, you can let loose and create. There is a huge variety of designs and some amazing designers’
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
‘To just stop taking orders! A few years back I had arrived: I had a good reputation and orders were coming in. I also had young children and a four-year waiting list and I was burning out fast. I found myself making instruments to order and most of them were more or less of the same type – and they were not the instruments I wanted to make any more. I felt trapped, and I decided I had to either change how I was doing things or give up and do something else altogether.
‘I stopped taking orders for new instruments and then a near fatal bicycle accident provided the opportunity to take a year off and rethink and re-evaluate my life and work. Once recovered, I started with a clean slate and I now produce, to my mind, the best instruments I ever made – instruments that, I feel, are really me. But it still feels just the start, there is so much I want to try out and improve on.’
Would you say the workshop is your ‘hole-and-corner’?
‘The closest to such a place is my allotment. In the workshop there is too much to do and too many distractions. The workshop is a controlled environment and maintains a constant humidity and temperature and though it has a lot of natural light, I am removed from the elements and the seasons. Out in the open, digging, weeding, planting, harvesting, I can keep my hands busy and think through things, away from everyday life.’