This article originally appeared in Rising Tide magazine, July/August 2011. Photos by Otis Tomas.To find out more about The Fiddletree, visit his website at http://www.fiddletree.com
On a sunny Easter Sunday in 2010, a troupe of musicians embarked upon a pilgrimage through the forest above St. Ann’s Bay, Cape Breton. They hauled a variety of musical instruments through thick brush, sometimes falling knee-deep into the soft snow. The party arrived at an enormous stump, six feet in diameter with a hollow core. A five-foot tall harp was unwrapped from blankets and tarps and placed atop the stump. Cello, viola, guitar, mandolin and fiddles were arranged around it, ready to photograph.
That’s when it happened. The harp began to hum and vibrate and the other instruments responded in soft resonance, sending notes into the air on a day without a breath of wind. The musicians listened in awe as the instruments played themselves. It was a moment as magical and inexplicable as the feelings evoked by music itself. For each of the singing instruments was birthed from the giant sugar maple that had once towered atop the old stump.
This story is about a man and a tree. The man is Otis Tomas, a musician, composer and luthier who crafts a variety of stringed instruments from his home-based workshop. Otis is a transplant from Rhode Island who came to Cape Breton in the 70’s, where he met his wife, Deanie Cox. The couple bought land near Goose Cove, settled in and raised a family. Otis continued to hone his craft and often rambled through the forested hillside near his home. It was here that he would visit the tree: a centuries-old sugar maple that soared above the surrounding canopy. The luthier wondered what music might reside in the gnarled grains of the ancient wood, but hesitated to take the life of the great tree. After a year of contemplation he made his decision.
Otis first paid tribute to the venerable maple with a tune, The Fiddletree, composed in its honour. Then he wielded his saw and cut the old giant down. He saw then that the tree had been dying, the heartwood hollowed out and rotting. Still the maple yielded a wealth of wood for the luthier. As Otis sawed up the wood for transport he envisioned how this slab of deeply-figured grain might form the back of a cello, or that piece of wrinkled grain become a fiddle. He hauled the sawn wood to his workshop loft and there it stayed for several years, drying and aging through the seasons, awaiting the craftsman’s chisel and plane.
Since then Otis has transformed the Fiddletree into harp, cello, viola, mandolin, guitar, harp, fiddles and more. Each instrument is a not only a piece of fine craftsmanship, but also an exquisite work of art. Carved maple leaves and ebony inlays embellish the pieces while varnishes enhance flames and clouds in the wood grain. But an instrument is made to be played, not just admired. Fiddletree instruments live as far afield as Scotland and as close as a friend’s home down the road.
The instruments were reunited for the debut performance of ‘The Fiddletree’ during the 2009 Celtic Colours International Festival. This concert featured music composed by Otis Tomas and performed by an international group of musicians, all playing Fiddletree instruments. St. Andrew’s Church in Sydney Mines was packed to the rafters as the exciting and vibrant music filled the air. A mix of traditional Celtic jigs and reels spiced with hints of gypsy jazz and undertones of classical created a unique musical brew that entranced the enthusiastic audience.
The music was so well received that the musicians agreed to return to Cape Breton in the spring of 2010 to record The Fiddletree. The recording took place over a week at an old school house in North River, now Shape Shift Pottery. The Fiddletree CD features Otis on fiddle, Sarah McFadyen and Mairi Campbell from Scotland on fiddle and viola, Abby Newton from New York on cello, Laoise Kelly from Ireland on harp, Claudine Langille from Vermont on mandolin and Paul MacDonald on guitar. Guest musicians are Deanie Cox, Paul Cranford, Sarah Beck and David ‘Papper’ Papazian, who play with Otis in the local traditional Celtic group Rocky Shore.
Now Otis has documented this journey in his book The Fiddletree. The book/CD set was launched at Wildfire Pottery on June 18, 2011. The book is a work of art in itself with striking colour photographs, original music scores, and flowing prose that ranges from the practical to the philosophical. It is a captivating account of an artistic collaboration between a man and a tree, and the wealth of music and art that flowed from that single, extraordinary tree.
On the Easter Sunday that marked the end of the week of recording, the musicians waited until the ethereal music faded, and then they gathered up their instruments and played ‘The Fiddletree’, just as Otis had years before while the tree still stood. And as the notes filled the air, the ancient Fiddletree lived once more.
by Sue McKay Miller, photos courtesy of Otis Tomas