Musical strings and other things: "The Bowmakers"

The Bowmakers examines the painstaking craft of making musical bows

Documentary, unrated, 106 minutes, on demand at santafechambermusic.com, 3 chiles

At first glance, the musical bow appears to be a humble and uncomplicated contraption. But the bow is an important tool for making music. It just happens to be small and difficult to see from the cheap seats. The Bowmakers (2019), a new documentary directed and produced by Ward Serrill, explores the creation of these exquisite devices and the lives of the craftspeople who both make and use them.

Lovingly shot and scored, The Bowmakers is very much a celebration of craftsmanship and obsession. The film focuses on the musicians who use bows, as well as on the select group of bowmakers who hand- assemble bows using woodcarving equipment. These finished bows are like Ferraris for members of string quartets who race not on the road but in the concert hall. Dedicated musicians know the type of wood and the exact batch used to create their favorite bows.

Pau-brasil, or Brazilwood, is used to create some of the most desirable bows, and the film reveals why the modern bow is rooted in the colonial period in Brazil. Pivotal moments in this narrative are recreated using puppets and childlike illustrations. The film also travels to Brazil to watch as locals harvest the colorful wood from the forest. It also goes to France, where the craft took on its current form, and to Port Townsend, Washington.

Port Townsend is home to Charles Espey, one of the most respected bowmakers in the world, and a number of his students who also have successful bowmaking shops. Espey is a true traditionalist who makes everything by using time-honored tools and methods. Much of the pleasure of this film is watching him and his students do their work.

The Bowmakers is escapist viewing for the musically inclined and the process-obsessed. It also has enough unusual factoids to fuel a dinner conversation over Zoom. For those uninterested in music or woodworking, the film may feel unfocused.

The film screens online via the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival Saturday, Oct. 3, and Oct. 10, and it should appeal to fans of the festival who might find their pandemic existence lacking in live music. There’s plenty of excellent string playing and lots of behind-the-scenes footage focuses on the Dover Quartet, an award-winning group that plays across North America. The film’s score also has tracks by the Miro Quartet and Brooklyn Rider, among others.

The tickets are $15 per household. Register to watch the film at santafechambermusic.com. On Oct.10, the film is paired with a live panel discussion about the making of The Bowmakers, which features members of the Dover Quartet, as well as the film’s producer/director, bowmaker Robert Morrow Morrow. 

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