Symphony In Wood by Carol Novis (Jerusalem Post)
When Peter Isacowitz was a boy, he was frequently taken by his parents to watch tribal dancing by workers at the gold mines near Johannesburg, South Africa. The spectacle dazzled him. ” Some of my earliest, strongest memories were of those times,” he recalls. “I was totally taken by the music, dance and the instruments, especially the marimbas.”
Today, after spells as a high school teacher, a cabinet maker and a kibbutz farmer, Peter feels he has found his true calling as a maker of musical instruments, such as the Celtic harp, xylophone, door harp, and yes, even the marimba of his boyhood.
Peter produces his unique, hand -crafted instruments in his recently opened musical instrument studio and workshop in Rosh Pina. The studio is called Woodsong – a name which was deliberately chosen to express his feelings for the beauty of wood and for music.
“Woodsong was very much inspired by the concept of bringing old wood back to life and helping it sing,” he explains.
Most of the wood Peter uses is recycled. The very idea of turning wood which has been used for other purposes into a musical instrument appeals to him as a result of his years on kibbutz, when he found himself frequently collecting wood from all kinds of sources, including discarded crates and pallets and logs of avocado and apple wood, pruned from the trees in the orchards.
Peter originally made Aliya in 1972, returned for a few years to South AFrica, then came back again for good in 1979. He and his wife, Lesley, moved to Jerulalem where he trained as a cabinetmaker and carpenter and ran his own business, before moving to Kibbutz Mayan Baruch where they remained for 13 years.
In addition to working with wood, Peter also enjoys listening to and making music. Before long, his two interests melded into what he terms as “a serious hobby” – creating musical instruments in his spare time.
First was the doorharp, a small instrument with balls on strings which vibrate against horizontal wires when put in motion, causing a pleasant harp-like sound. At first, he gave the doorharps he made as gifts to friends, but soon he was being asked to make them by others. Individually designed electric guitars, Celtic harps, Xylophones and Marimbas followed.
His clientele developed slowly as they discovered the work he was doing. For example, he explains ” One of my carpentry clients walked into my workshop, saw a Celtic Harp I’d made and bought one. I made him a Marimba as well. Things kind of snowballed and before long I was experimenting Xylophone tables too. My idea was to combine furniture with musical instruments and slowly, it all began to come together. I realised how much interest there was when I had an exibition at Kfar Blum’s Music Festival and sold several instruments.”
One unusual instrument he enjoys making is the aboriginal wood instrument which produces sounds that seem eerie and almost prehistoric. ” I first heard the didge years ago, when I saw the Australian film ‘The Last Wave’ and was mesmerized by its haunting sound. I started experimenting with my own versions, using plastic irrigation pipes at first, until I worked out techniques for making them out of wood.” He embellishes the finished instrument with drawings that recall Aboriginal ethnic designs.
Surprisingly for such an accomplished musical craftsman, Peter is largely self taught. “I was never a professonal musician, though I love to play the guitar and harmonica and what ever I can get my hands on. I would sometimes play in pubs.The kind of music I love best is ethnic, folk, rhythm & blues and rock ‘n roll.”
He picked up his instrument making skills “from books and journals and from talking to people from all over the world. It’s a matter of keeping your eyes open.” He created new models constantly, using different woods and styles.
Peter is happy to welcome visitor to Woodsong and provide a hands-on musical tour, including a talk and demonstration on the instruments.
The gallery has an ethnic, country feel, with a rough wooden counter top, ethnic motifs on the walls and beautiful sounds all about. His clients have included many local people who have heard about him by word of mouth as well as overseas buyers. Some buy the instruments as much for their decorative value as for the music.
Unfortunately, the gallery opened just as the Al Aksa Intifada was starting, which has affected the number of tourists visiting the Galilee, though things have picked up again recently.
With the help of his wife, a school teacher at Kfar Blum, he’s completely content as a maker of wooden instruments, based in the beautiful countryside of the Galilee.
” To make my living like this ” he says, “is a dream come true”.