Christopher Wilke's lute saga continues
08:41 PM, Jan 22, 2014
What does a $10,000 lute sound like?
CRACK! after it is smashed, apparently by Delta Airlines baggage handlers.
TWANG! after the lute’s case is opened, and tension from the strings snaps off the sound board, sending splinters flying around the Delta baggage room.
Call it “Prelude to a Fiasco.”
Anyone can face baggage issues. You arrive in Denver, your luggage doesn’t. But for professional musicians, the stakes are higher than misplaced underwear. Their livelihoods depend on their instruments, and they don’t always have a choice whether to check them.
Christopher Wilke, an Irondequoit musician who travels the world playing early European lute tunes, arrived at the Greater Rochester International Airport earlier this month after a gig in Salt Lake City and discovered that his 24-string baroque lute a 15-year-old precision copy of one built in Germany in 1754 had been crushed.
“I had it on board the plane with me from Salt Lake City, but on the stopover in Detroit, they requested I check the instrument at the gate,” said Wilke, who inspected the lute in its case before handing it over. “I don’t usually like to do that, but I have done it many times, and have not had any trouble with it even on long flights to Europe.”
Delta officials said they area trying to help Wilke.
“It is not uncommon for luggage to be damaged in transit,” said Russell Cason of Delta corporate communications in Atlanta. “I’m hopeful we can resolve it to his satisfaction. With the understanding that this is an unusual situation.”
The unusual situation? There’s no guarantee the lute is repairable, and the $3,000 estimate that Wilke obtained from the instrument’s original builder does not include the impact on Wilke’s job. He might have to cancel some concerts if he does not have an instrument, and if repair is possible, the work could take months to complete.
“I know that he has raised that issue, and we are in discussions with him on that,” Cason said.
Wilke said his customers are expert listeners. He has two scheduled shows in Ohio this weekend where “they’re expecting me to perform the music specifically on that instrument,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been hired to do.”
Wilke’s story has spread through the classical music world on social media. And it’s not the first such case to receive national attention.
In June, Wu Man was traveling to perform with the Kronos Quartet, and her $50,000 ancient pipa, sometimes called a Chinese lute, was broken. US Airways replaced the instrument.
A year ago, Dave Schneider of a Connecticut hockey-worshiping band called The Zambonis and the Jewish rockers The LeeVees, had his $10,000 vintage 1965 Gibson guitar crushed by Delta baggage handlers in Detroit. Delta gave Schneider a $1,000 check to pay for repairs and vouchers for two future flights in the airline, and Gibson gave him a new guitar.
Most infamously, Dave Carroll’s country-rock song “United Breaks Guitars” was based on the true story of the Canadian musician’s year-long battle with the airline over his shattered Taylor guitar. YouTube proclaimed “United Breaks Guitars” the site’s most-viewed video of 2009, and Carroll subsequently published a book, United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media.
These may be cautionary tales, but the fact is that many musicians must travel with their instruments for their livelihood.
“It’s an incredible problem for all of us musicians who are faced with traveling with instruments,” said James VanDemark, double bassist and professor at the Eastman School of Music.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, regulations were put in place by the Transportation Security Agency that increased the number of times a musical instrument is exposed to rough handling, including opening the cases and inspecting the contents, VanDemark said. Yet wide discretion in interpreting those regulations seems to have been left in the hands of the airlines.
Indeed, the guidelines of several music trade groups warn musicians to check with airlines ahead of time, because the TSA requirements do not necessarily supercede the airline’s policies. Courts, though, have upheld the airlines’ responsibility to pay for damaged instruments.
VanDemark has had his double base slightly damaged while traveling, and has had students whose instruments’ necks have been broken.
“But there is an incredible and disturbing inconsistency from airline to airline as to how this is dealt with,” VanDemark said.
Wilke’s cautious travel routine includes packing a small humidifier in the lute case to prevent the instrument from drying out, even on short flights. When he picked up the lute at the Rochester airport following the 45-minute flight from Detroit, the hard case was unmarked. But upon opening it, the damage was apparent.
A Delta employee in the baggage department told Wilke that she would have to take possession of the broken lute and ship it to a claims office. Wilke declined, as she would not say where it would be sent or for how long it would be in the airline’s possession.
“As we’re talking, with the case open, you could see that the instrument was structurally cracked,” Wilke said. “And even though I had loosened the strings some, all of a sudden the whole front just ripped off from the residual tension, right in front of many, many people.”
Other people with baggage issues witnessed what happened, and the Delta employee announced she was closing the office.
Wilke demanded to see a supervisor, who repeated the previous offer, according to Wilke. Wilke again declined, not wanting to turn over possession of the lute. “Then he suggested an alternate procedure, and asked me to file a claim, with a questionnaire which I would start there and complete online when I got home,” Wilke said.
At home, Wilke discovered that the online process couldn’t resume because he hadn’t been given a file reference ID number. When he called Delta, Wilke encountered a Catch-22 situation: he was told he couldn’t get the file reference ID number because he didn’t havea file reference ID number.
Then, “I was told, ‘There is no record of you having ever submitted a claim.’ “
Fortunately, while at the Rochester airport, Wilke did take a photo of the damaged instrument with the Delta baggage-room employee visible. That photo is date- and time-stamped, Wilke noted.
After two frustrating days, Wilke finally spoke by phone with a claims manager for the airline in Atlanta.
Wilke said the airline offered to pay for the repairs, letting Wilke choose who would fix it.
He also received “one super-vaguely worded email” confirming Delta’s intent.
Wilke received the repair estimate from the lute’s original builder, Grant Tomlinson of Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Nothing is prefabricated it’s nothing you can take off a shelf and put together,” Wilke said. “One of the demands of my area of expertise, in academic research, is looking at manuscripts and using the proper instrument to play the piece as it is written. These instruments are so specialized, you can’t just walk into any music store and buy one.
“It’s a copy of a historical instrument and is very exacting fractions to the millimeter. Including what’s happening inside the instrument, which is where the sound is happening, so we hear what people heard in 1754.”
Wilke has been forced to borrow a lute from a musician in Buffalo for the Ohio shows. But he says he can’t count on other people’s lutes for what could be six months, or longer, while his instrument is being repaired.
“Hopefully I will hear something more formal from Delta,” Wilke said. “Otherwise, I suppose I will consider taking legal action if necessary.”