‘The lute is a marvellous little construction’

In his search for the perfect sound, Jorge Sentieiro is especially happy if he finds it on one of his own historic instruments. The Portuguese, who has lived for 20 years in Switzerland, might look like a mediaeval craftsman, but he is in fact a big fan of rock music.

This content was published on August 25, 2013 - 11:00

The studio is hidden away in the basement of a residential building in a quiet neighbourhood not far from the centre of Basel. No noise escapes from behind the door, which suddenly swings open, revealing the small workspace where Sentieiro spends most of his day.

The initial impression is of a chaotic alchemist’s laboratory. A number of ancient instruments and strange wooden structures resembling animal skeletons hang on the walls. Shelves are full of tools, sketches and classical music scores.

Other work benches are covered with machines, boxes, notes, books and something that looks like the frame of a lute, with wooden strips held together in a recently glued pear shape. As you walk around, you have to be careful not to slip on the floor covered with wood chips.

The 51-year-old was born in Lisbon but spent a large part of his youth in Brazil. He has memories of chaotic, polluted cities – rather hostile places for an asthmatic like him – but also of a country that oozes music. Brazilian singers Caetano Veloso and João Gilberto are favourites, alongside rock legends Pink Floyd and Genesis.

“My father was someone who really loved music,” he recalls. It was perhaps his influence which encouraged Sentieiro to study English literature at the University of Lisbon as well as the lute and the guitar at the capital’s music conservatory.

Newly qualified, he began his career as a musician in Portugal in the 1980s, a period of transition between the turbulent Carnation Revolution in 1974 and when the country joined the European Union in 1986.

His speciality was compositions from the Renaissance. But like many Portuguese, born with a spirit of adventure and lulled by the words of the poet Fernando Pessoa – “it’s necessary to sail” – he began dreaming of other ports, firstly musical.

Love at first sight

In 1987, Sentieiro arrived in Stuttgart, where he spent two years learning German. During a summer course for musicians he met George Hopkinson Smith, one of the best lute players in the world.

The opportunity to improve his knowledge of this instrument then took him to Basel, where Hopkinson Smith has been active for four decades as a professor at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, one of the most famous academies for early music.

For the Portuguese musician, the cultural Swiss city on the Rhine was love at first sight.

But a lutenist’s life is not an easy one. The instrument of Arabic origin, which experienced a golden age in the late Middle Ages and the Baroque period, remains a niche instrument today. Apart from private lessons and concerts for a small circle of enthusiasts, there are few career opportunities. Sentieiro therefore decided to search for alternatives. And his curiosity about how musical instruments are built slowly turned him into a lute maker or luthier.

But how do you actually make one? He points at a huge illustration hanging next to the door: an old drawing from 1860 by the legendary Antonio Stradivari showing how to build a guitar. The Portuguese admits to having made several copies of the guitar, following the tiniest details like the decorative sound hole rose carving, which gives the instrument resonance.

Inspired by books

His secret was to learn through self-study and his initial inspiration was books. Basel is a Mecca for classical music with excellent specialist libraries and archives of manuals on how to build early musical instruments.

His first creation, built in his kitchen, was of course a lute. But he was not particularly happy with the result. His second instrument sounded much better. Since then, many others have followed and he has now lost count. Each of them always represents the same challenge: every instrument must sound better than the last.

After learning his skills through a process of trial and error, Sentieiro now proudly displays his lutes. He personally chooses the wood, tapping his knuckles on each sheet of maple or pine to see whether it makes the right sound. The glue is of animal origin, as used in the past. His favourite comes from rabbit skin.  

“For a luthier, the main challenge is imagining the sound you want to produce. Wood is an irrational material and it’s up to us to find the right sound,” he explains.

No secret formula

Anyone who thinks luthiers use special varnish created from a secret formula like that of Stradivari are wrong, he says. It’s not about magic, but rather the age of the wood which over time has a better tone. A 400-year-old instrument sounds much better than a new one, he adds.

Each lute that leaves his workshop is like a work of art. Once finished, Sentieiro caresses it and then strums a tune to evaluate its sound. Sometimes it’s Bach, one of the most difficult composers to play because of the music’s complexity. Or, if it’s a Renaissance-style lute, he might choose something by Francesco Canova da Milano, a 16th-century Italian composer.

As he hangs it on the wall, you can see the admiration in his eyes. “The lute is a beautiful instrument both in terms of its appearance and the music it can produce,” he says.

This fascination is much more than just aesthetic, however. “The lute is a marvellous little construction. It has a string tension of about 60 kilogrammes. At the same time it weighs between 1-1.5kg. This light instrument has to bear a huge tension. The development of the lute has gone on over centuries and reached a kind of perfection of construction and sound.”

He is not superstitious, though. If something goes wrong, he simply reworks some of the details inside the instrument. The glue might not have stuck properly. When it hardens, it becomes just like glass and has a perfect consistency to transmit musical tones.

Not only music

Working on his own is not a problem, it’s actually something he enjoys. During work time Sentieiro hardly ever listens to music as he has to concentrate on the noises made by the materials he is working on.

After a day at work, he likes to go home and devote himself to the passions that over time have taken more and more space in his life: learning classical languages like Greek and Latin, and painting: copying classic still lives or his own creations.

Portugal remains in his heart, even if it is becoming more distant. He still enjoys spending his holidays in his native country with his French wife and 18-year-old son, and also the local cuisine. Expat associations in Basel don’t really interest him, because he says he is a “citizen of the world”.

In one of the corners of his studio a semi-finished harpsichord stands on trestles. It’s a gift for his wife, he explains. But the thin layer of dust that covers it suggests the work is far from finished. “I never said which birthday it was for,” he confesses with a laugh.

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