Chicago School of Violinmaking: 2016 Commencement Address by Doyle Armbrust

I think about the zombie apocalypse more than the average human being. The other members of Spektral Quartet like to give me a hard time about the copious contents of my backpack – military-grade multi-tool, collapsible titanium chopsticks, a copy of the US Constitution – I literally have backups for my backups. They laugh now, but they know whose door they'll be banging down when the undead swarm Chicago.

So its probably no surprise that when I enter a hotel room, the first thing I do is locate a perch for my viola – something off the floor because the water pipes will surely burst and flood the room; somewhere outside the spray arc of the fire sprinklers, which will no doubt spontaneously flick on; someplace where I can, in a blind panic, grab the handle of my case as I escape my burning room, narrowly dodging the rotors of the helicopter that has crashed in through my window.

Why does top-dollar instrument insurance not curb these fears? Why have I mentally drafted the plea I would make to armed robbers? Why do I secretly snicker like a Marvel Comics villain when the safety video on an international flight suggests that I'll be leaving ALL of my belongings behind as we board the inflatable rafts in the event of a water landing?

Because I'm hopelessly, desperately in love with my viola. She was crafted at the advent of the Civil War, though across the Atlantic in Milan, and it took me six long years to find her.  I had all but given up the hope of tracking down a specimen that could make me swoon, and in a last ditch effort, took a week off to fly to New York and storm every violin shop in the city. By this point, I was like Teflon to the pitches of slick salesmen; deaf to the fraudulent acoustics of their showrooms, and even weary of hearing myself play.

And there she was.

Laid out on a velvet cloth on the table. No sales pitch other than that she was in exceptional condition, given her age. You know the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark – the one where they pry open the Ark of the Covenant? Or what about in the LEGO Movie, when the Piece of Resistance is unveiled? It was like that. The second I played a three-octave C-major scale, I was smitten. In the immortal words of Mike Myers, I was in deep smit.

I entered the dark waters of the Prelude to Bach's C-minor Cello Suite, and she sang. She poured down a viscous pool of bass before revealing each string to be related like family, but each with an identity all its own. I remember playing Debussy's "Beau Soir," a solo violin number not transposed down a fifth in this case – so most of it sits up in high positions – and she never squealed or squeaked. And then, dutiful member of the New World Symphony that I was, I subjected her to the usual suspects of the mind-numbing, audition-circuit repertoire. The shop owner finagled me an hour in Merkin Hall, and there, her burnished tone spread into broader dimensions, making me fall in frenetic love with her, over and over. When I played her for my colleagues back in Miami, she was the unequivocal choice of the three fine instruments I had on trial, and one of the violists delivered the best line when describing her: "She sounds like chocolate tastes." So, with the help of a very generous couple, I made her mine.

I wrote an article for Chicago Magazine last year, on instrument theft, and do you know what was the most common refrain amongst the victims? "It felt like I lost a limb from my body," is what I heard time and again.

You who are graduating today are the creators of someone's phantom limb. The conjurers of something they instinctively reach for under their seat at the gate before departing for a violin-free vacation. You are that Fiddler on the Roof-style matchmaker, carving the scroll of the true love a cellist will one day encounter from across the room. You are the sorcerers who will fashion, with your own varnish-stained hands, the voice without which the musician cannot articulate his grief, joy, anger, and passion – in a devilish bargain.

I mention all this because I want you to know that what you do is essential. It is not only beautiful, what you do, but necessary for this art form of classical music to thrive.

It is also irrational. But what in life is fulfilling or inspiring that isn't at least a little irrational?

What about falling in love? Falling in love is completely irrational. The stakes are high, the odds seem low, the failure rate is mind-boggling...and yet what would be the point of living, if not for the possibility of it? What would happen to the planet if people stopped falling in love? It would crumble, that's what. So this endeavor of yours, we NEED you to pursue it.

It was already pretty irrational for me to turn down a full-ride scholarship at a university specializing in political science to instead pursue a music degree, but the biggest risk I ever hazarded was walking away from a lucrative freelance career to co-found a string quartet from scratch, playing music that an overwhelming majority of the mainstream classical audience in America believes it hates more than listening to Nickelback while on hold with Comcast customer service.

And I've never been more artistically happy, or more creatively fertile, in my entire life.

Here's the catch – and there's always a catch. If you're going to choose to do the improbable, the preposterous, or the irrational, you have to throw everything you've got into it. It all has to feel dire, like everything is on the line at all times. Remember the first time you had to work up the nerve to ask your secret crush on a date? It has to feel that consequential. Forget Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours. That number is irrelevant. Are you itching to cut into your next block of Maple or Spruce? Does the thought of entering a violin-making competition make your heart race in the way a horror film does? Do hours ever turn into minutes when you're at your bench?

If you answered yes to one or more of these, welcome to the club. The small but mighty club of the irrational.

What Will I Find? (by Marc Perlish) by Doyle Armbrust

Bookman’s Alley Lament

Tracking earthward across the hand-painted sign, droplets of rain diverge and reassemble at the lower border before staining the planks beneath a mottled russet. Just a few steps to the west, then north into the alley within the alley, the white coffee-cupped pedestrians are left behind, the strains of commercial radio escaping the pharmacy now evaporated. Scalloped edges of a weathered awning flutter above old French doors painted black, momentarily animating the print, “Bookman’s Alley.” Upon entry, the man seated behind the desk slowly looks up to point and say, “Please leave your wet umbrella there.”

Is it a desk? Perhaps it is only a menagerie of hardcovers, a literary-architectural feat in the shape of a desk. Impossible to say from this angle, as the octogenarian with the white, Carl Sandburg coiffure is himself buried beneath four or five editions. Roger’s smile reaches up toward the pencil perched behind an ear. To the young, it reads, “You are welcome here. Go explore.” To the collectors, the academics, the introverted, the voracious and the inquisitive, it is the threshold into a literary labyrinth. Like C.S. Lewis’ bewitched wardrobe, it appears to be without terminus, with room opening onto room opening onto room. The palpable magic of this place lies not in the volume of volumes, though, but in the curios and mementos tucked into the shop’s innumerable nooks and alcoves.

On a bookshelf, a diminutive team of eight white horses speed a nobleman’s carriage across it, a fine layer of dust underfoot. Behind the travelers towers a crimson-trimmed schooner, its rigging still taught as though ready for a Van Allsburg-ian flight once the shop’s lights are switched off for the night.

Guarding a corner deep within the maze is Theodore Roosevelt, or a stuffed military field jacket sprouting from the collar of a disintegrating styrofoam head on which Roger has drawn his best likeness of the Rough Rider. Shouldering an intimidating leather holster, the mustachioed figure leans against a better-known portrait of himself in a more polished, presidential pose.

And what of the many paintings and prints and vintage WWII propaganda posters? The most arresting of these is the one hanging in the burnished gold frame. A dark-haired woman unhurriedly arranges flowers in her bedroom, her dressing gown a cascade of vermillion, crimson and gold. Her reflection in the bedroom mirror is the thing. Perspective is suddenly stretched far inside the canvas, a portal. Roger tells us he’s closing his shop for good, and that he holds no regrets in letting these collected wonders go. At a certain moment, though, he intimates his love for the painting as it resembles his mother. Our melancholy at the disappearance of this place is shared for just those few seconds.

The damp trail of footprints is followed back to the book-desk. Already the locations of the tiny brass canon, enameled polar bear, intransigent printing press, battered cornet, and brightly hued kachina doll are lost in the mind. They have been discovered and then whirled together in a magnificent blur. The dripping umbrella is retrieved, the door pushed open, exhaling with its visitor the wonderfully musty, enchanted air of this place.

-Doyle Armbrust

What Will I Find? is a multi-media iBook created by Marc Perlish featuring his evocative photos of Bookman's Alley as well as compositions and performances by many wonderful musicians. It can be downloaded to Apple devices here.