Curtins for Cremona
By Stewart Pollens, The Strad, November 1995
Stewart Pollens talks with Joseph Curtin and Gregg Alf, violinmakers famed for their uncannily convincing copies of classic Cremonese instruments.
Though artistic endeavours are most often undertaken independently, collaboration is not a rare phenomenon in the world of violin making. Violins have been made with the assistance of apprentices, journeymen and family members since the earliest times; and the multitudes of so-called ‘factory-made’ instruments have been for the most part hand-made, the products of a division of labour.What is rare is for two fully-skilled artisans of strong character, both imbued with the entrepreneurial knack, to band together to produce fine violins. Joseph Curtin and Gregg Alf met in Cremona, Italy, in 1982 and decided to set up a workshop together – a decision that led to the establishment in 1985 of the firm of Curtin & Alf in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Today, Curtin and Alf each produce about 15 instruments a year and maintain a staff of two shop assistants, an apprentice, and two administrative personnel. They have been commissioned to make instruments by such renowned musicians as Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, Elmar Oliveira, and Zvi Zeitlin, and their instruments are used by players in nearly two dozen major orchestras around the world.Joseph Curtin was born in Toronto on 6 April 1953, the son of a Viennese photographer and a British painter. He began violin lessons in England at the age of eleven, continuing his instrumental training while studying music and philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto. After his college years, he studied the viola with Rivka Golani, who at the time was married to the violin maker Otto Erdesz. Disillusioned with his musical progress, Curtin began an apprenticeship with Erdesz. ‘He set up a bench for me at his house for a year, and I finished my first instrument there – a viola based on his asymmetrical “virtuoso” model. After that, I set up on my own and brought in work for criticism. Erdesz is an amazingly talented man and was a wonderful and encouraging teacher. He gave me beautiful wood for my first 20 or so instruments, and never charged a penny either for wood or instruction. Rivka was also a great inspiration. She gave me free lessons for a year when I had little money. I will be thankful to them both my whole life long.’
Gregg Alf was born in Los Angeles on 30 January 1957. He credits his family for providing the encouragement and support to enter violin making. ‘There was always music at home and a special regard for creativity and for working with one’s hands. While still in kindergarten I found a “Stradivarius” violin in my family’s barn. Some investigation with my father’s help led to the conclusion that it was a German factory instrument. But the seed was planted. As a kid, I loved to take things apart to see how they worked. I also liked to invent, fix or build, not just wooden objects, but anything mechanical. I began playing the violin at age twelve, continuing my studies through high school. Before going to college I spent a year in an English independent school studying violin and music on an exchange scholarship.‘While attending the University of the District of Columbia [studying music and science] my father introduced me to a violin maker named Willis Gault. He had a small, one-room shop in downtown Washington D.C. where he taught people how to make violins. There I made my first violin in 1975, working on my knee with a thumb plane, one scraper, a knife and two chisels. I was 18 at the time, and although Willis was not known for his precision of cut, he taught me perhaps the greatest lesson of all: to work with passion; to truly love the role of helping each instrument to emerge. As I became more interested in making, I gathered tools, books, and wood. Both of my grandfathers and several family friends donated their violins for me to take apart, study and put back together. In Iowa I got a job doing minor violin repair at a store called Miller Music. Repair work was easy for me, but it hardly provided the same satisfaction as making did. In the fall of 1976 I moved to Cremona and was accepted at the International Violin Making School. With the support of my father and a small grant from the region of Lombardy, I studied with Scarpini, Bulfari, Scolari and Conia. In 1980, I graduated with the traditional Italian title of ‘maestro’. I remained in Cremona for another four years, working in the shops of Conia and Scolari. I also studied bow making with Giovanni Lucchi, augmented by a summer course with Bill Salchow and some violin restoration with Gil Soloman.’ After working for Erdesz, Curtin did some traveling in America and Europe, meeting and exchanging ideas with instrument makers along the way. He met Alf in Cremona and the two decided to collaborate in making a copy. ‘We did it more or less for fun,’ Curtin recalls, ‘though I am sure we both sensed we had a good combination of talents. I was handy with varnish and Gregg could make an instrument sound as well as anyone I’d met. The instrument we copied was a “Testore”, though we later learned it was probably a fake. The next summer, a Guadagnini came along, and we had a go at it. At that point, Gregg was about done with Cremona and I was at a loose end, so we decided to set up a business together. We are very different people with a common love for violin making. At first, we divided the work according to our individual strengths. Then as we both became more rounded makers, we divided tasks arbitrarily. With the most recent copy – Zvi Zeitlin’s “Prince Doria” Guarneri “del Gesu” – we each made a copy independently. Although we have worked on about a dozen instruments together, we ordinarily make them entirely independently and label them accordingly.’
The practice of making instrument copies that simulate the appearance of age and use was well established at a sophisticated level by the mid-19th century. Well-made copies by such 19th century makers as John Lott, the Voller Brothers, and Samuel Nemessanyi continue to fool the experts. And today, a small number of younger makers are involved in making antiqued copies that are often quite a bit more convincing than those of their forebears.
Last November, when violinist Elmar Oliveira delivered his ‘Stretton’ violin to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Masterpieces of Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ exhibition, he also brought his ‘Stretton’ copy by Curtin & Alf. All present were impressed with the success of the copy. The colour, transparency, and texture of the varnish, the modeling of the edge work, ff-holes, corners and scroll, the re-creation of ‘del Gesu’s’ tell-tale tool marks, as well as the structure and setting of the purfling were frighteningly similar to the original. The copy showed every appearance of age, with the various aspects of wear – natural discolouration of exposed wood, and the impregnation by dirt, skin oils, and other materials meticulously recreated.
Copying brings the imitator into intimate contact with the work of the originator, and Curtin & Alf have developed some ingenious techniques of measurement and information collection. In making their initial analysis of a violin, the original is placed on a surface plate, and a machinist’s surface gauge is used to assess symmetry, distortions, the true position of centre lines, the location of ff-holes and so on. While some makers make tracings of the perimeter of the original as a preliminary step in generating the outline of the mould used to shape and support the rib structure of the copy, Curtin & Alf use a semi-rigid acetate overlay to mark the position of the purfling. Though the purfling was originally marked and cut with a tool guided by the outer edge of the instrument (and is thus a generation removed from the original outline), it has not been subjected to as much wear and distortion as the edge work. So Curtin & Alf view it as a more reliable starting point. Both top and back purflings are marked on acetate sheets, which are then used to mark out the outer layers of their mould (comprising three separable layers held in alignment by registration pins). After transferring the purfling outlines to the top and bottom layers, the thicker central section is carved to blend the disparate outlines. In this way the distortions of the ribs and the differing outlines of the top and back plates can be faithfully recreated. RTV (room temperature vulcanising) ‘Silastic’ rubber is used to make very accurate impressions of the top and back plates and scroll of the original. Working castings are then made from these ‘moulds’. Curtin & Alf’s meticulous notes, tracings, measurements, and casts form an indispensable archive that enable them to make copies of instruments long after the originals have been returned.Surprisingly, Curtin & Alf have few qualms about revealing many of the ‘secrets’ of their antiquing process. ‘We treat the wood with a gentle organic process [which they were not yet ready to divulge], then we use several days’ exposure to UV [ultra-violet] light to tan the wood, followed by fuming in ammonia for 15 to 20 minutes. This gives the lovely golden colour we associate with Italian grounds and is quite different from the individual effects of UV or ammonia. We don’t use any other chemical treatments. The rest is done with pigments and varnish.
‘After we have tanned and fumed the wood, we seal it with ‘Liquin’, a Winsor & Newton product [an oil-modified alkyd resin used by painters to accelerate drying and control ‘flow’ during glazing and detail work], adding pigments as needed to adjust the colour. Then we apply a clear ground of oil varnish, followed by a coat or two of coloured varnish. For varnishes, we have used Geary Baese’s formulations extensively, modified to suit our own needs. I can recommend a formula of about one part sun-thickened linseed oil to one part ‘cooked-down’ pine resin, or Venice turpentine, thinned as necessary.’ The varnishing process proceeds very quickly (the viscous varnish is pre-polymerised through the action of heat so that it sets very quickly after application).Achieving the appearance of age is another matter. ‘What is difficult’, says Curtin, ‘is seeing what’s really there on the old instrument – a complex combination of original varnish, retouches, old wood and so on. Daylight, preferably north light, is essential for evaluating colour. And you have to know when to quit for a while, so that you can come back with a fresh eye. It’s imperative to have the basic palette under control. Our basic pigments are rose madder, ultramarine blue and lampblack (for toning down the colour), transparent brown, and quinacridone yellow and orange [used either in dry form or ground in oil]. We used to use Indian yellow, even though its transparency was not ideal, but now we find that the quinacridone colours are much better and very stable. I have never been much interested in homemade pigments – I’ve never seen one whose effect could not be achieved with the best commercial pigments. The important thing is to work with mixing colours until it becomes second nature. Also it must be remembered that violin varnish is three-dimensional. Its thickness and texture are hugely important to the final effect. If you can get the texture right early on, so many things fall into place when you add the antiquing. In doing the antiquing, a common mistake is using fake dirts that are too black and opaque – the scratches jump off the instrument in an unconvincing way. We use water-soluble mediums for applying dirt. That way, they are easier to wash off when they are not right, without destroying the underlying work.’
In dealing with the acoustical aspects of copying, Curtin & Alf recognise that replicating plate thicknesses will not necessarily result in an instrument that sounds or responds like the original. Over the years, they have enlisted the help of Carleen Hutchins, Professor Gabriel Weinreich, Xavier Boutillon and Charles Besnainou. In the attic of the Curtin & Alf workshop, one can find Hutchins’ set-up for assessing and altering the vibrational modes using ‘Chladni’ patterns. At Weinreich’s acoustics laboratory at the University of Michigan, they are attempting to develop a better means of assessing violin sound by eliminating the variability imposed by the player. Working with Charles Boutillon at the Laboratoire d’Acoustique Musicale in Paris, they are experimenting with carbon-fibre and resin composites (with an outer wood laminate). ‘We have built a prototype with a carbon-fibre and wood top,’ says Curtin. ‘You can’t tell from the outside that there is anything unusual going on. It’s actually a very successful instrument, though we are not sure what to do with it next. Composites are already beginning to play an important part in bow making. I’ll be surprised if they do not show up in violin making before long.’
Creating copies requires that makers develop an intimate understanding of the originals and the techniques used to construct them. In that sense the copyist is brought closer to the original maker’s conception of the violin. On the other hand, many of the techniques and materials used to execute an exact copy are far removed from those originally employed, and the freedom to develop an individual style – enjoyed by the early makers – is not shared by the copyist.
Is this healthy for the craft of violin making? Alf comments: ‘I feel that a sensitive and intuitive approach to one’s work is founded in the ability to see one’s creation as having a “life” of its own. I “make” a violin, but the instrument is really an expression of acoustic and aesthetic principles that are much greater and more enduring than myself. The replicas I make are really my way of studying with Strad and Guarneri. It is humbling to have musicians come to me all the time for copies of someone else’s work. I just remember that, at my age, Stradivari was only just beginning to develop his own lines and he certainly had a better apprenticeship programme than mine! There is no hurry, because the longer I copy, the more evolved my own ideas become. I do currently make “personal” instruments which have all the tonal qualities of the replicas and are inevitably influenced by the glowing look of all the fine instruments I have handled.’
‘Besides making replicas as a way of studying the masters, we do it as an accommodation to the players who are in transition from a time when it was practical to perform on golden period Cremonese instruments. If more players would come to today’s makers with the same fervour as was the case hundreds of years ago, I’m sure that better instruments would be developed. Our success as makers is directly related to the interaction we have had with the concert artists who use our instruments.’
‘Were Stradivari to be reincarnated as a young maker living and working in Salt Lake City, he would probably be making Guarneri copies like the rest of us! But seriously, I think the real challenge today is to work with innovation. From new materials to new research tools, there is a lot going on now, and I think that Stradivari would soon be in the middle of it all.’
Curtin adds: ‘I believe that violin making in the past few decades has taken off in a way that it hasn’t in centuries. What I think is happening is a kind of looking back and consolidating of traditional techniques and ideals – hence all the copying. This is providing better and better new instruments and is clearing the way for whatever will come next. This will, I hope, include more adventurous aesthetics. I admire Christophe Landon’s spirit in this regard, and I hope to strike out in new directions when the time is right.’‘Real innovation is fueled by two things: the changing needs of performing musicians; and the violin maker’s understanding of how instruments work. A decade ago, Gabriel Weinreich said that if we were to understand exactly what a good violin does, and designed an instrument which did only that, he doubted that the result would look much like a traditional violin. This startled and angered me at the time, believing as I did in the perfection and immutability of the violin. But over the years, I’ve come to see both a truth and a challenge in the statement. The truth is that a deeper understanding of how instruments work leads inevitably to changes in how we perceive and construct them. The challenge is to understand the needs of today’s musicians and create instruments which will meet these needs in years to come.’
It is clear that Curtin & Alf are meeting the needs of many of today’s most compelling musicians. Elmar Oliveira admits to using his two Curtin & Alf violins in numerous concerts; he recorded Joachim’s ‘Hungarian’ Concerto on his copy of the ‘Booth’ Strad, and more recently Joan Tower’s Concerto on his copy of the ‘Stretton’ Guarneri. Oliveira concedes that the ‘Stretton’ copy is more ‘stable’ than the original on tour. And the transition from one to the other is simplified by the fact that the violins are physically identical, and share similar (though not identical) acoustical qualities. He states that the two instruments have comparable brilliance at the top end and a similar dark quality at the bottom, though the original provides a bit more depth at the lower end. Oliveira is encouraged by the current state of violin making: ‘Much as I love old instruments, I cannot deny that there are probably more makers working today that can make good instruments than ever before. In general, craftsman ship throughout the world is much improved, and there is greater attention to using proper graduation and good wood. I have no hesitation over using a fine modern violin in public, and I love the quality and responsiveness of my Curtin & Alf.’