Joseph Curtin: Innovation and Creation in the Violin-Making World : a Q & A with Violonetto
By Joseph Curtin, VIOLONetto, February 2007
How did you get started making violins and violas?
I was trying to be a violinist and then a violist, I had given up violin, I’d been very discouraged, and it was a difficult time. Then I met a violist in Toronto, her name is Rivka Golani, a wonderful violist from Israel, and her husband was a violin maker, Otto Erdesz, and she encouraged me to play viola so I did that for a while, and then after a while I realized that I wasn’t going to make it as a professional violist. And at the same time, Otto had been suggesting that I become a violin maker and as soon I started that I knew that it was the life for me.
Did you ever work as an apprentice to another violin maker?
Not really, Otto was a very unconventional man, I just came to his house and watched him work for about a year and then made an instrument at his house, and then I made an instrument of my own and then I made another one and came back and showed it to him and he sort of gave me criticism. I made a few early instruments for him and he bought them off me which was very kind of him, but no, I never had a formal apprenticeship, nor did I work in a restoration or repair shop which is what people usually do. I decided quite early on that I just wanted to make violins and not repair them or deal with them, and for better or for worse, that’s how it went.
Did you ever think you were going to do something other than make violins?
Oh, yes. From my earliest childhood I wanted to be an engineer. I thought “electrical engineer” somehow captured the glamour of my future life. But I just loved making things. I loved drawing and designing, and I actually had no introduction to the violin until I was twelve. I was at school in London, England, and there was a notice, “Does anyone want to play an instrument?.” I signed up on impulse; I had had absolutely no interest before. I never even thought of being a violin maker until I was in my twenties – so yes, I wanted to be an engineer, then I wanted to be a physicist until I realized that mathematics were involved, and I can’t do mathematics. I wanted to be a violinist absolutely passionately, and it was quite painful to realize that I couldn’t. And so, at first, violin making seemed like, oh, a consolation prize. Being stuck in a room full of sawdust for the rest of my life didn’t sound very appealing. But once I got into it, I realized how interesting it really was, and I never really looked back.
What qualities should a good violin have?
A musician’s first job is to be heard, so projection is of primary importance. Otherwise, I think that a good violin is one that the player loves to play, which is only somewhat related to how well the instrument projects. But if the player loves to play it, then it’s inspiring and he will be happy and feel like he wants to keep on playing. If it’s an instrument he doesn’t like to play, then even if it sounds good out in the hall, it’s no fun, and the relationship won’t last. Now, the question of what exactly players love to play turns into a lot of other questions: What does the ear love to hear? What do our fingers do? How do they move? What is comfortable? And for me, visual beauty is very important, and it’s only indirectly related to tonal beauty.
How important is the varnish?
It’s not as important as everyone thought it was. For centuries people attributed to varnish everything that we love but don’t understand about old violins. Then in the mid-nineteen-eighties we discovered what the varnish was, and it turned out to be nothing special – just linseed or walnut oil and tree resin. So people started talking about what else could be responsible for the sound. They started saying that it wasn’t the varnish but the ground, or the layer under the ground. They found mineral particles in the ground – and started creating various theories about how that would effect the sound. But really, I don’t think that varnish has a lot of effect. Most of the great old violins have maybe twenty percent of their original varnish, and then a bunch of polish. Going by that evidence, it would be better to have no varnish! But, that said, beautiful varnish is absolutely wonderful to look at, so it’s very important in that point of view.
Some people say we can’t replicate the sounds of old Cremonese violins because of the varnish. Do you agree?
No, I think there are reasons why it’s difficult to replicate the sound of old Cremonese instruments. I think the varnish only has some effect, but it’s very small. I think the main reason is because the wood changes over time. It looks different; it feels different to carve, and it sounds different. We’re only just discovering what the differences are. I long thought that old wood had higher damping – which means the sound dies out quicker if you tap it. Something with low damping has a long ring; something with high damping has a short ring. Now if something has a long ring, one might think it would be good musically – but it turns out that it takes a longer time for the notes to get started. One thing about great old violins is that they respond very quickly, and I think that this is at least in part to do with higher damping. Scientists have been studying this lately, and the prelimary results seem to confirm that the damping is higher on Old Italian violins than on newer instruments.
Where did you learn the craft?
I learned with Otto Erdesz – my viola teacher Rivka Golani was married to him. He offered to teach me; he gave me wood for my first twenty instruments for free – it was just marvelous. He was kind of a half-genius, half-crazy person, so I didn’t learn anything in the right order, but he was wonderful. And he always said to me, “If you take my advice, you do what you want.” This was unusual advice to get in the violin making world. People would usually say that you had to do it this way, or that way. So it left me with a bit of an open mind, which has helped, I think, in the end.
Where did you go to college?
I spent two years at the University of Western Ontario studying violin performance, and then after being told to quit the violin, I took a year off. Then I went to the University of Toronto part-time in philosophy and literature and other things. When I discovered violin making, I gradually dropped out. There was no reason to finish my degree – and I still haven’t.
How long have you been making violins for?
I finished my first one in 1978, so that’s about thirty years.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada. First outside Toronto, then in Toronto, then we moved to London, England. My mother is English, and we stayed in London in the 60s for five years. That’s where I started violin – then we came back to Toronto.
How did you come to live in Ann Arbor?
I was trying to live in Europe. I was in Cremona for a while and started doing some projects with Gregg Alf – he’s a violin maker here in Ann Arbor now – and I was staying at his shop. We made a copy of an instrument together, and it was fun. Then we started thinking about opening a business together, and the question was where, so we looked around Europe. There wasn’t much of a market then for new instruments, or so it seemed to us, and in America it seemed like a lot of research was happening. A lot of the great instruments were there too, so we decided to move there. We got a one-month pass with Capitol Airlines – you could go anywhere for a month – and went all over the country. New York, San Francisco, everywhere. And then I think we just collapsed from exhaustion in Ann Arbor. But it wasn’t accidental. Ruggiero Ricci and Camilla Wicks were teaching here then, and the university had a really strong music department. And Ann Arbor is a four or five hour drive to my home in Toronto, so it seemed like a good place. Another important reason was the UMS. They bring in stellar musicians, and without them it would have been very difficult to get a violin shop going.
How long have you lived here?
Since 1985. So, twenty-two. Which makes it, I think, the longest I’ve lived anywhere. By a good margin.
Do you make all of the parts yourself?
I don’t make the pegs, I don’t make the strings, of course. Or the tailpiece. I don’t make the fittings, but I make everything else. Yeah, absolutely. I still carve my own scrolls – not like Guarneri del Gesu, who sometimes got his father’s help!
What types of wood do you use?
Like all violin makers, I use mostly maple for the body. I’ve used a lot of North American maple, including wood from Michigan. And earlier on, Canadian maple, when I was living there. But now mostly European maple, and then for top wood I use both European and North American. I’ve had special luck with Engelmann spruce, which is North American. It is, on average, lighter in weight, and I’ve had very good luck with it. Some of my best instruments, I think, were made with wood from Washington State and British Columbia.
What types of varnish do you use?
I use what’s called an oil varnish, which is an oil and a resin, and you need ultra-violet light or sunlight for it to dry. I used to use a spirit varnish which dries by evaporation of a solvent, usually alcohol. We now know that the old makers used oil varnish. I met Gary Baese, who was a varnish researcher in in the early eighties. He was doing a book on Cremonese varnish, and he unraveled a lot of the so-called secrets of Italian varnish, so that was a very exciting time. He taught me how to make varnish, and I have made batches of varnish since then, but I’ve discovered that it’s a smelly, expensive project. It involves some risk of fire, too, and now I wouldn’t think about making it. There are good professional varnish makers, and that’s pretty much how it was in the olden times. There were professionals at most things, including varnish making.
Do you use the old masters as a guide?
Oh, sure. It’s hard not to. I’ve done exact copies of Strads and Guarneris. I’ve actually made a lot of instruments ‘along the lines of’ old ones, and also instruments made to look old. But increasingly in recent years, I’ve been interested in new materials and new designs; I love that and I hope to continue in that direction in the future. Hopefully musicians will be interested as well.
Do you make mostly one or two piece backs?
It’s hard to find good one-piece backs, but if I have them I sure use them.
Is there any difference?
Acoustically, there really is no difference. You just need a bigger tree. Visually, it makes a different impression; they can be very impressive indeed.
Do you have any apprentices?
No. Someday maybe. I do a fair bit of lecturing and I’m co-director of the VSA-Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. That’s where makers get together for a week and learn acoustics and do all sorts of experiments. So most of the so-called teaching that I’ve done has been lecturing and writing articles. But at some point I think it would be fun to take on an apprentice, or to work one-on-one with young makers. But nothing yet.
You used to work with Gregg Alf. What was the experience like?
Well, Gregg and I had very different approaches to violin making, and very different strengths and weaknesses. But, together we made a good package. It was very, very helpful to have the chance to work with someone who complemented my approach. I learned a great deal when we were working together. We hired assistants, and it was interesting to learn how to work with other people rather than alone, which is my instinct. So I learned an enormous amount, and I think we both good for each other.
Do you still practice the violin?
I don’t practice any more, but I do end up playing a few hours a week while adjusting instruments.
Who are some of your favorite violinists?
Definitely David Oistrakh. A lot of people’s favorite. Very original.I got to see him play when I was at high school in Toronto. I read in the paper that he was rehearsing at Massey Hall, and I asked my music teacher if maybe we could get rehearsal tickets. He called the hall and then the whole class went. I brought my binoculars and stared at him for the whole rehearsal. This must have been in the early seventies. Let’s see – I graduated in ’72, and he died in ’74 – but he played the Schubert Fantasy just beautifully.
What are some of your favorite pieces?
Definitely the Bach Chaconne. I fell in love with it when I was fourteen or so – it just sent shivers up and down my back. I tried to learn it, though I barely had any technique. I spent years learning it and played half of it for my grade twelve music exam. Actually I just wrote a long memoir called Chaconne about trying to learn the piece – about trying to do something that was way too hard for me. So the Chaconne was a big one. And the Beethoven concerto. I also remember listening to records of Heifetz playing Beethoven violin sonatas, and I just love those. And his Quartets, especially the late ones were important for me. And the Chaconne by Vitali is another piece I really loved.
What is the most beautiful violin you’ve ever seen or played?
Well, in real life, because I don’t work in a shop I don’t get to see a lot of old Italian violins. But I remember the first un-questionably great Strad that I had under my chin was called the “Jackson” from 1714. It belonged to a man named Dr. William Sloan who was then living in Toledo, Ohio. I used to drive down and play duets with him. I remember putting it under my chin, and it was just so beautiful. I couldn’t say it was louder than my violin – or softer or brighter or darker; it was just ravishingly beautiful. So that was a real eye-opener. And actually, just about a month ago, I played it again. I’d been very curious to do so because, man, this was fifteen or twenty years later, and I didn’t know whether I had exaggerated it’s beauty in my memory. And it was absolutely still beautiful, and I’m going to be copying it after Christmas, so I’ll be spending a lot of time with it, which will be a nice thing. This past summer I played the “Plowden” del Gesu for a while when I was doing some measurements, and that’s an absolutely lovely violin. When it comes to recordings of violins, its of course hard to know whether it’s the violin or the violinist. But I loved David Oistrakh’s sound. And I know that Perlman’s violin – a golden period Strad called the “Soil,” is an incredible instrument.
How did you hear about the MacArthur Fellowship?
Oh, the same as everybody does; they just call up out of the blue. It was rather funny because the guy called up and said, “This is the Macarthur foundation, Daniel Sokolow, and I said “Oh, the MacArthur foundation? How can I help you?” And he said, “Well, I have good news and bad news: the bad news is that Glenda something-or-other won’t be commissioning a violin.” I had no idea who this person was, and then I remembered that someone was supposed to come and look at instruments. I had completely forgotten! But it turns out that they’d made an appointment for a fictional person to come, just so they’d know I’d be there when the called. Fortunately my wife was home, so we could jump up and down and scream. It was actually kind of surreal because they called on a Thursday, and – other than talking to the press – we weren’t allowed to tell anyone until the following Tuesday. It was a strange time – I got kind of glum for a while, I guess because being happy involves telling your family and friends, otherwise it’s just a secret you’re keeping.