The Violin’s Genius and Mystery : Nation's top maker discusses the science of his craft
By Bill Dietrich, The Seattle Times, March 12, 1995
In an age of constant computer upgrades, annual car restylings and gimmick gadgets, the violin is an invention that has persisted almost unchanged for more than 300 years. Assembled from up to 108 individual pieces of wood plus hide glue, sheep gut for strings and a horse-hair bow coated with rosin, this improbable combination can seem to summon sounds from heaven. A top less than a tenth of an inch thick routinely sustains pressures of 25 pounds of downward force without breaking, thanks to the design.
The genius of the violin is that it is beautiful and it fits,” said Joseph Curtin, cradling an example during a recent visit to a materials science class at the University of Washington.
No one in the United States is better at traditional violin-making than Curtin, of Ann Arbor, Michigan A copy he and his partner Gregg Alf made of a Stradivarius violin, named for legendary Italian maker Antonio Stradivari, sold for $37,000 at a London auction, the highest ever paid for an instrument by a living maker. The base price for a Curtin and Alf violin is $18,500. Yet no one is more willing to analyze than Curtin, who is experimenting by facing violins with wood sandwiched with carbon fiber in an attempt to achieve better consistency in cheaper instruments. “If quality can be achieved, it could be mass-produced at reasonable cost,” he explained, saving the average violinist the hard labor of coaxing good sound from a bad instrument.
Science Over Ear
Telling a good violin from a bad one is not always easy by ear, Curtin cautioned. In blind tests where experts have listened to both, “They’ve never been able to consistently tell,” the maker said. “Unfortunately, the person playing never has any doubt which one he prefers. What you don’t hear is how much work the violinist has to do to achieve the sound.” To illustrate, he rigged violins with a phonograph cartridge resting on the bridge of the instrument, a speaker to send sound pulses, and a computer to record the results. With this kind of regulated test, the sound difference is clear.
This analysis comes naturally. “My earliest passion was science,” explained Curtin, whose mother was a painter and father a photographer. His subsequent interest in music, visual beauty and technology has come together in his craft. His seven-person business has built violins used by artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Michael Ma, Kam Lung Cheng and others. Members of at least 21 symphonies, including Seattle’s, use his instruments.
A Player Himself
Curtin wanted to be a great violinist and achieved a semi-professional status, but ultimately realized he would never achieve top rank. In 1985 he turned to violin-making instead. Just what makes a good violin is a mystery he has been puzzling over ever since. The principle is simple – a plucked or bowed string over a wooden box will make a louder noise than if plucked alone – but the details are a combination of craft, science and art.
The flex of the wood as the bow bends the strings, which in turn rock the bridge, is crucial, reflecting its carving and preparation. Some of the allure of older violins seems based on myth, Curtin said. Theories about crystalline changes in old wood, the ring the wood should make when tapped, or that old masters knew lost secrets simply don’t hold up well under scientific analysis, he said. Traditionalists are slow to embrace any change, however. Moving the violin bridge a fraction of an inch seems to make no difference in sound as measured by scientific instruments and yet can make an instrument virtually unsellable, Curtin noted. On the other hand, he said, instruments that are played well actually seem to improve. “The rational part of me is embarrassed for admitting that.”
New violin wood tends to be translucent when carved to its final thickness, he observed, while old violins are more opaque. That suggests traditional violin wood was treated in water or chemicals. And indeed, Curtin does treat his wood – but he declined to say how, explaining it is a competitive secret. While traditionalists may lament any experimentation with new materials, Curtin said it may be inevitable. Not only are synthetics potentially more stable and predictable than wood alone, but the tropic sources of some parts of the violin are disappearing. Pernumbuco wood from South America used to make bows is nearly extinct, he said, and the hard ebony used for the fingerboard is increasingly rare.