He has this incredible listening quality, which goes far beyond his job, and a rare depth in everything he does. Mickael Ourghanlian masters the art of activating by taking his time. A luthier with multiple talents: cabinetmaker, musician, an art and culture buff ; but also a husband and father, devoted to his 5 children. His secret is to love and it finds its fullness in the service of others and in the most refined execution of each work. Rooted in reality and free from all fascination, he tirelessly produces a harmonious resonance that, as the soul of a violin, will reveal those who play the world symphony.
“I was raised in an environment filled with music! ”Mickaël Ourghanlian was born in the Paris region, from a Doctor in mathematics and computer scientist father, and a pottery mother who conveyed his artistic sensibility. As the eldest son, he grew up with his two little sisters, immersed in nature in a house nestled in the woods, at 25 km from the capital. His father was a keen-music-lover and a good singer in his spare time: “he even sang in the amateur choir of the Paris Opera.” His childhood was then basked in music and also in beauty of art, as he followed his parents in the museums and castles of France. I was only natural that he started studying the music and he began early at the age of 3, with the recorder first for twelve years. Then suddenly he interrupted everything at the teenage time. “I wanted a renewal, so I switched to the transverse flute for one year and finally, at the age of 17, to the violin.” By some happy coincidence, because he was in charge of the sound system for a group of French varieties and they needed a violinist. Gifted, he will progress very quickly and get in one year the level of those who practice for 5 to 6 years. For school, it’s another story. He is bored and needs to find his way in a craft trade. “So my mother will seek the paternal consent to make me start a cabinetmaker training. Not more, because my father wanted me basically to move towards an intellectual career.”
Experiment woodwork, but also the values of solidarity, loyalty and integrity. The young Mickael will practice boy scouting for many years and exercise his talents during the outdoor activities. “From the age of 12, I was appointed to make rudimentary but useful, wooden furniture. One year, he will even build a whole house with a ground floor, a dining room and an upstairs tent for sleeping.” This ephemeral construction, for three days only, pushed us to creativity and a kind of practical audacity to do great things with little means, composing with the resources of the natural environment.
“The art of violin making has quickly caught up with me !” At the age of 18, Mickael was working for a craftsman who knew his passion for music. Something quite unthinkable! He proposed me one day to get prepared to the violin making competitions, while working in his workshop. “This master felt his potential to combine his two passions: music and wood.” He will take up the challenge and attend the prestigious school of Mirecourt, with its general education courses in order to get an advanced vocational diploma in violin making. “The return to school was quite painful because I needed to learn in a practical way and using applied theory.” Normally, the “CAP Diploma”, as it is called, is awarded to students who have completed the last three years of vocational secondary, but he then will decide to pass the contest as a free candidate in the second year and he will succeed on his first try. This is how he became an instrument-maker. “I find the violin so beautiful aesthetically, with its unique shape and a sound that expresses all the emotions; from the lightest to the most plaintive, from the saddest to the most languorous.” He will learn the art of restoring them, with the same professional gestures as 300 years ago. A technical work first where you have to persevere, ten years at least, “to feel the pieces of wood, twist them and see what happens inside the instruments and make them vibrate.” In the end, it is therefore to help the musician perform his music and create the instrument that will give him exactly the sound he is looking for. And then, there is an alchemy that proceeds from the senses, the experience and the instinct of the luthier. The physical contact with the instrument is also very important. “It’s a real sensory experience and we’re always learning, especially in manufacturing.”
Mickael will then evolve in the associative sector. He will compose a brilliant musical that will be played on tour to Slovakia. “It was an opportunity for me to create a joint work of art, and I experienced an intense moment of creation and sharing.” With the generosity which characterized him, he will consistently will to put his experience, his expertise in service of others, as a leader and conductor of talents in all kind of art and art crafts professions. Married, he is already the father of two children and the youngest, Maylis, is a hearing-impaired child. “She is full of energy and life, and we decided to move to Bourg-en-Bresse to be followed by a center which is familiar with the disability.” There, he will start making some high-end luxury boxes, before opening the first violin workshop in Bourg-en-Bresse, where there was a real need for this business. “These are old violins that are entrusted to me: broken and damaged, I restore them entirely.” Customers are attached to their instrument for different reasons: its financial value – some are extremely expensive, or the emotional value when they inherit from their ancestors. For musicians, there have also a sentimental value, in addition to a work tool relationship and the important effort and investment that is conceded to play with a hand-made violin. “I have to listen to each of their needs and channel my time and energy to get to the bottom of things.” When an instrument arrives, there is the diagnosis to do and therefore, it takes a valuable time for expanding mutual understanding: how it reacts and how it works. Then I identify the major events that have affected the instrument and whether I can or should correct them or not. “Knowing how any action is a small accomplishment compared to the life of the violin is a humbling experience, and there is a whole ethics of the restoration that takes place.”
He delights to see his customers not only satisfied with his work, but simply happier when they leave the workshop. “My joy is to take part of their musical instrument’s life, and humbly, participate to the value chain that created it, then restored it over the centuries, to let all these musicians introduce and play their music. I travel in some way with each of them, and contribute to spread happiness in the world!”
In the lutherie shop, violins, violas, and other string quartets are there, some very old from the 17th century, and this is when the real work artistic will commence. Mickael Ourghanlian is totally dedicated to his work, and with dexterity, meticulousness and great listening, he restores the old instruments and sometimes makes a new one – which is two and a half months of work, according to the lines of his illustrious colleague Antonio Stradivari. He also has a great mastery of acoustics and musical culture, with perfect knowledge of classical, baroque and modern works, and his know-how in the development of varnishes and pigments enables any violin to cross the times. “I very often resource myself using the silence, cut off from everything, in the middle of nature”. It is during these times that he let his imagination soar to push the boundaries of art. His personal art first, with violins that would become mediums of expression for other artists. “I would like to open the violin making to other forms of manual arts, because it remains reserved for a selected clientele.” Then leading a new multi-handed creation project, such as “Captain Nemo’s Navy Necessary”, a work of art that is now at the Nantes Museum. “It was a totally imaginary work and I went to look for craftsmen in several European countries.” The well-kept secrets of this mysterious captain are contained now in relined mahogany and burl case: a pipe for example, made to the millimeter according to his sketches, or at the contrary, a pair of scissors of an extraordinary finesse, produced by a talented ciselier, all made by hand.
Fascinated by the old and anchored in his time, Mickael Ourghanlian is a master-luthier in love with all the beauty humanity offers throughout the ages. His self-giving for others is like an “Ode to Joy” that satisfy his customers and help them play their music around the world. But he is also a scout and educator of our vision proposing a living art that transposes, associates and creates bridges to push the limits of creation. In the end, he reinvents his job with the vocation of the modern luthier: restore our sensitivity and make our soul vibrate… like a violin!
Interview held by Carine Mouradian in Bourg-en-Bresse, October 4, 2018
“ When performing a work on a musical instrument, one must be measure and carry out every detail with finesse and delicacy. And to do so, accept to retouch only what is necessary to keep the authenticity of the instrument. Its origin and history go back to centuries, and our role is to extend them by matching their identity to the client’s current needs. There is therefore a respect for the object but also for the one who has shaped it; that’s why this job makes us humble. A colleague of the 17th century spent months designing and making this violin. Who am I to ruin this work? Then we have to consider the perspective of the instrument itself, which has a life and an evolution; And I’m just a little spoke at a certain moment and spokes make up the wheel so its story will continue and be as beautiful as possible. In a way, I do not have the right to remove the traces of time that have been laid on it. That’s why, I always look for the truth in my diagnosis: there are things to repair because it would damage the instrument if we did not do them, but some important details, like the varnish for example, are not integrated in Restoration. The marks could be masked by a coat of varnish, but the instrument would not be the same. A violin that remains genuine, will also become handsome and old with its original patina, so we do not seek to remove its soul or its story. In addition, it would be a big mistake, because of the value of these works of art. Some worth 3 or 4 million euros! Any operation that alter their original quality would lose much of its value. Therefore, my job is a work of goldsmith carried out with integrity.
A luthier must also have a good quality of listening and, as the wonderful expression say it with Latin words “Festina lente”, he has to hasten slowly, so to go to the bottom of things. Authenticity here again acts as a mirror. You have to be yourself to become receptive and present to others, understand their need, then adapt and manage the instrument. There is a need for technical gestures and know-how, but the difference is reflected in greater sensitivity and a sensational experience. “I want a warmer or more sour sound” for example. What does that mean? How to qualify a sound? There is no reference, pantone or color chart that is universal.
It is therefore necessary to recreate each time a common alphabet on the perception of sonorities. Sometimes we also need to understand the mood of the musician. This relationship to be one with one’s instrument is experienced just as in a love marriage. When they come to the shop, they seek to find back the symbiosis with their partner. It is therefore necessary to be objective because sometimes, the problem can be at the emotional level. Taking a step back will be enough to find a genuine relationship and restoring calm and serenity. Yes, it is true that for a musician to be interiorly accorded is as important as restoring his instrument. For it is only on this condition that he can perform a pure and beautiful music that touches us all in deep and personal ways.
We are all aesthetic beings thirsty for beauty. I am fortunate to have work in a luxury business, accessible only to privileged people, due to the price of the workforce in France. But my greatest joy would be to make it accessible to the greatest number of people, and that our society advocates for a musical and artistic education at the age when our children awake their curiosity and senses facing new and sensitive beauty. But we are robbing our time, especially the media and all he pollution that invade our lives. Real luxury is time! This precious time for ourselves and for the people we care for. Therefore, it should be found, mastered, and used with intelligence in what nourishes our vocation and brings joy. The relation to nature is essential to regain that self-governance and to rejuvenate oneself. I also like and recommend silence. It is the absence of sound, which is the most difficult music to create for all musicians, and it contains and supports all the other notes.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to immerse ourselves in the aesthetic of existence that is revealed through nature, art and music in particular. This will humanize us and give meaning to our lives. It is a path of small sacrifices but the benefit is so great and will last a lifetime. Like his modest parents in the modest income levels who choose to rent a hand-made violin for their child instead of borrowing one at the Conservatoire, because they wanted “the best” for their child. Each of us can experience this true luxury, on one condition : to put our priorities in what creates authentic and lasting happiness.”
Interview held by Carine Mouradian in Bourg-en-Bresse, October 4, 2018
Link to the website of Mickaël Ourghanlian