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In Memoriam: Graham Caldersmith

In Memoriam: Graham Caldersmith

November 26, 1943 – October 5, 2019

by Juan Oscar Azaret

Originally published in American Lutherie #140, 2020


As the devastating 2019/2020 Australian bush fires raged on and the world was filled with news and images of the relentless infernos, I started to wonder about the well-being of my friend in lutherie, Graham Caldersmith, and his partner, Angela MacPherson. I’d had the good fortune to spend a day at their home/workshop/bistro in Comboyne, New South Wales, in August of 2017 (see AL#132). This magical day was full of adventure: the trip to the Comboyne Plateau, warm hospitality on the part of Graham and Angela, and a wealth of education in the few hours I spent there.

In January of this year I was getting ready to e-mail Graham to ask about the state of the bush fires in the Comboyne area, when I got an e-mail from my friend Gila Eban, who had been having similar thoughts. In her attempts to contact Graham, she had learned of his passing in October of 2019. I was greatly saddened by this news and felt compelled to share some thoughts in memoriam.

Both photos courtesy of Angela MacPherson

In time I was able to get on the phone with Angela. She and Graham had recently moved away from the rural hamlet of Comboyne to the seaside town of North Haven some 44km to the East. Angela was most gracious to chat for quite some time and catch me up with the last two-plus years since my visit as well as educate me a bit on Graham’s life.

Coincidentally, I had just received the latest issue of Acoustics Today where the cover and feature article were dedicated to the life of Carleen Hutchins. I thought of Graham and the parallels in these two lives. Both started their careers as science teachers. Both played stringed instruments and taught themselves lutherie early in life. Both became fascinated by the science and craft of the violin family, and for Graham, also the guitar family. Both were influenced by noted scientists; Frederick Saunders and Daniel Haines in the case of Carleen, Neville Fletcher and Erik Jansson in the case of Graham. They both took on the challenge of lifelong search for the fundamentals of acoustics in lutherie, sharing their findings through many scholarly articles and lectures. And they each evolved a family of proportional instruments to cover the orchestral range — Carleen’s violin octet, and Graham guitar quintet.

Of course, Graham and Carleen’s paths did cross. In 1982, Graham travelled to the USA to work with Carleen on various aspects of violin performance and participate in the Conference of the Catgut Acoustical Society in DeKalb, Illinois. Carleen was a founding member of the Catgut Acoustical Society dating back to 1963, and membership has included the top music acousticians from around the world; names such as Benade, Fletcher, Hutchins, Meyer, Saunders, and Rossing. Graham contributed no fewer than thirteen articles to the society, starting in 1977. The proceedings of the Catgut Acoustical Society are now digitized and available from the Stanford Musical Acoustics Research Library.

While still in the northern hemisphere in 1982, Graham also attended the GAL Convention in Estes Park, Colorado. Later that year he contributed his first publication to American Lutherie — “Dissolving the Mysteries,” a title which, in his AL#2 (1985) article, “Radiation from Lower Guitar Modes” Graham describes as “perhaps presumptuous.” A longtime member and supporter of the Guild, Graham contributed several other stellar articles. In his AL#41 (1995) article, “The Guitar Family Continued,” he comes full circle from the work introduced in AL#18 (1989) “Towards a Classic Guitar Family,” and details the status of what has become a major contribution to the world of guitar lutherie and performance — a proportional guitar family quintet covering the orchestral range. In my AL#132 (2017) article, I attempt to summarize Graham’s thoughts on the guitar family during our visit in his Comboyne workshop. On a less formal note, in AL#8 (1986) Graham and fellow Australian luthier Jim Williams document a “beer and jawbone” discussion with Greg Smallman which offers a fascinating look at Greg’s thinking during the early years preceding the first sale of a Smallman guitar to John Williams in 1981.

Graham was a luthier of the highest caliber, crafting over 200 guitars, 116 violins, 60 violas, and 38 cellos, but he was also an academic and a researcher. He held a masters in aerophysics from the Australian National University in Canberra with focus on fluid dynamics. While working as a laboratory manager and physics tutor, he started independent research into musical acoustics, and in 1977 began formal studies in acoustics under Neville Fletcher at the University of New England in Armidale and later with Erik Jansson in Stockholm. He was awarded several grants and research fellowships including from the Australian Council on Research, a Churchill Fellowship, ANU, and in 2016 was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his service to musical instrument making. His work is documented, not only in American Lutherie and Catgut Acoustical Society Journal, but also Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Journal of the Violin Society of America, Journal of Guitar Acoustics, The Strad, Acustica, and others.

It is indeed rare to find an individual with the commitment and tenacity to earn his/her living as a craftsperson while at the same time researching the craft’s relations to science and making these findings available to the world. In my discussions with Angela, she mentioned that Graham considered the evolution of a proportional guitar family and the introduction of native Australian woods to lutherie as his greatest professional achievements. Graham researched, and was a strong advocate of, the use of King William pine, Australian blackwood, and Australian paulownia, among others, for the construction of guitars and violin-family instruments.

I knew Graham through the lens of his lutherie and scientific work, but in my discussions with Angela I learned a bit about Graham as a man. I learned of his days as a folk musician; his participation in theater; his love of poetry and contribution to it from the humorous perspective; his love of nature; his fix-anything, jack-of-all-trades skills; his days as a volunteer fire fighter; his work as a sound/light stage technician. I dare not attempt to comment on these aspects of Graham’s life, but Angela graciously provided some photos which hopefully will be illustrative. They will be posted in the “web extras” section of this issue on the GAL website, along with links to many of his publications.

Graham Caldersmith was born on November 26, 1943, in Sydney. He lived and worked in Canberra, Kendall, Comboyne, and North Haven. He passed away on October 5, 2019, in Wauchope after a five-year battle with multiple myeloma; suspected, but not confirmed, as being due to exposure to the chemicals of the lutherie trade. He is survived in his immediate family by an older brother, and by his partner Angela MacPherson. I am honored to have known Graham and met Angela, and to have had the opportunity to write these few words.