Magazine article Gramophone

American Luthier: 'Carleen Hutchens-The Art and Science of the Violin'

Magazine article Gramophone

American Luthier: 'Carleen Hutchens-The Art and Science of the Violin'

Article excerpt

American Luthier

'Carleen Hutchens--the Art and Science of the Violin'

By Quincy Whitney

ForEdge Press, HB, 312 pp, 29 [pounds sterling]

ISBN: 978-1-61-168592-3

'A violin maker who crafted some of the finest instruments of her time, invented new ones and, through science, came as close as anyone ever has to reproducing the venerated sound of the Stradivarius.' So said the LA Times in its 2009 obituary of the luthier-physicist Carleen Hutchins, and to that description we could also add two Guggenheim Fellowships, four honorary doctorates, an instrument played by Yo-Yo Ma in an award-winning recording and a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition.

For the benefit of those who have just read the name Carleen Hutchins for the first time (and I'm anticipating that this is most readers, for which you can be unashamed because, despite the LA Times' lofty proclamation, Hutchins falls firmly under the bracket of 'niche'), she was born in 1911 and began her adult life simply as a school science teacher, skilled woodworker, amateur trumpet player and New Jersey housewife. However, having taken up the viola at the suggestion of a musical colleague, she decided to try making one herself. This led to a scientific partnership with a retired Harvard physicist that would result in her carving nearly 500 string instruments over the course of half a century and collaborating on over 100 experiments in violin acoustics.

At the root of Hutchins's work was her belief that science, specifically the study of acoustics, was the crucial factor in producing a truly great violin. In other words, any modern maker was capable of producing an instrument that sounded as good as a Stradivarius or Guarneri; and, to this end, at a time when the modus operandi of luthiers was to keep secrets, Hutchins began to share her research in the manner of any other scientist, writing more than 100 technical papers, including two Scientific American cover articles, and founding an international society devoted to violin acoustics. One particular acoustical achievement of hers was to draw luthiers' attention to taptones--the sounds produced by a detached violin plate when held at a specific point and tapped lightly at another point.

Then there were the new instruments she fashioned. The most high-profile of these was the 'vertical viola' Yo-Yo Ma used to record Bartok's Viola Concerto on his 'New York Album' (Sony, 3/95). However, there was also an acoustically matching octet of violins whose painstakingly balanced proportions filled in the standard string quartet's 'gaps', ranging from a seven-foot contrabass tuned as a double bass, up to a tiny 16" sopranino tuned an octave above a standard violin. …

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