By Patrick Sullivan
Luthier Joseph Curtin leads the violin world’s politest revolution
He’s calm, soft-spoken, and well-mannered. But if the violin world has revolutionaries, Joseph Curtin must surely be counted among them.
For years, the Michigan luthier has been deeply involved in provocative experiments pitting new violins against old Italian instruments. Using smoked goggles and cloth screens, double-blind studies run by Curtin, French scientist Claudia Fritz, and other researchers have found talented soloists unable to reliably distinguish new instruments from centuries-old masterpieces.
They’ve published a series of scientific papers—with another likely to appear in a major journal this winter—that have grabbed media headlines and delighted makers who think new violins don’t get the credit they deserve.
Others have been shocked and even angered by the findings, and Curtin himself admits he was initially a little disconcerted.
“It’s one thing to read in a paper that people can’t tell old from new, but to hear really good players utterly confusing an instrument finished two weeks ago with a golden-era Strad, it just didn’t seem possible,” Curtin says, speaking by phone from Ann Arbor, where he lives. “It really shook me up.”
But for the 63-year-old luthier, that incendiary research is just one part of an iconoclastic career. Curtin’s penchant for nontraditional materials, nontraditional designs, and unorthodox partnerships have sparked change and helped win him a MacArthur Fellowship.
The Toronto-born Curtin began his musical career as a violinist, only to abandon his professional-performance plans at the blunt advice of his teacher. At 22, he began studying the viola with Rivka Golani and instrument making with her husband, Otto Erdesz, the talented and colorful Hungarian luthier.
Curtin finished his first instrument at 25 and went on to build a world-class reputation, making violins for the likes of Erick Friedman, Ilya Kaler, Cho-Liang Lin, and Yehudi Menuhin.
He’s shaken up instrument design with ideas like protective veneers for soundposts and bridge feet. And he’s currently developing prototypes of laminated bridges, adjustable necks, and other innovations aimed at making life easier for players. “I am preparing to bring to market a line of ultralight violins and violas that bring these various concepts together, and this is very exciting to me,” he explains.
Still, research and acoustic measurement are clearly key passions for Curtin—which is all the more striking given that he is not a formally trained scientist.
“I don’t even have a university degree,” he says. “But the great thing about violin research is how collaborative it is. I feel my contribution is to be a team member.” In the double-blind tests of old and new violins, for example, Curtin and Fritz are equally involved in the experiments’ design and write up. “During the experiments, she handles the blind testing while I do the acoustical measurements,” Curtin says. That enthusiasm for experimentation also led Curtin to co-found the Violin Society of America’s Oberlin Acoustics Workshop with Fan-Chia Tao, research and development director at the string-making company D’Addario. Tao is also part of the violin-testing acoustic research team led by Fritz and Curtin.
The Oberlin workshop, which just finished its 15th year, aims to drive innovations in violin making by embracing scientific methods to measure both instruments’ sound and player preferences. Curtin has also worked with University of Michigan physicist Gabriel Weinreich, sound engineer John Bell, and industrial designer Alex Sobolev to try to digitally recreate a Stradivari. And, inspired by an approach devised by violin maker Martin Schleske, Curtin worked with furniture-designer Garry Venable to create a portable tool—the Impact Hammer Rig—that other luthiers can use for laboratory-grade acoustical measurements.
Yet as excited as Curtin is by the science of sound, he’s sometimes unnerved by the reaction to controversial findings. The response to the first “old violins versus new” study in which he was involved was intense. One prominent violinist blasted that study’s use of hotel rooms instead of concert halls, arguing that pitting new instruments against Strads in such a setting was like trying to compare a Ford and a Ferrari in a Walmart parking lot.
“The criticism after the first experiment in Indianapolis was really strong and quite stressful for me,” Curtin says.
But the team continued its research and worked to address critiques. Curtin says he’s heartened by the more sedate response to a follow-up study in Paris that employed rehearsal rooms and a concert hall, which produced equally provocative results.
Curtin, Fritz, and their collaborators recently submitted another paper evaluating projection differences between new and old instruments. It could be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences within months. “I’m very excited about the results but I can’t discuss them yet,” Curtin says.
Whatever the findings, he doubts owners of old Italian instruments need worry about their investment. “The Strads have gone on marching higher and higher,” Curtin says.
“But of course their value has nothing to do with their sound. People will continue to value beautiful old things. It doesn’t mean they won’t also value beautiful new things.” More fundamentally, Curtin says he understands the reluctance to surrender the romantic idea that old Italian violins have tonal qualities that can never be matched by new instruments.
“There’s a sense that violin making is one of the last cathedrals of mystery, so why take the mystery out of it?” he says.
“But there’s another way to look at it. The more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes.”