Huddled over a drafting table in a fourth-floor studio overlooking Burlington’s western skyline, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks, Joseph Campanella Cleary looks like a man out of time. On a bookshelf against a far wall sit weighty tomes bearing the names Michelangelo and da Vinci. Below those, various papers and sketches with hastily scribbled handwritten notes in the margins lay scattered across a desk. The surrounding walls hold more sketches, these more organized and detailed, but most still bearing notes — legible this time — at the edges.
Cleary painstakingly wields a protractor and large metal compass, tools that seem archaic compared to their modern cousin, the computer — a device not to be found in this room, save for the one this reporter smuggled in. He seems oblivious to the din of city noise below, as one could imagine those aforementioned Italian fellows may have been in moments of deep concentration or inspiration. But the lightly penciled arcs and crosses appearing on the page underneath represent not the makings of some Renaissance-era architectural project or anatomical sketch. Rather, they are pieces of a potentially groundbreaking approach to acoustic instrument design: the Mandolin Genome Project.
Supported by a Vermont Arts Council creation grant in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, Cleary, 34, is the current artist-in-residence at Burlington’s Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts. In residence since the first of this year, he has been working toward producing a “geometrically integrated” template for a five-member family of mandolins, from the tiny piccolo to the comparatively plump mandocello. On a recent Thursday afternoon, I met with Cleary and local mandolin marvel Jamie Masefield, founder of The Jazz Mandolin Project as well as the owner of one of Cleary’s first Due — Italian for “two” — model mandolins.
Rather than fashion his instruments based on existing mandolin platforms, such as the de facto industry standard Gibson F-5 model, Cleary traces his inspiration back several centuries to what many still consider the pinnacle of acoustic perfection, the violins of 17th-century luthier Antonio Stradivari. However, although Stradivari is unquestionably a driving influence, perhaps more important to Cleary’s project, specifically, is the work of French luthier and educator François Denis.
Cleary studied Denis’ treatise on violin geometry, absorbing his theories of proportional design. His goal was to devise a practical method of solving issues of curve and form related to mandolin. “Luckily, mandolins are a lot simpler,” he says with a wry grin, referring to a violin’s C-bouts, or waist, which, while largely responsible for the instrument’s distinct tone, present unique design challenges. And Cleary should know.
As the owner of Campanella Strings, he’s built several violins among the 30 handmade instruments he’s produced since opening the Burlington-based shop in 2005. And that’s to say nothing of his four-plus years prior working with renowned local master violinmaker John Moroz.
Denis theorized that instead of replicating countless exact measurements to design violins, a more efficient and, ultimately, acoustically effective approach would be to employ proportional measurements, especially given the symmetrical nature of the instrument. Essentially, it’s Renaissance-style math, a luthier’s application of the golden ratio.
“That’s the one that gets people fired up. There’s a lot of methodology about the golden ratio, as if it’s the be all, end all of aesthetics,” says Cleary, referring to the mathematical equation that served as an aesthetic cornerstone for much Renaissance architecture, music and art — including da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” sketch, to which many of Cleary’s drawings bear a notable resemblance.
“But [the golden ratio] represents an irrational number and there are other, more commonplace ratios: arithmetic divisions, dividing into whole numbers,” Cleary continues. “And then you’ve got harmonic ratios, which relate to music. Like a fifth.”
As if on cue, Masefield, who is seated in front of a large sketch of a violin-style head scroll, picks a root note and its corresponding fifth on his Campanella Strings Due mandolin — the instrument for which Cleary received his first VAC grant in 2005.
“The actual sound of a fifth is a ratio of two to three,” states Cleary. “So if you play an open G string,” he says, nodding to Masefield, who obliges. “If you divide that into three and . . . play the D on the G-string, on the seventh fret,” Cleary prompts and Masefield plays the note. “You’re hearing two of those thirds, versus three. And that’s a huge concept in Western musical theory. But it’s really just division of a line. And you can make that same division of a line in the underlying structure of an instrument. So you have harmonic ratios, sub-harmonic ratios built into the structure of the instrument. You’re building in musical geometry.”
Perhaps noting the blank look on my face — I slept through high school geometry, not to mention a good chunk of Music Theory 101 — Cleary moves to a sketch on the wall and attempts to clarify. “You don’t have to know the underlying math to use [the theories],” he says. “The math doesn’t matter. It’s the construction that matters. It’s the same thing with music and harmony.”
“You can learn [music] theory without knowing the science behind,” Masefield interjects.
Unlike the violin, a mandolin is typically not symmetrical in design. Despite that fact, proportional relationships exist within Cleary’s two-point Due model that can be related to his mandolin family concept and applied to whatever scale he chooses. By identifying a standard measurement — say, the length from the base of the instrument body to where it meets the neck — Cleary is then able to subdivide into smaller increments and explore the relationship to other parts of the mandolin: the distance between the two tips and the size of their finial decorations; the length of the head stock relative to the neck; pinpointing the exact center of either F-hole. Ultimately, Cleary hopes his explorations will produce standard measurements for each instrument — his personal golden ratio.
Mathematics aside, the true test of any instrument is, of course, how it sounds. And in that regard, Cleary’s Due mandolins are simply marvelous.
Taking a welcome break from the tech jargon, Cleary and Masefield sit and play a version of the traditional bluegrass tune “Shady Grove.” Not surprisingly, as each is a supremely talented player, they trade seamlessly fluid runs. Masefield is world-renowned, having played with a veritable who’s who of musicians. Cleary, a founding member of noted local bluegrass outfit The Cleary Brothers, is no slouch himself. The duo’s natural abilities and familiarity from frequently playing together no doubt contribute to the dulcet tones filling the room. But so do the mandolins they are playing. Both bear the Campanella Strings label.
“It’s just a special instrument,” says Masefield. “And I really enjoy [Joe’s] whole approach, of having as few foreign elements as possible in the instrument.”
One of Cleary’s signature innovations, again borrowing from violin craft, is that his mandolins aren’t bound with ivoroid, a synthetic plastic material used to hold together the overwhelming majority of commercially made mandolins and guitars. Instead, his faceplates hang over the instrument’s edges and are glued to its sides, or ribs. Just like a violin.
“The whole point of the design,” says Cleary, “is that the violin is a superbly successful musical concept. So any lessons in craftsmanship and technology that can be taken from that can add up bit by bit.”
In undertaking the Mandolin Genome Project, Cleary is adding those bits together to produce a better mandolin and shape lessons from which future generations of luthiers can draw. “I know, or at least hope, that these instruments will outlast me,” he says.
Cleary’s residency will come to a close with a reception in the studio on Friday, February 27. At that point he will have completed the designs for each member of his mandolin family as well as molds for each instrument. But at that point his work will have only just begun. “I’ll still have to build them,” he says, beaming.