The Mysterious Technology Of The Violin
How do you figure out what makes a Strad so great? And then how do you attempt to duplicate that greatness?
Itzhak Perlman has called Jascha Heifetz the “father of modern violin playing,” and Isaac Stern credits him with extending the range of the possible more than any violinist before or after. When in 1972, in Los Angeles, Heifetz gave his last public concert, the standing-room-only crowd included luminaries from throughout the violin world as well as a young Hollywood studio musician and Heifetz student named Ron Folsom. Heifetz died in 1987, and a year later Britain’s venerable violin magazine The Strad published a fullcolor poster of the violin he had used in that last concert.
Named after the nineteenth-century virtuoso Ferdinand David, Heifetz’s violin had been made in 1742 by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. Guarneri’s instruments are rarer and in many cases more valuable than those of Stradivari. Heifetz acquired his in 1922, paying the then lofty price of $30,000, and over time, says Folsom, it became for him “like religion. It was his life.” He is even said to have rejected a 1969 offer of three million dollars for it that guaranteed his continued lifetime use and possession of the instrument.
So powerful was Heifetz’s connection to his violin that when Folsom once had the brief chance to play it he felt as if the very spirit of the greatmusician had instilled itself in the wood. The David-Heifetz, as it is now called, is today on display at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and just below one of the f-holes you can see in the varnish a distinct light-colored smudge. It is, says Folsom, Heifetz’s thumbprint.
When The Strad ’s poster was published, Folsom looked at the picture for a long time. He had it framed. He hung it in his study. And then he decided he wanted a copy of that instrument for his own use. A very good copy.
The history of violin copying is nearly as old as the history of violinmaking itself. Stringed instruments in endless variety are of ancient origin and have been developed and refined in cultures from Asia to Africa. But not until the development of the violin did musicians have access to a tool with a range of sound as broad as that of the human voice. Although the circumstances of the violin’s origins are murky, the first known image of one is contained in a fresco painted in 1508 in the northern Italian town of Ferrara; the first written reference to a violin is a 1523 accounting record from Vercelli, in the upper Po River valley. Where or by whom these violins were made is unknown, but what is known is the name of the instrument’s first great maker.
Midway between Vercelli and Ferrara, on the banks of the Po, lies Cremona. There, in 1526, the census lists the name of Andrea Amati (c. 1505-77), apprentice in the house of a luthier. Such a luthier would in those days most likely have made a wide j variety of stringed instruments, from lutes to mandolins to guitars; whether he made violins and taught his apprentice to do likewise is unknown. But however he learned, by 1565 Amati was highly enough regarded that the King of France ordered from him a set of 24 instruments. One of these f violins survives and can be seen today in Cremona’s town hall; unlike the rather odd-looking instrument in the Ferrara fresco, it is virtually indistinguishable from a modern violin.
In addition to establishing the shape, size, and reputation of the violin, Andrea Amati set other precedents that came to characterize the tradition of violinmaking in Cremona. He was long-lived, rich in offspring, and master of a prosperous family workshop. He f was also the grandfather of the next great maker in the history of the violin.
Niccolò Amati (1596-1684) became an apprentice at the age of 10. He had already become master of the shop and mainstay of the Amati business when in 1629 plague struck the Po Valley. The disease reached Cremona a year later, and within two months Niccolò’s father, mother, two sisters, and a brother-in-law were dead; soon, so too were all his competitors. Much of his clientele also died, but eventually the business began to recover, and Niccolò found it necessary to take on apprentices from outside the family. The first was Andrea Guarneri, born in 1626; another—although the evidence is disputed —is likely to have been Antonio Stradivari.
The instruments of Niccolò Amati remain highly prized, but he left his greatest legacy in the students he taught. After his apprenticeship Andrea Guarneri opened his own shop just down the street (Stradivari later opened his shop next door to Guarneri’s); he then fathered two sons who became makers, and of these, one fathered two more sons who became makers, the youngest being Giuseppe, maker of the David.
Stradivari, who was born in 1644, went on to become the most famous violinmaker ever, supplying royal courts throughout Europe and continuing the traditions of longevity and fecundity: He lived to 93 and fathered 11 children, of whom one son, Paolo, became a violin dealer and two became makers. When these latter two died, in 1742 and 1743, followed a year later by Guarneri, the golden age of Cremonese violinmaking began drawing to a close.
Violinmaking did spread elsewhere, of course, and so too did another tradition with close ties to Cremona: copying, or, in its related forms, forging and mislabeling. Reflecting his fame and stature, one of the earliest victims of the practice was Niccolò Amati. In 1685, a year after his death, an instrument with an Amati label was sold in the nearby town of Modena. The buyer had paid 12 pistoles, but then, he wrote, underneath the Amati label he had found a label for “a maker of much less repute, whose violins at the utmost do not realize more than three pistoles.” That maker was from Cremona.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, factories in Europe were turning out as many as 40,000 violins a year fitted with the labels of Stradivari and other famous makers. Many were exported to the United States and sold by mail order, and many can be found today in attics and secondhand shops. These were the crudest of copies, capable of fooling only the gullible and the uninformed, but more sophisticated efforts have occasionally been so successful as to take on a life of their own. Such was the case of the Balfour Strad.
The Balfour was made in London around 1900 by William Voller, one of three brothers who produced highquality copies of old violins under their own Vollers’ label. Under questionable circumstances this instrument was purchased for £45 by an upstart dealership named Balfour & Company—with a Stradivari label inside. Balfour’s soon sold the violin for £2,500. A mysterious letter then appeared in The Strad doubting the instrument’s authenticity; so prompted, the buyer returned the violin, and Balfour’s granted a refund. Balfour’s the company then went out of business, but Balfour the Strad was just getting started: In the years following it was bought and sold repeatedly, and at one point it even acquired a scavenged set of real Stradivari ribs. Not until 1964 did a prominent London dealer buy it and retire it from the market.
Plainly, profit and deceit have long been motives for the copying of violins. But there are also legitimate reasons for doing so. For a maker, the attempt to duplicate an old Italian instrument can offer a rigorous training exercise. For a player, using a copy can be an excellent way to avoid wear and tear on a valuable old original, or it can help satisfy audience assumptions about how a serious musician’s instrument should look. For some, a copy offers a way to feel closer to history.
Once Ron Folsom decided he wanted a copy of the David-Heifetz, he had to find a maker. He recalled having seen a violin built for a friend by a pair of luthiers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and having found it “awful nice.” So he called, talked to one of the makers, and knew from the outset that “he was the guy. His heart was in it.”
Gregg Alf is a soft-spoken, contemplative man who, along with his friend and former business partner Joseph Curtin, has developed a reputation as one of the foremost luthiers in the world today. During the 12 years they worked together, Curtin and Alf made violins for such renowned virtuosi as Elmar Oliveira, Ruggiero Ricci, and Yehudi Menuhin. Members of orchestras around the world play their instruments, and in 1990 the two collaborated on a Stradivari copy that was later sold at the highest auction price ever paid for a violin by a living maker.
In 1997 Joe Curtin and Gregg Alf ended their partnership so each could work independently, but even before that they often undertook their own projects, and so it was that Alf alone set out to copy the David-Heifetz. He began in June 1989 by flying to San Francisco to examine the violin. Unlike a guitar, whose front and back are flat, the plates of a violin bulge outward. The size and shape of these bulges, or “archings,” have an enormous influence on an instrument’s sound, as do the nature and varying thickness of the wood, and all these quantities and qualities needed to be measured and recorded.
Back in Ann Arbor, Alf went to work. His first task was to select from the shop’s inventory of aged tonewood those pieces that most closely resembled the wood of the original Guarneri. As with most violins, the David-Heifetz has a two-piece top of spruce, joined down the middle, and a two-piece back of maple. Acoustically the spruce is more important than the maple, but the maple, with its symmetrical color patterns, or “flames,” is more important aesthetically; to make a convincing copy, the patterning of the original must be matched as closely as possible, and in some cases finding the right pieces can take years.
After he had chosen the wood, Alf began cutting and assembling the parts. Luthiers differ widely in their opinions on the use of power tools. One view is that handmade violins should be exactly that: handmade, just as they were in the days of the old Cremonese. But others argue that Stradivari, for one, was both an innovator and a businessman whose methods were state-of-the-art for the times, and modern makers owe themselves no less. Gregg Alf falls squarely in the latter camp, and when cutting the parts for the David-Heifetz copy, he was aided by a basement full of modern power tools.
The front and back plates, however, he did carve largely by hand, with ever-finer tools, including thimble-sized finger planes and thin metal scrapers; in a copy the plates’ outer arch recalls the shape of the original instrument, but the inner is governed by acoustics, suggested by the changing sound of finger-elicited “tap tones” as the wood is gradually thinned from the inside. To assemble the parts, Alf used hot rabbit-hide glue, as have luthiers from time immemorial—not from sentiment but because the glue can be easily separated for repairs. He made varnish from pine resin and linseed oil laced with pigments including rose madder and quinacridone orange; applying it, says Alf, requires an eye for texture and color and the skills of an oil painter. And to give the appearance of a quarter of a millennium’s worth of accumulated grime, he rubbed a slurry of dry pigments—“fake dirt”—into the surface with emery cloth.
In the spring of 1990 Alf sent Folsom the finished violin. When it came, says Folsom, “I was afraid to open it. I was afraid to look at it. I thought I’d be disappointed.”
So his son opened the package for him. “Dad, it looks great ! ”
At this, Folsom gathered his courage and went to look at the new violin. And there he saw, while the instrument still lay in its case, that Alf had reproduced the great old violin’s every nick, ding, and repair. Where the varnish of the David-Heifetz was worn and discolored, so too was the varnish of the copy. Where the corners and edges had rounded with age, the copy looked the same. And where Heifetz had left his thumbprint, there too was a smudge on the copy. “Wow!” thought Folsom. “It does look great.
“But,” he wondered, “how does it sound?”
The sound of a violin is a physical phenomenon of extraordinary complexity. Vibrating strings have been the subject of scientific scrutiny since at least the sixth century B.C. , when Pythagoras found that two strings of equal tension and thickness will produce notes an octave apart if one is half the length of the other. Two thousand years later Galileo found that length itself wasn’t the critical variable; what mattered was the speed at which the string vibrated. Changing length changed the vibrating frequency, and that produced the change in pitch. About the same time, it was also recognized that strings vibrate at more than one speed at a time: The whole of the string vibrates as a single unit at the frequency of the string’s fundamental pitch; simultaneously each half of the string vibrates as would a string half the length of the whole, producing an overtone, or harmonic, an octave higher than the fundamental. Likewise do each third of the string and each fourth, fifth, and so on. In theory the number of harmonics so produced is infinite.
By the late nineteenth century it was further known that the behavior of strings set in motion by a bow was even more complicated than that of plucked or hammered strings, both because of frictional forces between string and bow and because the transfer of energy to the string was sustained rather than momentary. By the early twentieth century the behavior of bowed strings was recognized as sufficiently complex to draw the attention of such scientific notables as the Indian physicist C. V. Raman, who developed a theoretical model to describe the patterns of string movement he measured, and who later, for other work, won a Nobel Prize.
Once a collection of bowed strings is coupled to a resonance box of irregular shape, made of natural (and therefore variable and inconsistent) materials, played by a human to express emotion, using a medium that is more than the sum of its parts, to an audience with its own likes and dislikes, in settings that are each acoustically unique- then the problem of understanding the violin as a mechanical radiator of sound becomes all the more formidable. There is simply no easy way to say why two violins are alike or different—or to apply that knowledge to the making of a third.
The first physicist to examine the violin in its own right was a nineteenth-century Parisian, Felix Savart. Savart performed a series of studies of the vibrational characteristics of unattached violin plates, sprinkling the plates with sand and then observing the patterns made when a bow was run across their edge, a technique used today in modified form by some violinmakers to “tune” their plates during carving. Savait also collaborated with the most famous violinmaker of his day, lean Baptiste Vuillaume, to create a variety of experimental instruments, including the biggest member of the violin family ever made, a 12-foot-tall threestring behemoth called the octobass that had to be tuned with the help of an assistant who stood upstairs after the scroll was stuck through a hole in the ceiling.
The first American scientist to study the violin was Frederick A. Saunders, an amateur violinist who was chairman of the physics department at Harvard University from 1926 to 1940. Saunders, whose principal research interest was atomic spectroscopy, began work on the violin in the mid-1930s, continued it for nearly three decades, and co-authored his last paper on violin acoustics when he was 85, just three years before he died.
From the beginning Saunders’s goal was “to discover the characteristics of the best instruments and the reasons why poor ones fail.” Toward this end he tested hundreds of violins, from Strads and Guarneris (including the David, which Heifetz played for him) to a five-dollar instrument he called his “standard of badness.” To facilitate his work, he developed response and loudness curves, which consisted of graphs plotting in decibels the volume of the overtones detected by a custom-made “harmonic analyzer” during the sustained, even playing of a single note. The response curve showed the volume for each individual harmonic (of which there might be 30 or more per note); the loudness curve showed the total volume for all the harmonics combined. For each instrument he examined, Saunders generated more than 1,500 data points.
One of his first findings was that every violin tested—old or new, “good” or “bad”—showed pronounced variations in the total volume it could produce from note to note. Moreover, one instrument’s pattern of peaks and valleys showed little consistency with another’s—even when the two violins were by the same maker. This was both striking and embarrassing, wrote Saunders, because it meant “there is no one quality which is characteristic of any violin .” The result of this variability, he later added, was that any tonal characteristics one sought in an old Italian instrument—Stradivari or otherwise—could be matched in a well-selected instrument of newer construction or by a maker of lesser renown.
Saunders demonstrated this point several times in listening tests with audiences. In 1940 he asked an audience of some 200 musicians, nonmusicians, and experts to identify the Stradivari from among violins A, B, and C played by a concert violinist behind a screen. The proportion of listeners who correctly chose the Stradivari was the same as would have been produced by chance alone, and more than half the audience thought a modern Strad copy sounded more Strad-like than the Strad. The musicians and experts, Saunders noted, chose no better than anyone else.
Nonetheless he never lost sight of a phenomenon that complicates the interpretation of such tests. Almost by definition, a good violinist can make nearly any violin sound good. Even his five-dollar fiddle, Saunders wrote, “sounded well when Mr. Heifetz played it.” But the player is never in doubt as to the ease or difficulty of eliciting the desired result from the instrument. And there lies the problem. A fine violin, wrote Saunders, has “an undefined something … which is immediately felt by the player, even if it is not recognized by the listener.”
One of Saunders’s most prominent scientific heirs is the University of Michigan physicist Gabriel Weinreich. Weinreich’s first acoustical studies involved the piano, but he soon turned his attention to the more complex problem of what he calls “the instrument that has been most studied and about which least is known.’
Weinreich has now spent much of the past 20 years investigating myriad aspects of violin physics, including what is called “directional tone color,” the result of how different notes radiate from different parts of the violin’s body at differing loudnesses. His goal throughout has been the same as Frederick Saunders’s was: to discover the physical properties that distinguish the best violins. But Weinreich has remained as stymied as his predecessor. That “undefined something” is as undefined today as ever. Some objective quality is clearly involved, says Weinreich, for “if we hand any experienced player a violin and ask that it be classified into one of three categories: (a) ‘student instrument’; (b) ‘decent professional instrument’; or (c) ‘fine solo instrument,’ the judgment would not take more than about 30 seconds and the opinions of different violinists would coincide absolutely.” Yet the criteria a player uses to make this discrimination are still a mystery, and there remains no physical test or specification that enables a scientist to describe what a player so immediately feels when putting bow to string and pronouncing one violin good and another bad. It is, he admits, “extremely frustrating.”
Of course, it may be that physicists have been looking in the wrong place. This possibility is raised in a respected textbook in which, after a long discourse on violin physics, the authors point out that players are responsive to psychological as well as physical factors. “If a violin appears to have been made by a master craftsman,” they write, “it will probably be played accordingly. This is especially true if the player knows of the maker and his reputation.” In other words, looks count.
And so it was only after he had gazed at his new violin for the longest time that Ron Folsom finally put it to his shoulder. Violins take time to break in, and regardless of the instrument’s beauty, he was still worried. “Is this going to work?” he thought. “Or do I have to play it for a year before I can even take it to the recording studio?”
Finally, though, he touched bow to string. “And by golly,” he says, “it sounded right away. It sounded very well.” It would only get better. The violin would, as Folsom says, “ripen,” but already he was emboldened to take it the next day to a session at Warner Brothers, and he remembers now that his colleagues were quite impressed. “Everybody loved playing it. It sounded wonderful.”
Despite the quickness with which his doubts were dispelled, Ron Folsom’s initial wariness was by no means unusual. For reasons unknown, violins do indeed sweeten with age and playing (Frederick Saunders thought a possible mechanism might be the development of micro- scopic cracks in critical glue joints, thereby allowing freer vibration of the plates). But musicians have long overlaid the phenomenon with their own prejudice. As far back as 1676, when both Niccolò Amati and Stradivari were working, a critic wrote that “we chiefly value old instruments before new; for by experience, they are found to be by far the best.” And today there are major conductors who prohibit their string players from using new instruments.
All the same, more and more modern players are joining Ron Folsom in their willingness to consider new violins. Part of the reason is scarcity. There are more players today than ever, yet every year there are fewer available old instruments. According to Gregg Alf, about 70 old masters, Italian and other, made most of the fine instruments that are sold and resold by auctioneers and dealers around the world today. The average lifetime output of these makers was about 200 instruments, meaning the world’s total original inventory was about 14,000. But each year the inventory shrinks. Some instruments, like the David-Heifetz, are acquired by museums and removed from the market; others simply wear out.
The result of this imbalance between supply and demand has been an astronomic pricing structure for old violins. There are players who will impoverish themselves for life to make such a purchase, but an increasing number are deciding that it simply makes more sense to buy a new instrument.
Certainly economics favors such a decision—a musician can purchase a violin by one of America’s best contemporary makers for $25,000 or less. But increasingly, so does quality. In 1996 Strings magazine conducted a survey of U.S. businesses involved in the violin trade. Of the nonmakers who responded—those whose business was buying, selling, or repairing—58 percent said today’s finest new instruments are “equal in sound to the best ever made”; 22 percent said they were “superior.” There were similar findings for workmanship. In other words, we are now in a new golden age. Moreover, among the best new makers are Americans.
The first violin known to have been built in America was made in Massachusetts in 1767 by a German immigrant, Gottfried Leutz. A Boston luthier named John A. Gould wrote in 1922 that Leutz’s creation was a “crude old fiddle” with a “puny tone” and that Leutz had built it entirely from memory. Gould made these observations in what is probably the first written history of early American violinmaking. Not only was colonial America no Renaissance Italy, but, said Gould, “It is scarcely possible to imagine a spot less favorable to the encouragement of the violin maker.” The Pilgrims considered all instrumental music sacrilegious and especially vilified the violin. In one community a violin was put on trial, convicted as the favored instrument of Satan, and buried. “Why it was not burned,” wrote Gould, “is unexplainable.”
Not until the mid-nineteenth century did the number of violinmakers in the United States rise above a handful. Even then most were tradesmen—cabinet-makers and the like—who made instruments primarily as a hobby or for supplemental income, and few had access to fine instruments to serve as examples. In a typical critique Gould wrote of one that he was a “capable farmer.” A few did ply their craft full-time, but even they were mostly self-taught, and Gould’s opinions of their work were mixed at best. Gould himself learned violinmaking as an apprentice ” in his native England. In the late 1880s he moved to Boston and there established a shop in which he made fine violins—including one tested by Frederick Saunders and deemed a “lovely instrument.” He was by no means the only skilled American luthier of his time, but neither he nor his peers ever enjoyed the reputations they deserved. Rather, they all were lumped together with the violinmaking carpenters, mechanics, and “capable farmers” who had preceded them. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, an American violin, no matter what its quality, could be purchased for a small fraction of the price of its European equivalent. To compound the problem, the best instruments were often relabeled by middlemen and sold as Italian.
But no longer. Though the turnabout began slowly, recent decades have seen an exponential growth in both the quality and the reputation of American lutherie. Indeed, whereas once American instruments were the frequent subject of mislabeling, Gregg Alf not long ago discovered a Chinese cello bearing the label of a prominent modern American maker.
Many factors have contributed to this changed state of affairs, but one of the earliest was a growing number of important artists calling the United States home. Great artists demand great instruments (Heifetz, a Russian immigrant, owned two Strads in addition to his Guarneri), and as these began to circulate, American makers had increasing opportunities to see high-quality examples on which to base their work. For it was lack of information more than anything else that had hampered America’s early makers.
Information control was what kept so many of the old Italians’ secrets secret. Skills and techniques were kept within the family, and the shops were run under strict guildlike conditions. But in America, says Thomas Wilde, author of The Violin Makers of the United States , violinmaking has been characterized from the outset by the free and willing exchange of information; once available, knowledge has quickly spread.
Groups and societies devoted to violinmaking provided one of the earliest means of getting news around. Among the first was the Violin Makers of Maine. Founded in 1916, it lasted only 10 years, but its legacy survives today in the form of such large and vibrant bodies as the Southern California Association of Violin Makers and the Violin Society of America, whose combined memberships number nearly 2,000. An organization at once similar and unique is the Catgut Acoustical Society, founded in 1963 to help promote original research. The work of the society’s founder, Carleen Hutchins (a New Jersey violinmaker who collaborated for years with Frederick Saunders), has twice been featured on the cover of Scientific American , and today the society’s members include luthiers, musicians, and scientists from around the world.
All these groups hold conventions, workshops, and conferences. All publish newsletters and journals. And all serve to spread and maintain information, as do libraries, museums, phones, faxes, and, increasingly, the Internet. Recently Gregg Alf was building a cello when he began to consider using fabric panels to strengthen the ribs, a technique used by Stradivari but now relatively uncommon. He posted a question to an Internet newsgroup and within days had replies from colleagues around the world. Modern air travel also facilitates information flow; a maker in Michigan can as easily go see the Messiah in Oxford as the David-Heifetz in San Francisco. The grand result, says the Chicago-based violin collector and historian David Bromberg, is that luthiers today can “learn more, faster, than anybody in history.”
Which is not to say that physical technologies haven’t played their part. When Gregg Alf measured the DavidHeifetz, he was limited by circumstances to the use of centuries-old technology: ruler and caliper. A few years later, when the Los Angeles-based violinist Endre Balogh commissioned Joe Curtin and Gregg Alf to copy his 1728 Stradivari, the Artôt-Alard, the two makers used a method decidedly more modern.
Plaster casts have long been used in lutherie. But in 1990, with the help of an employee who had learned her skills in the model shops at General Motors, Curtin and Alf began developing casting techniques new to the world of violins. They learned how to create flexible rubber molds from materials that cure at room temperature, absorb no moisture, and stick to nothing—materials that could be poured directly onto the unprotected surfaces of Balogh’s Stradivari. Into the molds is then poured an epoxy resin that, upon hardening, produces an exact dimensional copy of the original and in such detail that the grain of the wood can clearly be seen.
Such casts provide permanent references from which a violinmaker can take measurements without risking damage to the original. There are shelves upon shelves of these castings, from a dozen or more instruments, in the studios of Joe Curtin and Gregg Alf, and a visitor can pick up—or drop—an exact plastic model of the scroll, top, or back of the Artôt-Alard.
Of course, technologies today are superseded nearly as fast as they are developed, and both Curtin and Alf envision a time when the 3-D laser scanners now used widely in industry are applied to violins, and an instrument’s dimensions are taken without anything having touched it but a beam of light. The resulting computerized data could then be stored, shared, or with the aid of a CAD/CAM program manipulated by a luthier seeking to produce his or her own variation of a classic model by Stradivari or Guarneri.
But beyond finding new ways of measuring and copying old instruments, lutherie today is alive with innovation. Carleen Hutchins helped pave the way in the early 1960s, when she capitalized on her work with Frederick Saunders to build a theoretically derived string octet. Designed to fill the gaps in the acoustic spectrum left by the traditional string family of violin, viola, cello, and double bass, the octet’s eight members range from a tiny treble violin to a huge “large bass.”
Another such collaboration now continues in Ann Arbor, where Joe Curtin and Gregg Alf are well acquainted with the inside of Gabriel Weinreich’s acoustics lab and where both have incorporated concepts from physics into their approach to violinmaking. Curtin, in particular, has found the insights he’s gained from his work with Weinreich so powerful that he has put them in the service of ideas he has long been considering.
In 1997, after he and Alf separated their studios, he decided to quit making copies and to use the time to “try some other things.” Since then he has experimented with what he calls alternative architectures: a violin with a single crescent-shaped opening in place of the fholes; a viola with sloping shoulders. He has worked with new materials, Grafting compos- ite plates that let him vary thickness without adding weight—layered sandwiches of wood veneer, carbon fiber, and aeronautic foam. He has also tried out novel procedures, forsaking the traditional planes and scrapers and shaping the plates instead with vacuum pumps that draw the materials into conformity with epoxy resin molds.
His purpose has been to better “get to the heart of violin sound,” so he can better build instruments that create that sound. But it is more than sound he seeks. “It is,” he says, “a tactile as well as an aural thing.” What a few great makers of the past seem largely to have achieved through intuition (or chance or the grace of time), he now seeks to achieve by design, using the best of science and art, technology and craft. What he seeks is to put into his instruments that very thing that makes playing a great instrument so exciting, so inspiring for a violinist—that still and possibly forever “undefined something.”