Dozens of violins dangle on carefully tied silken threads in the small room adjacent to Stephen Bacon's Bellwood workshop in Ashland. The walls are covered with even more instruments — from the tiniest violin to the biggest bass.
The sight of the gleaming wood and taut strings kindles a desire to hear their song. The Ashland luthier picks up a recorder and offers a few hopeful notes. Bacon's breath and skillful fingers create tones which ring out like birds in flight. But the stringed instruments remain silent.
Climate is important. The temperature is a bit too warm, the humidity a bit too low, to set off the sympathetic vibrations which would normally fill the room with the violins' resonate response to the recorder's notes, says Bacon.
"When the room's in tune, it's pretty amazing," Bacon says, with a gentle sigh.
Strolling back into the larger work area, Bacon, 54, sits down at his bench. He is finishing repairs on a violin with a cracked neck, stroking stain across the wood with careful hands.
"Anybody with an instrument, that's all they're trying to do is sing," he said. "I think that's why so many people like the violin. It can be loud, soft, plaintive. You can put so much emotion into it."
Music has always been a passion for Bacon. He began music lessons in the third grade and plays a variety of instruments, including trumpet, tuba, recorder, viola da gamba and bansuri flutes. He began making and repairing musical instruments in his grandfather's shop when he was 17, Bacon says.
"I just had a fascination with stringed and woodwind instruments," he says. "I kept getting things at the junk shop and fixing them up."
Heading over to an adjacent bench, Bacon points out the myriad repairs made on an 1820s English cello that arrived with a large crack down the center.
"This is the tenor voice of the orchestra," Bacon says.
The backs, sides and necks of many stringed instruments are made of maple. The tops are made of conifer, usually spruce, he says.
"So you have to use those same woods to do the repairs. Sometimes it can take me over a year to find a match for the wood," Bacon says.
Bacon's formal education includes a music degree from El Camino College in Southern California. He wrote his masters thesis at California State University, Dominguez Hills, on the theory and construction of historic instruments. Bacon came to Ashland in 1979 to perform with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Green Show musicians. He has owned Bellwood Violin since 1985, he says.
"I had a zillion mentors, but never served an official apprenticeship," says Bacon. "Now I have two apprentices."
Alex Buktenic, 16, and Jacob Mariani, 23, help Bacon restore old instruments and repair — or even create — new ones, he says.
Giving an approving nod toward an ornate scroll which Buktenic hand-carved from a solid piece of wood for his under-construction violin, Bacon says the home-schooled teen is showing early promise.
"Young Alex is making his second violin," Bacon says. "His first burned up in a fire, poor kid."
Smiling, Bacon describes the slightly-older Mariani as a "crazy mountain biker" with an artist's eye for detail.
Making quality instruments involves a careful balance of art and science, but good eyesight is key, says Bacon.
"Eyesight is everything," Bacon says. "I'm blessed to be near-sighted. You also have to have a trainable ear. You don't have to have perfect pitch. But you have to be able to recognize overtones, subtleties, and distinguish timbre."
Bacon honors the time-honored skills handed down by the masters, but he's not averse to keeping up with the latest technology, he says. He recently completed a forensic chemistry class at Southern Oregon University. A lot of the techniques learned in the CSI-style class are useful in restoring ancient instruments, Bacon says.
"A lot of conservators use the same science," he says.
Repairing the instruments of musicians playing at the Shakespeare and Britt festivals, as well as local and traveling symphonies, keeps Bacon and his apprentices busy. More than 1,000 instruments are repaired or restored at Bacon's shop each year.
Some of the instruments are of sentimental value only. Others are worth a king's ransom. Bacon was once asked to fix the opened seams of a $4 million cello belonging to consummate musician and teacher Lynn Harrell. Harrell's work placed him in the highest echelon of performing artists, Bacon says.
"He was the Yo-Yo Ma of yesterday," says Bacon. "He was (performing) at the Britt. I had a half hour to get everything in order. He was so nice, so jovial."
On a nearby shelf sits a button-style accordion with intricate wood inlay. The owners heard the instrument could fetch big bucks if fully restored. But it will take almost as much as the 19th century "Minnesota Polka Box" is worth to cover the costs, he says.
"So they're still deciding what they're going to do," he says.
Many people who are letting go of valuable or historically significant instruments simply want to find them "the right home," Bacon says.
Local collector Jack Schuman donated one of the world's largest and most unique private collections of musical instruments to SOU. In 2007, Bacon was appointed conservator of the collection. He is responsible for the preservation and safe keeping of instruments. He also oversees research, restoration, repair, assessment and loan of the instruments, he says.
Bacon picks up an ancient lute from the collection. The instrument dates back to 1584 and has had several repairs during the past 400-plus years. One was a bit anachronistic, Bacon says, pointing to a carved rose which currently adorns the lute's sound hole and apparently came from an 18th-century harpsichord.
"Think of the times this instrument has seen," Bacon says. "Think of the music it has played."