2021 Virtual Exhibition | Unprofitable Instruments

Boston Early Music Festival

As I deal with the craft of building medieval instruments, my fundamental attitude is one of respect.  Master medieval craftsmen were capable of creating products requiring a sophistication of skill equal to monuments of any age since.  From the lofty Gothic cathedral to the intimate illuminated manuscript, they excelled in their craft.  My time spent studying the British Museum citole has shown me that such pinnacles of workmanship occurred in musical instruments as well.

Medieval instruments are precursors to modern ones.  However, the line of succession may not always be direct, nor is it necessarily progressive.  As fashions changed, so did the instruments.  Thus elements of the rebec and vielle were adapted into new instruments such as the violin, but that doesn't mean that all rebecs and vielles were violins-waiting-to-be.  Rebecs and vielles had unique properties that served their time, and were lost in the violin.  One of my goals is to achieve these properties.  By so doing, I hope to give modern players another tool to explore approaches to medieval music. 

While I do not exclusively use tools available to the medieval craftsman, I have found that in many processes my tool of choice is the same as theirs.  Thus I may cut out rebecs on a bandsaw, but I hollow them out with a mallet and gouge.  Sometimes consideration of their tools influences my choice of construction: for a craftsman without a thickness planer, it is easier to hand shape a gentle arch into a soundboard rather than trying to achieve a perfectly flat one.  Since an arch is also structurally superior to a plane, why fuss with flatness?

For me, the lure of approaching this lost craft is the excitement of creating a viable solution to a spectacular puzzle of which only a few pieces remain.  Searching for and connecting the disparate pieces is a rewarding process, allowing me to combine my roles as musicologist, craftsman, performer, and teacher.

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Unprofitable Instruments
Kate McWilliams
887 Tanglewood Drive
Shoreview, MN 55126
kate@unprofitableinstruments.com | 651-765-8982


Ville Demonstration

Monochord Demonstration

Trumpet Marine Demonstration

Rebec Demonstration

Citole Demonstration

Rebec Consort "In dulci jubilo"

"Santa Maria" on rebecs"

Rebec duets with Rachel Barton Pine and her daughter Sylvia