By Heather K. Scott
Amati, del Gesù, F.X. Tourte, Stradivari. There are few other occupations wherein professionals wake up every day faced with inspiration—and competition—from colleagues who lived 300 years before. Welcome to the world of a contemporary violin or bow maker. It is a world saturated in respect for tradition. But if the standards were set centuries ago, how do modern makers express personal creativity and style—or explore new innovations—within the restrictive forms of violin and bow making? And what role does copying master models play in today’s trade? Contemporary violin and bow makers have a delicate balance to strike, finding a way to chart the course forward in a trade that is constantly looking back.
I found endless possibilities for expression within the classical bow. Its minimalism was for me an invitation to naturally focus on a journey of unexpected discovery: a form of ‘beauty hidden in plain sight’ that is quite intriguing.
Tradition & Creativity
Violin and bow makers are still using many of the same templates, techniques, and tools to create instruments in much the same way that their predecessors did 300 years ago. So, how do contemporary makers integrate the historical strengths of instruments created by the old masters into new instruments, designed with the needs of today’s players in mind?
Much of the bridge connecting old and new is focused on copying master models. Much like a painter copying the technique or well-known work of a master, instrument makers can learn much from those who paved the way. But copies made for sale in today’s market are a point of much debate—makers have mixed feelings regarding the idea of creating a copy (as opposed to an original model) and then antiquing that copy.
“There’s a school of thought that copying is unimaginative and has a whiff of a con about it,” says violin maker Joseph Curtin. “Given how prevalent copying and antiquing are today, it’s interesting to remember that antiqued instruments were once barred from Violin Society of America competitions. Years back, Gregg Alf and I did some very detailed copies, and I can’t imagine a better way for developing one’s eye. These days, gifted young makers have taken copying and antiquing to new levels, and hats off to anyone who does it well! Still, I do hope 21st-century makers will eventually differentiate themselves by finding a distinctive new look.”
There is much debate about whether antiquing provides any benefit to the trade as a whole. “I can understand the market for copies and artificially antiqued instruments, but it’s one that I’ll probably never be a part of,” says violin maker David Burgess, who does not antique or copy instruments, and isn’t a proponent of either practice. “Most of the time, when someone is shown a very valuable instrument, its most obvious and conspicuous feature is that it looks old. So that feature tends to become associated with the memory of a fine violin, whether consciously or not.”
Why would someone choose to buy a copy or antiqued instrument? “A performer may have a valuable antique instrument that he or she doesn’t want to subject to the rigors of travel or constant use. So, they may have a copy of that instrument made and antiqued. Will the average audience member know the difference? Probably not, as long as the copy ends up with the appearance, sound, and playing qualities within spittin’ distance of the original,” Burgess explains.
The market for traditional-looking, antiqued instruments has remained alive partly because players want to look like they have a traditional instrument (encouraging violin makers to follow the early models). “This has actually been the case for hundreds of years,” says bow maker Charles Espey. “But having to work within a strict format actually encourages creativity. This means a contemporary violin maker has quite a bit of liberty to pursue a personal model, if they so choose.”
Experimentation & Innovation
Although violin and bow making may be married to certain forms and conventions rooted deeply in the past, contemporary makers continue to experiment and innovate with models and designs to improve sound and playability. So, for many makers, experimentation is found in fine tweaks and subtle changes. “I think people try new approaches, but not always successfully,” says Burgess. “The template is widely considered to have been perfected 300 years ago. Nevertheless, people (including myself) still experiment. But, it is hard to gauge results. There are so many variables: A different bass bar may alter the tonal outcome, but your thicknesses are unlikely to be exactly the same on two different instruments, and there are inherent variations in the properties of any two pieces of wood. So, it is nearly impossible to do a single-variable experiment with a clear outcome,” he says.
There may be more room within the bow-making trade for establishing personal style and creative expression. “Creativity is a personal disposition that can feed on anything; it is often linked to a taste for challenge and questioning. Yet, creativity is a longterm project,” says bow maker Benoît Rolland.
“I found endless possibilities for expression within the classical bow. Its minimalism was for me an invitation to naturally focus on a journey of unexpected discovery: a form of ‘beauty hidden in plain sight’ that is quite intriguing.”
“Currently there is a distinct style common to the new renaissance of bow making, informed and inspired by earlier bows, but really something quite new,” says Espey. “There is no compulsion to constantly change forms, but rather to let them evolve over time. You can say that no huge departures in style or function are on the horizon, but the possibilities for stylistic variation are infinite and there is so much yet to discover about the nuances of sound and how a bow performs,” he adds.
“I think a lot of people are exploring innovation more and more, as long as the sound isn’t altered too much. There may be a little we can change—maybe we can make things sound louder, more responsive, or get a wider variation in tone color with less effort on the part of the player. However, instruments [made by] Strad and Guarneri are still considered to be the reference standard for tone quality, so if we make something that’s too different, it won’t be ‘as good’ by definition,” says Burgess.
A New Age of Sharing & Collaboration
Due to all the trial and error involved in minute changes and updates, some makers historically have not experimented because there just wasn’t the time or resources to do it. But, with today’s technology bridging the divide between luthiers around the world, what was once a solitary art has become open to a more communal environment. And as a result, makers are talking, sharing, and collaborating more with one another at conventions or at workshops like the Violin Making and Acoustics Workshops at Oberlin College. That environment allows makers to tap into each other’s experiences, learning more about successful (and not-so-successful) experiments.
“I love talking with my colleagues,” says Curtin, who shares with other luthiers both in person and through his articles. “Sharing is part of the richness of this field. It benefits both individual makers and the field as a whole, and I will always be grateful for organizations like the VSA for fostering it. Working alone can otherwise lead to a sense of personal and professional isolation.”
Sharing information not only helps makers collectively collaborate and troubleshoot, it has helped to improve the trade as a whole, says Burgess. “With a lot of people working together in the same room, you can see their techniques, outcomes, and quiz them about their objectives. You may think of an experiment and find someone who’s already done it to talk with. I think one of the big advantages is that it isn’t necessary to try everything yourself (or repeat failed experiments others have already undertaken) as one might do in isolation. Not only can we stand on the shoulders of the famous historical makers, but we can also stand on each others’ shoulders. This is an amazing era in instrument making.”
Rolland agrees and actively takes part in sharing and working with the different actors in the field. “I am now writing and giving presentations to musicians and scientific communities as much as to the making community, because we mutually enrich our distinct understanding of the bow. Combining my experience as a musician and a bow maker, I have made available to colleagues and musicians improvements that I designed to evolve the bow to modern playing: The angled frog and the adjustment of camber were two fundamental progress[ive changes] that are now widely available. As an early researcher in synthetic materials, I contributed to open the field, at a time when lutherie feared and ostracized new materials,” says Rolland. He adds, “A shared passion for sound is our starting and ending point!”
A spirit of innovation thrives in this environment. Fan-Chia Tao, director of research and development at D’Addario & Company, explains. “The most obvious [benefit] is the dissemination of knowledge and high standards. Another is that research and innovation thrive best in an environment where ideas are exchanged. And, finally, moral support from even just a few colleagues can be extremely important, especially when pursing ideas that require a lot of time and effort without any guarantees of success. That is why programs like the VSA and the Oberlin Workshops are so important.”
The path of instrument- and bow-making innovation is built upon experimentation and today’s growing outlets for collaboration. But it isn’t just for the sake of change. As Tao points out, “I believe the greatest driver of innovation and change for musical instruments is not the search for creativity, but for solutions to practical problems. If makers can innovate better sounding and playing instruments, musicians will accept them, along with whatever new aesthetics they bring. I think history supports this.” Tao adds that although there is ample evidence that non-traditional shapes, forms, and materials can make great sounding instruments, “considerable optimization is still needed.” This optimization is an open door through which makers can explore, experiment, and innovate.
And the market for contemporary instruments and bows seems to be growing stronger and stronger. The skyrocketing cost of good, early bows have made players ever more interested in contemporary work. “And this economic climate made possible more generations of makers trained by the first,” says Espey. “I think this openness continues into the 21st century with young makers like Cody Kowalski or Eric Fournier. The most important thing is simply seeing what the other is doing.”
Curtin agrees that the continued collaboration between makers will continue to shape and change the industry in years to come. And events like Oberlin have helped to accelerate the level of making. “Researchers and makers working together make for rapid advancement. At the acoustics workshop I learn something new every ten minutes!” says Curtin. “When I got started as a maker, a new instrument was considered a sort of single-celled version of an Old Italian, innately lacking in complexity and other qualities. Fortunately, that has changed, and double-blind tests are showing just how good new instruments can be.”