The Perfect Musical Instrument

Perfect meditation music doesn't merely require the most soulful musicians. It also needs the most soulful musical instruments.

In the worlds of classical music, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is known as a great artist. He never wrote a single line of music (or at least, nothing that was ever published). Nor was he a great performer. However, as an artist, he is in a class of his own. His forte: building musical instruments.

Even among non-musicians, the name must ring some bells. A Stradivarius violin is a work of art as cherished as a Beethoven symphony. He produced his greatest works after 1700 – mostly violins and cellos, with a rich amber varnish and a perfect brilliance of sound.

If a Stradivari violin is the instrument of choice for great musicians, what would make an ideal instrument for Sri Chinmoy, in his concerts of meditative music? Sri Chinmoy is no virtuoso, but he appreciates the subtle differences of each instrument – albeit in their meditative sweetness, rather than their technical perfection. While he has a collection of hundreds of instruments, and performs with many around the world, he has a special affection for those instruments made by his students. They might not have Stradivari’s technical brilliance, but if built in an eager, soulful mood, it can bring the harmonic qualities of his music to the fore.

“I was always surprised at why Guru likes an instrument or why not,” admits Tapodhan Blauel, one of his Austrian students. “Sometimes it’s very surprising to me. Sometimes I think the sound of the instrument is not good, and Guru likes it. Sometimes it seems very good, and Guru doesn’t like it.”

Tapodhan has made and modified some of Sri Chinmoy’s esrajes. The esraj, a long-necked Bengali “fiddle”, has long been a popular instrument (both for solo pieces and vocal accompaniment) in classical Indian music. It is one of Sri Chinmoy’s most common musical instruments.

A carpenter by trade, Tapodhan currently works at the Zurich branch of Gandharva Loka, a music store chain that specialises in acoustic instruments from around the world. “We learn by purchasing, by selling,” he explains. “By seeing the customers, how they use the instruments, we know the requirements. Some of the instruments we bring to Europe sound unique. Sometimes the customers want to use it in a different way – for example, through the western [musical] scale. Then we have to modify it. We give specifications to the makers in the different countries, how to change things. Sometimes they do very well.

“Normally, musicians know how to play, but they don’t know anything about the construction. They are not aware of what makes an instrument sound good. They don’t know if you change the skin here, or if you change the wood there, what kind of difference it makes.”

Among Sri Chinmoy’s keenest instrument-makers are the team of electronic engineer Harkara Urmoneit and metal-worker Pramodan Gmeiner, both based in Germany.Harkara is more than willing to reveal his lack of qualifications. “We are not instrument-makers,” he says. “We did not learn to make sitars. We did not learn to make an esraj. We just start, so we don’t know if the thing we are doing is good or bad. But we have some ideas to make it a little better.”

Always eager to make new machines for Sri Chinmoy, including exercise machines and mechanical driving buggies, Harkara and Pramodan’s first attempt at a musical instrument was a sitar… or it was supposed to be. Harkara recalls that it more closely resembled a lute, that western instrument so popular with mediaeval minstrels. Later, Sri Chinmoy requested an Indian-style pump harmonium – minus the pump. Harkara’s electronic skills proved useful here, as he and Pramodan built a sampler in a plastic case, on which each key offered a harmonium sound.

Both Harkara and Pramodan are amateur musicians, and Harkara recently started playing sitar, to “get the feeling of the sound”. Despite Harkara’s professed lack of expertise, Sri Chinmoy has been very pleased with many of their creations, playing them in his concerts.

An excellent sitar takes time, of course. For their most recent model, they worked every weekend from mid-June to early September 2004. Working from Germany poses extra challenges. While the neck of a sitar is made from hard wood, the head is traditionally made from a pumpkin gourd. The heat of India gives pumpkins a hard surface, but in the milder climate of Germany (and even on their visits to Sri Chinmoy in New York), they are confronted with very soft pumpkins – fine for baking or Hallowe’en, but unsuitable for sitar-making.

After they considered making a fibreglass “pumpkin” (an idea that proved unfeasible), they noted that many instruments are made from carbon fibre, including guitars, violins and cellos. Collecting material from Mittenwald, a town known for its violin-makers, they continued making an esraj in a slightly non-traditional way.

The project provided so many challenges, in fact, that Pramodan wrote a detailed (30,000-word) journal of their sitar-making adventures. It makes for intriguing reading, as our heroes face obstacle after obstacle. A simple task? Not when they, as relative novices, were attempting to craft a work of art. “When we had built the first esraj, we had no plan and no predefined measurements,” wrote Pramodan. “All this we decided while working along.”

Evenetually, the esraj-making itself became a meditation, despite (or indeed, because of) the challenges. “The time was so limited that we could not think out a complete plan. Also, we could not try different possibilities. So after a while our minds kept silent… and we were allowed to enter into that treasured, delightful spirit.”

So how can someone make a truly great musical instrument? “I think this goes into the metaphysical,” says Bernd, suggesting that, as with all great artists, the quality of genius cannot be explained in simple terms.

But as Thomas Edison reportedly said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.”

“Stradivarius didn’t make only good instruments,” says Tapodhan. “He had a time of 10 years or 12 years when he made exceptional instruments, but not all Stradivarius violins were as good as the ‘special’ ones. Nowadays there are still 60 or 65 Stradivaris considered to be the best, but he also made instruments that were not so good. It depends on a lot of factors. Not only the maker, but also, of course, on the material he gets, on his development as a craftsman. Everybody goes through certain stages. We all have ups and downs, and the instrument-makers have them as well.”

For Sri Chinmoy’s instrument-makers, their best work might still be ahead of them.