By David Templeton | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Violin maker Jonathan Cooper’s earliest musical passion was guitars. All through high school he played the guitar, bought and sold guitars, collected guitars, and upon graduation, went straight into playing music professionally, again focusing on the guitar.
Then, almost on a whim, he switched to playing the fiddle.
“I took up playing the fiddle when I was 20, which was kind of strange because until then I’d never even thought of playing the violin,” Cooper says. “I mean, I knew it existed, but I knew nothing about it and I had no interest in it.” Everything changed when a bandmate who’d played the viola as a kid spontaneously brought his instrument to a rehearsal, and at one point a curious Cooper picked it up and squeaked out a few investigational notes. It must have made a deep impression.
“That night I had a dream,” he explains, “a dream in which I was playing the violin perfectly and speaking a language I have to assume was French. The way I see it now, there’s my life before that day, and my life after that day, because I woke up in the morning, went downtown to a thrift store where I’d seen a violin for sale, bought it for like $7, and pretty much started teaching myself how to play it.”
Cooper, who lives and runs Acoustic Artisans, his violin-making shop in Portland, Maine, was living in rural New Hampshire at the time of the dream. This was approximately 1970, and he had plenty of hours to kill between band rehearsals. So in addition to learning how to play, he started buying violins as well, to repair and tinker with and figure out how they were constructed.
“There were cheap violins all over the place in the early ’70s,” he says. “The country was littered with them. They were everywhere. I grew up in New Jersey, right outside New York, and knew some people in the city I could reach out to for information, but believe it or not, it took me a couple of years to realize, ‘Wait a minute… these violins aren’t all made in Germany and Italy and France. People make them here in America, too!’”
Cooper was delighted to find violins made in Maine and New Hampshire. “Some of them were actually kind of nice,” he says.
In those pre-internet days, there was very little available information about violin making. There weren’t even that many books on the subject. The making of violins was an art taught almost exclusively by skilled and experienced makers to eager, hard-working novices. There was no such thing as a DIY violin maker.
“So I started to seek people out. I met some makers. I took a summer course at the University of New Hampshire in 1976. All of that opened up a whole different world. When I got into the later quarter of my twenties, I started thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want to spend the rest of my life doing all these little gigs playing the fiddle. Maybe I’ll take a look at what the violin trade is like.”
Today, Cooper is just about to cross the threshold of having made 500 violins.
By that point, Cooper was making side money buying and selling stringed instruments. In 1979, while on a European band tour that included Italy, he took a tangential free-time trip to Cremona, where he visited several violin makers. “I was totally smitten,” he says. “Being there made me so happy. Later that year, I quit playing in the band I was in, dropped everything, and moved to Cremona.”
Cooper spent his next three years there, an experience that cemented his resolve to establish violin making as his career. “That dream literally changed my life,” he says. “It bit me hard and never let go.”
Today, Cooper is just about to cross the threshold of having made 500 violins. In a shop he describes as orderly and neat, with an everything-in-its-place visual appeal that almost eclipses the sweet smell of wood and other sensory treats associated with violin making, he constructs all manner of stringed musical instruments. His clients include classical musicians, folk and country fiddlers, and pop and rock musicians, from novices to celebrities to superstars. That range of need is appealing to Cooper, he says, because it requires him to be flexible and inventive.
“These instruments—violins, violas, cellos—they are malleable,” he says. “They were designed to make a certain sound, but they can be changed around, the formula can be tweaked. Because the world has changed, right? You’re not always playing in a concert hall, having to fill a big room. You might be playing alongside a banjo player in a small club, which means you need a different sound. You might be playing into a microphone in a recording studio, which means you need a different sound.”
All of that got Cooper thinking deeply about what the sound of violin really is.
“Everybody wants color in their sound, they want the voice of their violin to match the voice of the music they are playing and the situation they are playing it in,” he says. “I also look at music as something that is always changing. That’s one of things that’s kept the sound of the violin fresh for so long.”
One of Cooper’s most personally gratifying projects has been the creation of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Instruments Award, named in honor of the Wall Street Journal correspondent who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002. “When I first heard what happened to Daniel Pearl—you couldn’t avoid it because it was all over the news—at one point they showed a picture of him and he’s playing the fiddle with what was clearly some kind of bluegrass band,” Cooper says. “I remember that this was a time when a lot of us felt really helpless. What can we possibly do to make any positive contribution to what’s going on in the world?”
Ultimately, in what felt like a small but meaningful gesture, Cooper decided to make a violin in Pearl’s honor. At the time he was working with Mark O’Connor, doing fiddle-making demonstrations at his annual fiddle camp. What gradually developed, as Cooper made another violin, then a viola, then a cello—all in Daniel Pearl’s honor—was a program in which each instrument would be awarded to a player from O’Connor’s camp, who would play that instrument for one year.
The first violinist to receive the Daniel Pearl violin was Jeremy Kittel, in 2003. Other recipients include Alex Hargreaves, Noshi Norris, Toby Conn, Olivia Thompson, and numerous other young players. “The idea was that the players would, in turn, put on performances and talk about who Daniel Pearl was,” Cooper says. “We’re done now, having made a full quartet of instruments, but they live on, passed down every year to a new player. That’s just an amazing honor for me.”
Cooper believes that, for violin makers like himself, the notion that the instruments he makes will long outlive him is a responsibility as much as it is a perk of the profession. “When I make a violin, I’m pretty confident that, unless it’s really heavily damaged along the way, it’s going to be here 300 years from now,” he says. “Especially these days, because we have good cases and climate-controlled buildings and all this other stuff. Clearly, past examples show us that there is no reason why things won’t last 300 or 400 years without any problem. I really like that. Long, long after I’m dead, some of my violins will still be around, making music, and hopefully, you know, still making people happy.”