By James N. McKean
About ten miles north of Milan, Italy, is a small town named Monza. A rather nondescript place, it boasts a post office and a few stores and not much more. At least that’s how I remember it, but I might be completely wrong—after all, I was there in the early ’80s. And it wasn’t the Blue Guide that had led me to this hot and dusty little crossroads in the first place, but business. I was there to buy a forest. From a Ferrari-driving policeman, as it turned out. If that sounds crazy, well, it’s only appropriate: I was on a mission to find pioppo pazzo. Crazy poplar.
Violins and violas are so boring: maple. Always maple. Nothing but maple. Like a polka festival or a barbecue joint: fun for a night, but it gets old real fast. Cellos, though—if violins and violas are as monotonous as driving across West Texas, cellos are like New England. Maple, poplar, willow: all three were used regularly for cellos by the greatest makers of the Italian Golden Period. And who knows what else; often, looking at an old cello, you just shrug and call it, as my friend Guy Rabut does, bois de campagne—country wood.
“The process of finding a cello is like dating; the objective is to find your one true love. And as much as we all like to say it’s character, personality, brains, whatever—the truth is that it all starts with that first look.”
It’s like the maker had just gone down to the local sawmill and found a plank wide enough for a cello with maybe some interesting figure, or a knot or two. Why? Well, very little has changed over the 500 years that cellos have been made. And one thing that’s the same now as always is that cello maple can be fabulously expensive. Perhaps even more so then than now—think of the work in getting from a tree to a finished set of cello wood if it’s all being done by hand.
Figure, in a tree, is uneven. A log might have at most a few backs with flame, while the rest of it is mostly plain. While those few backs can fetch thousands of dollars for the most heavily figured, the plain ones can be had for a hundred—even though tonally they’re exactly the same. Maple with knock-out flame was for the rich patrons. Working musicians couldn’t afford that kind of luxury, so even top makers like Stradivari used plain maple, poplar, or willow.
These instruments are also commonly called “church cellos”: not because they were made specifically for the acoustics of a church, but because the makers were probably asked by the local parish to make a cello for spiritual glory, rather than cold hard cash.
Or perhaps it was used as an early form of beta-testing. Stradivari used willow for what is now thought by some to be the first cello he built on the famous smaller B form—the “Castelbarco 2” (also known as the “Fau”), made late in the first decade of the 18th century (the “Castelbarco 1,” also made of willow, is a much larger cello from 1697—one of only three large early Stradivari cellos that haven’t been reduced in size).
But that doesn’t mean it’s tonally inferior; in fact, the “Castelbarco, Fau” is a great soloist instrument, which you’ll know if you’ve recently attended a concert by Jan Vogler. Tonal quality has absolutely nothing to do with the type of wood or, surprisingly, its cost. The amount of figure does that. Why? The process of finding a cello is like dating; the objective is to find your one true love. And as much as we all like to say it’s character, personality, brains, whatever—the truth is that it all starts with that first look. The only difference with cellos is that knockout flame isn’t quite as intimidating as, say, having Beyonce or Jay Z sitting across the table from you.
While of equal quality, poplar, willow, or maple do have different tonal profiles. Think of maple as a tenor—Pavarotti. It has more of an edge, a brighter sound. Willow is Bryn Terfel—the deep, rich rumble of a great basso profundo. Poplar is a baritone, combining the depth of willow with the edge of maple. But all three can have the same range of overtones and produce the same amount of sound.
That’s where the maker comes in. Each type of wood requires a different approach, from arching to the depth of the channel to the thickness of the graduations. Also, the cut of the wood is different—maple is quartered out of the log, while willow is slab. When quartered, the grain in the wood is perpendicular to the surface, making it stiffer; slab wood is much more flexible. The fibers run differently in maple and willow, so cutting them this way makes each more resistant to cracking, while at the same time reinforcing their unique timbre. And while maple backs are always paired with matching ribs, a maker often uses different ribs with willow or poplar—beech, for example—to balance the sound and add more tonal complexity.
Historically, the use of poplar and willow died out with the end of the Golden Period of making in Italy. Cellos got as boring as violins and violas—it was all maple all the time, and all of them made on the Stradivari forma B—except in England, and a few other odd corners of the known world. By the early ’80s, though, young makers began taking a renewed interest in different models, along with poplar and willow.
Not long after I arrived in New York I happened to see a cello from an Italian maker of the early 20th century made with some pretty wild wood I couldn’t identify. Curious what it was, I asked Dario D’Attili, who had been at Rembert Wurlitzer’s with the great restorer Simone Sacconi. “That’s pioppo pazzo,” he told me. “Crazy poplar.” And it really is. The figure is so wild it looks like the tree has been raised on LSD.
Being young, I had to find some. I was told by a guy who imported fiddle wood that he knew a guy who cut the stuff, somewhere near Milan. It was before the Internet, so tracking him down took a bit of digging, but before I knew it, I was standing in front of a store in Monza. I had been told that my contact was a policeman who made extra money cutting cello wood.
I was more than a little surprised when a bright red Ferrari pulled up and out popped a man in tailored pants and a partially unbuttoned silk shirt with a little red pepper on a golden chain dangling on his chest. It was that, combined with jetlag and the little Italian I had memorized in the week or so before I boarded the plane, which led me to blurt that I wanted to buy bosco—a forest—instead of legna—wood. I followed him back to his home, which had a big shed next to it, inside of which, in the corner, was a stack of one-piece cello backs: crazy poplar. When I said I wanted it, he looked stunned. “Quella?” he asked. “Si,” I replied. “Tutti.”
I should have suspected something was amiss—old wood is always hard to find, and these backs had obviously been there a long time. A month later, when the wood arrived, I quickly discovered the reason for his look of disbelief. I clamped a rib to the bench and took a stroke with a freshly sharpened scraper . . . and discovered that the wood was almost intractable. I had never seen wood that tough; it literally turned the steel edges of my tools. D’Attili laughed when I told him. “It’s full of sand,” he explained. “Those are hedgerow trees, they plant them by the stream. They’re like huge vacuum cleaners, sucking up all that sand from the stream bed.” It was, basically, a carborundum stone made of wood.
Arching the back, digging the channel for the purfling, graduating the inside—it was excruciating. By the time I was done I realized that it was called pioppo pazzo not because the figure was so wild, but that you had to be crazy to use the stuff. But, oddly enough, the ribs were a dream to bend, the wood looked spectacular under the varnish, and most important of all—the cello sounded magnificent.
So I kept at it, making half a dozen or so over the years. I guess, like childbirth, you forget how painful it is. But then one day I clamped a rib to the bench, took a stroke with a freshly sharpened scraper—and then unclamped the rib, put it back in the pile, and chose a set of maple instead. After just that one stroke on the pioppo pazzo, scraping those maple ribs was like putting butter on an ear of corn.
But just because it wasn’t meant for cellos doesn’t mean I haven’t found a use for the crazy poplar that had filled a corner of my shed for 30 years. I’ve just finished making a clock out of it. A few years ago I made a chessboard for my younger son, and last year I made a carving board for my mother’s birthday. It’s no longer tone wood, of course—but let me tell you, the figure is just as spectacular. Enough for love at first sight, at any rate.