Musings on Creativity

When the sum is more than the whole. A review of a book by a Cape Breton violinmaker with a dream, and reflections upon the many ways music can inspire us.


  1. Otis A. Tomas, The Fiddletree (Cape Breton, 2011).  0986879401, 9780986879401   (159 pp. + CD) : a review by Dr Karen E McAulay, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, UK.
  2. The whole concept of the book appealed to me.  The Fiddletree is Otis Tomas's narrative about a collection of stringed instruments that he made from a very old sugar maple tree in the forest near his Cape Breton home.  The book comes with a substantial appendix of tunes dedicated to, or inspired by different friends, and there's an accompanying CD of the tunes being played on the instruments. It's handsomely illustrated with the most gorgeous photographs.  (My favourite is Tomas's instruments arranged against the snow-covered stump in the forest.)

    This must sound very subjective, and if I were writing a scholarly review, I'd probably tackle it differently.  However, in the case of this particular book, subjectivity is not out of place.  Tomas writes about the place where he lives; his emotional reaction to the forest and the tree itself; about designing, measurements and proportions, and working with the wood.  It's almost like a soliloquy on what goes through an instrument-maker's mind as he works with his materials.

    There's something particularly satisfying about the concept of this book, because it is so unusual to have someone start his narrative with a tree in a forest, and end up with a group of friends playing and recording Celtic-influenced tune settings on the instruments made from that tree.  I've encountered books about making instruments, books about playing instruments or about repertoire, picture books, and autobiographies, but never before one book combining all these.

    Below: Otis A. Tomas' Fiddletree website:-
  3. Reviewing the book poses certain problems, however.  As an autobiographical work, it has its own integrity.  The beauty of the instruments is self-evident, and another instrument-maker would doubtless derive much information AND enjoyment from reading Tomas's narrative.

    Where I had the problem, was with the performances.  They're more than competent, but the intonation is just not quite what you'd expect from a commercially-recorded professional group.  Similarly, the tune-settings work well enough in performance, but in all honestly, the arrangements are not outstanding, and the notation is sometimes a little clumsy - not typographically, but musically.
  4. As a memento for the many individuals who must have been involved in the production, it's an admirable outcome to the project.  But the more I thought about it, the more I was put in mind of another Celtic collection with shortcomings.
  5. Alexander Campbell's Albyn's Anthology (2 volumes, 1816-1818) met with exactly the same reaction. The tunes were lovely.  The English translations (or versified equivalents) of the Gaelic were by famous names - including Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, no less.  But the song-settings were, quite truthfully, not to a very high standard.

    Nonetheless, because of Campbell's manuscript diary, and the tunes themselves, and our appreciation of the effort it took him to go collecting Gaelic tunes in the Hebrides - 1200 miles on foot and by boat! - we can apppreciate the collection, warts and all.  It documents one man's dream, in exactly the same way The Fiddletree documents Otis Tomas's.
  6. POSTSCRIPT. I've subsequently blogged about another violin-maker, Steve Burnett in Edinburgh.  You can read about him on Whittaker Live, 23 November 2012.
  7. POST-POSTSCRIPT.  I've come across another interesting link about violin-making: this time a BBC News item about Stradivarius violins.  It has to be added to my story!