The Next Big Thing : Doug Martin's ultralight violins
By Joseph Curtin, VSA Newsletter, September 2005
The traditional violin became obsolete in July, 2005. It happened at Oberlin College, Ohio, where thirty-four violinmakers, scientists, engineers, inventors, and blow-hards assembled for the fourth annual VSA-Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. Among the participants was a boat designer and amateur violinmaker called Doug Martin. At first glance, his whimsically designed instruments look like they are built on his knee and held together with bits of electrical tape. Pick one up and you get your first shock: It doesn’t weigh anything. It is made almost entirely from balsa, reinforced here and there with strips of graphite tape. Cost of materials: less than $15. The second, more enduring shock comes when you play the instrument. The response is unbelievably quick, and the sound is remarkable for its depth and sheer volume. We played it in the classroom; we played it in a concert hall – and hard though it was on the self-esteem of the professional makers among us, we had to admit that it could do certain things that our own could not – things that Old Italians can’t do either.
Workshop co-director Fan Tao has been playing Doug’s violin since the session ended. He finds he can play better and faster than he thought he could – and dreads going back to his Old Italian. Fan proposes a new parameter for evaluating violins: the Fun Factor, which Doug’s violin has in truckloads. Now Fan is saying that disposable instruments may be the next big thing in violinmaking. “If they sound great and cost a couple of hundred dollars, who cares if they only last a few years?”
Doug Martin has built six violins using balsa. The latest is his best so far – still, no-one would claim it to be a mature concert instrument. It is made (in Doug’s words) “with grade-four workmanship,” and it is not built to last. More importantly, it is not voiced well for projection in large halls. Fan reports that when using it for chamber music, it seems to lack tonal variety and comes off as monochromatic. This is just quibbling, however. Doug’s violin is a great beginning. For me, it confirms a long-held belief that the next generation of stringed instruments will be significantly lighter than conventional ones, and that the pay-off for musicians, and therefore makers, will be tremendous.
“Watching Doug at work,” says Sam Zygmuntowicz, “you realize that violinmaking is not about Bosnian maple. It’s not about Stradivari or varnish or investment value. It’s about sound and creativity.” Paris acoustician and luthier Charles Besnainou says, “Doug has the audacity required for true innovation.” Norman Pickering, who has followed the scene for many years as a researcher, musician, and maker, came to Oberlin feeling discouraged. Over breakfast early in the session he said, “For all the advances we’ve made in violinmaking over the past few decades, players still want the Old Italians.” A few days after returning home, he called Fan to say, “I need a reality check. Am I just imagining things, or is a revolution underway?”
Judge for yourself. Come to the VSA meeting this November. Take part in a half-day Festival of Innovation. Bring that instrument you’ve been thinking about building – the one with no corners, a graphite bassbar, and a scroll shaped like a mobius strip. Try the balsa violin. Try some equally radical instruments by other makers. Join in the arguments, hoot or applaud – but don’t let the revolution start without you!
Festival of Innovation: Saturday, November 12th, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Presenters include Gregg Alf, Joseph Curtin, Jim Ham, Doug Martin, Norman Pickering, Guy Rabut, Fan Tao, Sam Zygmuntowicz, and others to be announced.