Prepare to Meet the Maker: Joseph Curtin
By Tim Olsen, American Lutherie Journal, Summer 1998
On Main Street in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is a drum shop with brightly colored signs and flashy percussion gear in the windows. Next to the drum shop is a plain green locked door. I rang the bell and was admitted to a flight of stairs leading up to an airy, well-lit space, sparely decorated with framed paintings and photos, and furnished with a simple sofa, chair, and lamp.
I was met by Joseph Curtin, a gracious, well-dressed young man who seems as pleasant and open as his surroundings. Working here with one shop assistant and one office assistant, he builds about fifteen instruments a year, mostly violins and a few violas.
Five rooms open off this central space: an office, a finish room, a tool room, a small kitchen, and a shop. The shop’s neatness is almost shocking to a hippie-era guitar repairman such as myself, for whom lutherie was always inextricably associated with dust, chaos, and clutter. The focal point of this shop is a drawing board.
The tool room is very small, and the largest thing in it is an industrial-grade dust collector. Tools include a disk sander, a spindle sander, and a drill press set up with a micrometer stop. There is also a bandsaw which is surprisingly large to be in such a small room, a large router with a 1” round-nose bit used freehand for hogging out plates, and an overhead router for establishing accurate thicknesses on plate edges.
The front most room has a large window overlooking the street. A prefab slab of kitchen counter top is set before the window, and the scores of little jars, bottles, mixing trays, and brushes that are the tools of traditional varnish application are spread across it and on the adjacent shelves. The room contains little else besides a chair and a drying box fitted with UV fluorescent tubes.
I spoke a while with Joseph Curtin about his early training, his interest in violin tradition, research, and innovation, and his association with other makers and researchers. I made some notes, and we fleshed out the interview later by e-mail.
How did you get started in lutherie?
In the late seventies I was studying viola in Toronto with Rivka Golani, who was then married to the violin maker Otto Erdesz. I had become discouraged with my playing—there was nothing I wanted to do more than play well, but I was a late starter and it began to seem impossible that I would ever be really good. I still wonder how far I might have gone if I had kept at it, though I have absolutely no regrets about going into making. I had tried to make a violin when I was fourteen and newly in love with the instrument, but did not get far. However, when the time came that I felt I needed a profession away from performing, the idea resurfaced, undoubtedly inspired by seeing Otto at his bench. At first the notion seemed a dull one—to be shut up in a room full of sawdust by myself all day. In fact I quickly found I loved it, I suppose because the aptitudes it required—a sense of line and confidence in one’s hands—were ones I was comfortable with. I spent much of my childhood drawing, designing, and building things. I was twenty-three when Otto offered to teach me. I watched him working for a year, then he set up a bench for me in his studio and I built my first instrument under his supervision, a viola based on his asymmetrical “cut-away” design. I quit my job as a pizza waiter after buying my tools, and set up on my own, going to him for frequent advice for the next several years. I have been more or less earning my living at it ever since.
After several years under Otto’s supervision, I decided to move to Europe. This was not for professional reasons, more a sense of wanting to live there. I went to Cremona, had fun working with Gregg Alf for a month, but found the place rather depressing. The standards of making seemed low, and it was not at all like Paris, where I wanted to live. I went back and forth between the two places, and a lot of others, for a few years. I was completely out of violin making circles in Paris, but learned a lot in Cremona while working with Gregg, and we decided to set up a business together in America. After Otto, the most profound education I got was from trying to make exact copies of old instruments with Gregg. I eventually felt I’d had enough of this kind of work, but for a long time it seemed an exciting thing to do—like taking master classes with Guarneri and Stradivari themselves. I’d recommend it to any young maker.
Do you repair and deal in violins?
I decided from the outset to devote myself exclusively to making new instruments. This was partly a matter of pride and it might have seemed a bold decision, but I had seen Otto doing well at it, and thought, “why not.” I have little aptitude for either restoration or dealing, so there was really no conflict, though I must say I sometimes wish I could blame someone else, such as a long-dead maker, when an instrument does not work out!
I understand that you and Gregg Alf are no longer working together as Curtin & Alf.
Gregg and I worked together for twelve years, and we both learned a huge amount in doing so. I think we were both ready for something different. It had become a complex and exhausting enterprise, and we thought life might be simpler if we divided it in two. We work independently now, though we remain on good terms, and collaborate occasionally on projects of mutual interest.
The first time I heard your name was during Geary Baese’s lecture at our 1988 convention in Vermillion, South Dakota. What do you think of his work on classical-era varnish formulation?
I met Geary in Cremona in the mid-’80s. He was completing research for his varnish book and I was passionately curious about old varnishes. After he told me some of his findings, I couldn’t sleep for several nights. I was tremendously excited that someone seemed to have worked out the old formulas, and simultaneously a little annoyed that it hadn’t been me, and very eager to try working with the stuff. I was using seedlac varnishes at the time, and felt I’d gone as far as I could with them. Oil varnish offered all sorts of new possibilities, though it took a while to learn to use it well. I have subsequently used Geary’s varnishes extensively, and find them to be wonderful. They were used on all the replicas I did with Gregg. Of course, like any art material, the end result depends on your eye—the look you are trying to get and your ability to manipulate the medium successfully to get it. Having a good varnish formula, I quickly learned, is no guarantee you’ll get good-looking violin. But it’s a great place to start, and I’ll always be grateful for Geary’s work.
You are interested in scientific analysis of the violin. How fruitful has this been for your work?
I met Carleen Hutchins at a Viola Congress in Boston. I think it was in 1986. She was the first one to wake me up to the fact that a violin functions not by a succession of miracles, but within the framework of natural law. At first I was resistant to this point of view, as I think a lot of makers are, but very soon I became committed to trying to understand as much as I could. I feel very fortunate to live in the same town as Gabriel Weinreich, one of the outstanding figures in the field of musical acoustics, and even more fortunate for his patience in answering my questions and helping clarify many physical concepts that seemed at first utterly opaque. Over the years I have collaborated with him on several projects, the Reciprocal Bow being one, and I cannot emphasize enough how important this relationship has been to me. The violin is a complex thing. Almost every “intuitive” notion I had of how it works proved, in fact, to be wrong. Of course, this is normal; our naive ideas are gradually refined by re-examining them against the evidence. But unless you are a trained scientist, you do need help in making sense of things, and Gabi provided that help generously. I am also indebted to Oliver Rogers, French physicist Xavier Boutillon, whom I met through Gabi, and more recently, Charles Besnainou, a research scientist and instrument maker who has pioneered the use of carbon-fiber composites in concert instruments. We are working together on a project I find terrifically exciting—the use of composites for top-end violins. So yes, the scientific perspective has been very fruitful for my work—I mean directly so—influencing everything from choice of materials to setup and evaluation.
I will say at the same time that violin making has an artistic component that is in no way incompatible with a scientific approach. That for me is the miracle of the violin; it engages these two sides of our nature with equal force.
Anyone whose shop centers on a drafting board must have some new design ideas.
I’m currently engaged in “Project Evia”—Evia standing for experimental viola. I’m trying to take a fresh look at the instrument from all points of view—aesthetic, ergonomic, and acoustical, plus the choice of materials. Version One looks back to the viola da gamba for its shape, though I’ve changed the proportions and many details. The sloping shoulders allow the player lots of room, and the simplified corners and f-holes have a contemporary look to me. To go along with this I made a single-turn scroll, which I love. The neck is held in place with a single small bolt through the upper block, and the neck height is readily adjustable. The first prototype is made with traditional high-quality woods. Then I will try plates using carbon fiber and wood composites, and then, well, I’ll see where it leads. I have a whole series of ideas to try. It is wonderful to feel you are making up the rules as you go along, trying to base your decisions on a sense of beauty and musical function rather than tradition.
How do you feel about violin-making competitions?
I’ve been to most of the meetings of the Violin Society of America over the past two decades. I’ve always—except in my very earliest years—exhibited my work rather than entering the competitions, probably because I never had a “competition style” and didn’t find the spirit of competition brought out the best in my making. So I have no awards of any sort, not even a college degree for that matter. But I’m glad they have the competitions, and think they’ve done the profession a lot of good. The VSA is wonderful. It has given me a substantial portion of my education as a maker—through the lectures, and the people I meet at conferences, and more recently, through the lectures I’ve given, which have forced me to clarify my thinking on many issues. I like the fact that, unlike some of the other organizations, it is wide open. Anyone can join. Although this means there are some very silly conversations going on, the fact is that many of the researchers who have most influenced me would not be allowed into the strictly professional societies.
Where do your instruments go?
They go to college students, professional orchestral players, chamber musicians, soloists—Yehudi Menuhin, Erick Friedman, Csaba Erdelyi, and of course Ruggiero Ricci, Elmar Oliveira, and Donald McInnes from Curtin & Alf days. Most recently two members of the Hagen Quartet from Austria purchased a violin and a viola. I’ve got clients in many orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, London Philharmonia, Cleveland Orchestra, and Seattle Symphony, including a number of concertmasters and other principal players. Most of my clients are in America now, some are in Canada, and a good many in Europe and even further afield. Of course it’s always exciting when a great player takes an interest, but it’s also really gratifying when a talented student who has never had a good instrument buys one, and you feel you’ve helped them find their voice, which I suppose is what the profession is really about.
What woods do you like? Being here in Michigan, I wonder if you have looked at any of that fabled century-old Lake Superior wood?
I use more American wood than European these days, though I have a good stock of each. Some of my best instruments have been made with red maple from northern Michigan, and Engelmann spruce from the West Coast. There is good wood from all over. The most important thing is knowing what properties you are looking for. The Lake Superior wood has a good story, but so far they’ve found mostly hard maple, which is too dense for me. It is in beautiful condition, though, and it’s wonderful that they are recovering it. One is reminded of how rich we were in forests and how quickly they were squandered.
The thing that gets me angry is going to a tonewood dealer and finding all the spruce is sawn, so at least fifty percent is useless due to run-out. Many dealers do this, saying they get a better yield. In any real sense the yield is much lower. What they mean is they can sell it anyway to unwitting makers; it is often difficult to see runout in sawn wood. I’d love to see makers get together on this and put pressure on dealers to do better. I salute Bruce Harvie of Orcas Island Tonewoods as a dealer I love to work with—he’s concerned about forests, knows wood, keeps prices down, and splits his spruce.
Yes, Bruce is a fine musician, a guy with a great sense of humor, and handsome as the very devil! Tell me about the people who work with you.
Sharon Que has worked with me for nine years, first at Curtin & Alf, and now at my new studio. She’s a mixed-media artist who used to work at GM as a wood model maker. Her art career is flourishing, and she spends four days a week helping me. A superb craftsperson, highly creative, utterly reliable—I always feel a moment of panic when she talks about going on vacation. The same with Nancy Skinner-Oclander, my business manager. She’s been with me for three years, and when she’s not—these two weeks for example—things descend gradually into chaos. Sharon and I agree she’s the perfect balance for us—outgoing where we tend to be introverted. Nancy has a rare combination of business talent and love for the arts. I feel enormously lucky to work with such people, and hope they stay around for a very long time!
You keep a pretty high profile in the fiddle magazines. I assume you find that advertising to be cost effective.
I don’t suppose there’s a need for it if you live in New York, or a major center where there is a constant stream of musicians dropping by. But I do most of my business by FedEx and telephone, and the ads keep the phones ringing. Besides, I think it’s good when makers get the word out about their work—not to go against each other, but to let musicians know there are alternatives to antique instruments.
What are your goals in violin making?
I’ll continue to refine my work—the look, the sound. I want to understand better how violins work—that seems vital. And more and more I want to work with innovation: new aesthetics, new materials, new designs. I’m convinced that big changes are ahead, and I can’t think of anything more fun than being in on them. The profession tends to have something of an over-developed immune system when it comes to new ideas. But that is changing rapidly. A good number of highly-qualified makers are trying new things. I believe it will catch on. Look at how well bow makers are doing with composites. Musicians are open to it. I can’t imagine a better time in history to be a violin maker!
My wife Jesse Richards and I go for Japanese food and a movie almost every Friday night. We love this ritual. She’s a performance artist, composer, choreographer, jeweler, and a passionate advocate for animals, which she adores. We live out of town on a river, and our black lab takes me out daily. My avocation is sitting in a cafe with my laptop and writing fiction. If I don’t get my writing time in, I start to get cranky. One day I want to write a manual for violin makers. I suppose that will have to be nonfiction!