By Patrick Sullivan | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
A damaged bow is no treat for any eyes, but it’s a particularly sore sight for a bow maker like Gilles Nehr. Even a careful musician can suffer an attack of the butterfingers—and a single slip with the fragile stick can cause irreparable damage to the vulnerable head, or require a repair that may deprive a bow of 90 percent of its value.
Twenty years ago, the desire to ward off such disasters drove Nehr to take a fresh look at his craft. Doing repairs and restorations on old bows had given the young artisan a dismaying view of the fragility and instability of traditional designs.
Back then, Nehr was already an accomplished practitioner of a trade that embraces centuries-old tools and traditions. Born in France, he began a bow-making apprenticeship at age 16, with training in Marseille and Mirecourt. He moved on to René Morel’s New York workshop, where he did work for the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern.
But, encouraged by fellow bow maker Isaac Salchow, Nehr cast aside custom and set out to innovate his way to a sturdier bow. “I was very young at the time,” Nehr recalls. “It was that age when you still think you could shape the world ahead of you.”
In 1999, Nehr produced his first Tête-Bêche (French for “head to tail”)—a bow with a vertical tip. Simply put, Nehr flipped the ivory tip over, making it into a shield to protect the whole head from top to bottom to help prevent splits and breaks. It had an unorthodox look, but it caught on with string players.
Yet Nehr wasn’t satisfied.
In the two decades since, his design has undergone a dizzying series of evolutions. Nehr has replaced ivory tips with light but sturdy metal. He’s lopped off the whole pernambuco head to leave just a stick with no mortise to weaken it. He’s created an ingenious system that allows violinists to do their own rehairs.
And he’s sold scores of his Tête-Bêche bows to musicians around the world. Acclaimed soloist Kurt Nikkanen, concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, recently bought one of Nehr’s newer creations. “It’s a sophisticated 21st-century tool that rivals the best bows I’ve played, if not surpasses them,” says Nikkanen. “The self-rehairing aspect totally sold me. If you’re able to just pop in the plug yourself, you have pretty much a stress-free life as far as the bow goes.”
But none of this has been easy. The evolution of the Tête-Bêche has been a long and painful process, Nehr says. “Every bow was very, very different at first, and each one was difficult to make—a bow for glory,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I was having a lot of success, but they were taking so long.”
Each new bow, though, was helping Nehr to improve the next one. And while a passion for safety birthed the Tête-Bêche, Nehr’s innovations taught him something else: his changes were improving the sound his bows could produce. As he explains, “The more I was making the moving parts smaller, the more I was making them fit tightly to the stick, the more the sound was getting better.”
These days, Nehr’s design has settled down. “The model is very mature,” he says. “I’ve been working on improving details. The changes of these details today are so precise and small it looks like it’s not changing much.”
But materials are one area of ongoing innovation for Nehr—and he’s particularly excited about one recent change. “Like every bow maker, I’ve been looking for an alternative to pernambuco,” he says. The exotic hardwood, from an endangered tree found only in Brazil, has been the go-to for fine violin bows for hundreds of years. But it’s becoming increasingly controversial and hard to find.
Nehr, however, says he’s identified an ideal replacement: giraffe thorn acacia from southern Africa. “It’s just incredible,” he says. “It’s a strong wood with a lot of elasticity.” And the sound, he says, is beautiful. “With many alternatives to pernambuco, that’s a problem—the pitch is very high,” Nehr says. “But acacia, it’s strong but it’s warm.”
Nikkanen agrees. “I thought it sounded every bit as good as pernambuco,” the New York violinist says. “I couldn’t be more pleased.” The only problem? “It’s just not that interesting to look at,” Nehr says with a laugh. “It’s not beautiful like pernambuco.” Recently, Nehr has begun using a new process that greatly improves the color of the acacia, changing the wood’s appearance dramatically. “Some people even mistakenly think that it is pernambuco,” he says.
‘My bows now are 100 percent made of material that is not endangered’
For traveling musicians, the new wood—which is not endangered—and the lack of an ivory tip offer big benefits at border crossings, where there’s rising scrutiny and complications for musical instruments that incorporate materials from imperiled species.
“My bows now are 100 percent made of material that is not endangered,” Nehr says.
He’s also embraced a new metal for the head: titanium. “It was the first metal I was thinking of for the head, even early on,” Nehr recalls. “Unfortunately, it was way too hard to work by hand.”
Even after some companies started to offer the service of casting small metal pieces, they wouldn’t make a titanium head because it had too many details. “Titanium involves a very complicated technology, and that technology was still young,” Nehr says. “It was very frustrating for me.”
Over the years, though, titanium casting became more precise and efficient. “I finally had my designs accepted, for both heads and frogs,” Nehr says. He’s been able to use titanium for over a year now, with results that impress even tradition-minded musicians.
Nikkanen, for example, originally bought an older version of Nehr’s bow, without a titanium head. Its stability alone was a major plus. “I got it at a good time, because I had a lot of performances in a lot of different places,” Nikkanen says. That included Singapore, where he encountered 100-degree temperatures and 90-percent humidity. “The bow was unchangingly stable in every weather,” Nikkanen says.
But then a colleague brought a titanium Tête-Bêche to work.
“I thought it played even better than mine,” Nikkanen says. “The titanium head gave it more projection and a quicker response. I was tempted to ask her to trade.” Instead, he’s having Nehr retrofit his bow. Nikkanen still sounds amazed to count himself among the converts to the Tête-Bêche. “I historically have never been very open to innovation in violin or bow design,” he says. This is illustrated by the instrument he plays, an antique made in 1600 by Gasparo da Salò.
Yet the Tête-Bêche, as contemporary as can be, had him at hello. “I was sold on Gilles’ bow within the first half hour of playing it,” Nikkanen says. “That to me says it all.”