Carleen Hutchins Remembered

Carleen Hutchins

Carleen Hutchins, May 24, 1911 – August 7, 2009
Photo: Stephen Nachmanovitch

When I met Carleen Hutchins in the mid-eighties, she was already something of a legend, having co-founded the Catgut Acoustical Society, developed a system for tuning violin plates, invented a new family of stringed instruments, and published a Scientific American cover story on the physics of the violin. Like many makers, I was skeptical about all this, believing that science should keep its icy fingers off our art. But five minutes after meeting Hutchins, I realized how silly this was. So fellow maker Gregg Alf and I rounded up a few colleagues and invited her to teach a plate-tuning seminar at our workshop.

With her white lab coat and her grey hair tied back in a bun, Hutchins looked very much the biology teacher she had once been. She provided hand-outs, along with notebooks for recording our taptones. For the next few days, sine-waves howled from a loudspeaker in the basement as glitter danced toward the nodal lines of our plates. When we got stuck she would tell us where best to remove wood, or she would pick up a thumb-plane herself and ‘shave a whisker’ off an overly stiff top or recalcitrant bass-bar.

I later visited Hutchins at her family home in Montclair, New Jersey. The place looked the way I imagined Thomas Edison’s would, had he moved on from light bulbs to violins. Violin family instruments, whole or in parts, hung from walls or leant up against corners. Boxes of papers were stacked on the floors. The garage had been converted into a workshop. Stairs led down to a furnace room that housed plate-tuning equipment. Further inside was an anechoic chamber for acoustical tests. Some jobs she took outside; I remember her standing on the driveway in a full-length raincoat, its hood pulled over her head and a Plexiglas safety mask covering her entire face as she purfled a viola top with a routing machine.

Hutchins with her Octet at home in Montclair, New Jersey

Hutchins with her Octet, at home in Montclair, New Jersey.
Photo: Hutchins Archive

Hutchins had cats. She had a turtle that patrolled the backyard during the summer and spent winters hibernating in a dish full of mud in her refrigerator. There was a talking crow she rescued after it broke its wing and the other crows turned on it. The crow lived in an open cage by a window, and its dark silhouette cast a benign spell over the room. Though it seemed speechless in my presence, Carleen told me it would say ‘I love you!’ to her, ‘Hello!’ to others, and ‘Hello sidewalk!’ to kids passing outside on their way to school. Sometimes other crows would gather nearby and caw to it, but Hutchins’s crow, having lost its common touch, would call ‘Hello sidewalk!’ and they would fly away.

Like that crow, Hutchins lived at the intersection of two worlds. In her case, they were those of science and violin making, which before her arrival had kept in touch mainly by rumour. Over the course of several decades, she brought them together in an unprecedented manner. It began in 1949 when she met Frederick Saunders, a Bell Labs physicist and the first notable American scientist to turn his attention to the violin. Saunders was delighted to encounter a young woman who could not only build instruments but was willing to sacrifice them during experiments. Over the next decade Hutchins constructed a series of violins and violas that allowed the two of them to test everything from the effects of changing f-hole and bass-bar shape to the vibration of the air inside the instruments.

Hutchins had made her first instrument in the late 1940s after taking up the viola and becoming dissatisfied with the $75 model she had bought. In the early 1950s she studied with Swiss luthier Karl Berger, and from ‘59 to ‘63 spent time with Simone Sacconi at Wurlitzer’s. Sacconi pointed her toward Chianti wine crates as a source of Lombardy poplar for purfling. Hutchins surprised him by finding willow for blocks in polo balls. When the ‘Wirth’ Stradivari violin was apart for restoration, Sacconi lent her the plates to study – a formative moment in her thinking on plate-tuning.

Hutchins’s 1981 cover story in Scientific American

Hutchins’s 1981 cover story in Scientific American

Though Saunders and Hutchins sometimes met at his laboratory in Massachusetts, their joint work was done by mainly by correspondence, and by shipping instruments back and forth. Saunders also corresponded on violin research with John Schelleng, a Bell Labs engineer, and Robert Fryxell, a chemist working for General Electric. Like Hutchins and Saunders, both were amateur string players, and soon the four of them were collaborating intensely. In 1963 they gathered around a Ping-Pong table in Hutchins’s garden and founded the Catgut Acoustical Society. When Saunders died later that year, Hutchins became the group’s organizing force.

Carleen Hutchins

Photo: Hutchins Archive

Physicist Gabriel Weinreich compares her to that famous army recruiting poster, with Hutchins in place of Uncle Sam saying, ‘Violin acoustics needs YOU!’ One recruit was Oliver Rodgers, a retired engineer who called about attending a Catgut meeting. ‘What are you bringing to work on?’ she asked. Rodgers had not thought of bringing anything, but as he later recalled, ‘This was almost a command’. Another recruit was a young physicist named George Bissinger. He went on to develop the most comprehensive violin measurement system ever put together. In truth, much of the violin research world passed through Hutchins’s garage, or spent time at her summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee. Dozens of violin-makers at all levels attended her free weekend classes on plate-tuning.

Though Hutchins did not fit the normal mould of either maker or scientist, few members of either profession can claim, as she could, two Guggenheim Fellowships, four honorary doctorates, an instrument played by Yo-Yo Ma in a Grammy-award winning recording, and a set of instruments exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her most significant direct contribution to the craft was, I believe, in drawing our attention to taptones. More important still was what Weinreich calls her ‘greatest invention’ – her insistence on sharing information.

At the varnish bench

At the varnish bench. Photo: Alan Carruth

It may be hard to believe now – what with violin experts publishing what they know in two-volume works, and makers writing up ‘shop secrets’ on a monthly basis for this magazine – but there was once a time when violin makers kept secrets. It was part of the job description. Hutchins taught us that keeping secrets served mainly to wall in our own ignorance. Better to share our knowledge – or better still, to write it up and submit it to the Catgut Acoustical Society Journal. Not only would we then get credit for our ideas, we would also find out if they happened to be wrong.

That is how science works, and I believe that is why violin making has progressed so rapidly in recent decades. We must thank Hutchins, for she discovered the true secret of the old Italians, which was how to organize and pass on knowledge. They did it with guilds. She did it with the CAS Journal, whose pea-green cover showed up year after year in our mailboxes. She did it with the Catgut Acoustical Society itself, which lives on as part of the Violin Society of America, and she did it through the force of her own intelligence, warmth, and persuasiveness.

A few years before her death this past August, I called Hutchins to say hello. She told me she was busy preparing for a meeting of the New Violin Family Association. Ever the recruiter, she added, ‘We could sure use some help, Joe.’ Hutchins was 94 then. She said there were fourteen people working under her. And that is just how I like to remember her: surrounded by makers, her white lab coat covered with sawdust and glitter, her blue eyes blazing, and her thumb-plane poised to take a final whisker off one last bassbar. Farewell, Carleen! Farewell, fellow traveler!