“My favorite part of making an instrument is the very first part, when I get the wood and I join it together,” said Brian Lisus. “It’s always quite exciting; it’s like getting cloth if you’re a tailor, getting a blank slate to work on.” Lisus is a modern practitioner of an age-old craft: He is a luthier, or a maker of fine stringed instruments. A native of South Africa, Lisus relocated his workshop to Santa Barbara last year; he specializes in making custom violins and cellos.
As a child, Lisus was inspired by his godfather, Joe Sack, a cellist and music critic. “He lived next door to all the top musicians,” Lisus recalled. “All the top European and Americans would come to his house for soirées, and I grew up listening to music, and I loved that interaction …. [Sack] would always talk about the instruments, and in high school he sent me a book about violin making.” From that time on, Lisus followed his passion for instruments, attending Newark School of Violin Making in England in 1976; in Lisus’s class, there were only 12 students and around four teachers.
Lisus is unusual in his technique — rather than taking advantage of computer technology, as do many modern violin makers, Lisus prefers to utilize only 16th-century methods and materials, even making his own varnish from walnut oil, Strasbourg turpentine mixed with plant resins such as mastic, and sandarac. “Well, the old Italian masters kind of managed without high technology, and they were the masters of sound,” Lisus explained.
However, he does not simply copy the work of old masters but reimagines each instrument himself, altering and revising past designs to create unique sounds for each new piece. “It’s all about sound,” he said. “Everything is sound-related and experimenting, and that’s the challenge.” Lisus’s violins are known for their “very warm sound quality”; he makes small adjustments in the instruments’ form to make them specially suited to the kinds of music preferred by his client, such as chamber music or concertos.
In addition to his commissioned work, Lisus makes pieces for charitable projects such as the Quartet of Peace, four stringed instruments made in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates of South Africa. These instruments symbolize the worldwide ideals of peace, reconciliation, freedom, and hope, and the money from the concerts go to charitable organizations to fund musical programs for impoverished African children.
Although Lisus is not working on any special projects at the moment, he hopes to do others in the future, such as the Quartet of Transformation, a project that would benefit student musicians who are unable to afford their own instruments. Finding funding for these projects is a challenge, however — the Quartet of Peace took 15 years of planning to come to fruition, and the Quartet of Transformation is still only in the planning stages.