Space Age Stradivari : Building graphite instruments with Charles Besnainou
By Joseph Curtin, The Strad, April 1999
New Directions in Violinmaking
On the fourth floor of a remarkably ugly building in an otherwise beautiful section of Paris, His resulting lutes and guitars quickly found their way into professional hands. Meanwhile, Besnainou teamed up with violin maker Stephane Vaiedelich to begin work on the violin family. I followed the project during a half-dozen visits to the lab and became fascinated by the hybrid instruments I saw evolve. Besnainou has a keen eye for aesthetics, and I was especially taken by a lute whose wooden body beautifully set off its black carbon-fibre top – the top itself adorned with a wooden bridge and intricately carved rosette. Was this a direction I might follow with my own violin making?In the almost 500 years since the violin emerged (in remarkably perfect form) from the workshop of Andrea Amati, it has resisted innovation to an extraordinary degree. In doing so it has become as much a cultural icon as a musical tool. Stradivari, Guarneri and the other Italian masters made their distinctive contributions to the instrument, and Vuillaume ushered in the modern set-up. Since then, however, most of the profession’s inventiveness has been directed toward mechanizing production, creating better strings, making new violins look old and developing the enormously sophisticated restoration techniques needed to keep the “Old Italians” from collapsing in exhaustion.
For my part, having built some 170 instruments based on classical models, I began to feel like a civil war re-enactor – one of those people who dress up in period costume and recreate battles of the past. To celebrate 20 years of doing this I decided to spend some time trying to imagine alternative futures for violin making – at least for my own violin making. There is a stale debate as to whether it is, in principle, possible to improve on the best old instruments. Can one imagine something better than Itzhak Perlman’s Stradivari or Paganini’s ‘Cannon’ ‘del Gesu’? From the player’s point of view, I think the answer is an easy ‘yes’. Make them more powerful and faster responding. Make them more even, less prone to wolf-notes, stable in the face of changing humidity, crack-resistant and, for that matter, less expensive. Anyone who has spent time in the violin world knows that, whether or not the violin is in a Platonic sense perfect, real violins are certainly not.
At the same time, makers have been trying to improve violins for a very long time and so succeeding is to some extent like shaving a few tenths of a second off the 100-metre dash. One senses some fundamental limit being approached in ever-narrowing increments. There are, of course, those who believe this limit was reached several centuries ago. But if you simply want to travel 100 metres as quickly as possible, running may not be the quickest way. Are there alternative approaches to the craft that can perhaps change the limits set by traditional designs and materials?
I am not alone in asking such questions. An increasing number of highly qualified luthiers are feeling a kind of end-of-the-millenium restlessness. Violin makers such as Christophe Landon, Guy Rabut, Roger Lanne and David Rivinius, as well as bowmakers Michael Duff and Benoit Rolland, have all struck out in highly personal directions, with interesting and sometimes brilliant results. Landon, Rabut and Lanne have concentrated on innovation in the aesthetic domain, while Rivinius has rethought the ergonomics of the viola. Duff and Rolland have each developed and successfully brought to market bows relying on alternative materials – the Berg and Spicatto bows, respectively.
Besnainou licensed his carbon-fibre technology to a succession of firms intent on mass production. His methods, however, are at least as well-suited to artisans as industrialists, as he demonstrated in a workshop for violin makers at the International Symposium on Musical Acoustics in Leavenworth, Washington, USA in 1998. Sheets of wood veneer, carbon fibre (pre-impregnated with epoxy resin) and synthetic foam are laid on a plaster mold, vacuum formed against it, then cured at temperatures commonly used to warm dishes. If traditional violin making is akin to sculpting, this is more like print making. It offers the primal satisfaction of putting things in an oven and seeing how they turn out. Furthermore, the equipment can be cobbled together for a few thousand dollars.
I find the use of wood veneer especially gratifying; it is more plausible ecologically than solid wood, most of which violin makers reduce to wood chips. Veneer manufacturers successfully compete with tonewood dealers for the best logs, and a slice of veneer large enough for a gorgeous one-piece back is easily found at a fraction of the cost of solid wood. In today’s world of photo-finish laminates, the word ‘veneer’ may have a pejorative ring. Remember, however, that many valuable pieces of antique furniture are veneered. The process goes back centuries, and its stability and integrity in the hands of good craftsmen is beyond question. Indeed, the Cremonese masters veneered their fingerboards with ebony, off-setting the wood’s high cost at the time. The subsequent squandering of natural resources has led to current shortages, and a veneered fingerboard once again seems attractive, especially considering the reduction in weight of the finished piece.
The first use of veneer in my own instruments was at a very small scale. I glued a thin oval of maple (about 0.25mm at its thickest) to the inside of a violin top in the soundpost area. The hope was to reinforce this otherwise fragile area against the abrasions, dents and cracks it too often suffers. The ‘soundpost reinforcement veneer,’ as I now call it, seems to do the job admirably. Furthermore, it makes adjustment easier, is completely reversible and, if anything, helps the sound. I now use it on all my instruments and recommend it to anyone. This small innovation encouraged me greatly, and at the beginning of 1998 Besnainou and I decided to collaborate on the development of composite violins and violas.
A few years earlier, Gregg Alf and I had made a prototype violin using a spruce-veneered carbon-fibre top provided by Besnainou. Wooden edges and normal varnish ensured it resembled a traditional violin. It was powerful and fast responding, with a tone that combined qualities found in very good violins with some found in rather poor ones – but in a combination I’d never heard before. This fascinated me, and left me hungry to experiment further. And so one winter afternoon I sat down at my drafting board with a fresh sheet of paper and began designing the Evia ,or Experimental viola – a prototype to be made with wood, then later refitted with a variety of composite tops and backs. I felt many things: excitement, self-doubt, an almost bewildering sense of possibility. Any number of aesthetic changes clamored for inclusion. There also seemed to be a number of ways to make the instrument more comfortable to play, more resistant to damage and easier to maintain than a traditional viola.
The design I eventually settled on features a neck held in place by a small bolt through the upper block, allowing easy adjustment of fingerboard height. The neck terminates in a single-turn scroll, without the traditional ridge along its back. This simplification of the design reads well at a distance, has the elegance of a true golden-proportion spiral and to my eye lends the scroll a contemporary freshness. It feels architectural rather than decorative.
I think that any violin maker, given a blank slate, will at least try getting rid of the instrument’s corners. I kept adding them back, bit by bit, until there seemed just enough to satisfy some genetic requirement and realized I had arrived five centuries earlier at the gamba. I adopted the gamba’s sloping shoulders, which allow more room for the left hand. Interestingly, no internal vibrating space is sacrificed; in a traditional viola the upper shoulder area is immobilized by the block. To reclaim still further vibrating length for the Evia, I decided upon a shallower but wider lower block. This reinforces a larger length of the ribs against chinrest clamps and perspiration while maintaining the same gluing area.
When it comes to innovation as related to sound, the question arises: are we trying to make better-sounding instruments, or instruments with a completely new kind of sound? I believe, on the basis of informal experiments, that there is little chance of doing the latter, at least without the aid of electronics. Rather, the best one can hope to do through innovation is maximize the aspects of traditional instruments that musicians and their audiences seem to like and minimize the things they don’t. For example, the Evia’s simplified f-holes have somewhat rounded edges and a shorter overall length of edge. Both these factors tend to reduce the drag on air passing in and out of the hole, resulting in greater volume for the so-called Helmholz resonance (the lowest air resistance) and thus better support for the instrument’s low range.
If one is interested in increasing power and response, the best strategy is to reduce the weight of the vibrating components while maintaining an appropriate stiffness. For a traditional instrument this is most plausibly done by choosing wood of lower density. Beyond a certain point, however, this leaves the instrument very susceptible to dents, abrasions, and distortion. A more innovative approach – one well-utilized by both Besnainou and the aircraft industry – is to place thin layers of very strong material (for example wood, carbon fibre, Kevlar or metal) on the surfaces of a lightweight core (a synthetic foam or very light wood such as balsa). This allows a vast increase in the stiffness-to-weight ratio and has the further advantage of keeping the more damage-resistant material on the surface. For a violin maker, the trick is to balance the acoustical characteristics of these various materials in order to optimize the sound of the finished instrument. A reasonable theoretical basis is helpful when attempting this, though progress inevitably involves a good deal of trial and error. I have several sets of composite plates on my bench, awaiting their turn on the Evia. Besnainou estimates it will take two years of development to integrate these new materials into a working system.
There remains a conspicuously unasked question: will such innovation be accepted by professional string players? Many I have spoken with seem completely open. On the other hand, one renowned violinist, asked how he might feel if his beloved violin turned out to be made of carbon fibre, said it would be rather like discovering his wife were a robot. I have described the violin as a cultural icon, and iconoclasts are seldom welcomed at the temple gates. Looking at recent history however, the prognosis, at least for new materials, seems good. The synthetic string is arguably the only innovation that has seen widespread adoption in this century, with synthetic bows ducking in at the last moment. I believe that musicians will ultimately choose the best and most beautiful musical tools their budgets allow, and I predict that in the next decade some of these will look like nothing ever dreamed of in Cremona. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be a violin maker.