By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Musicians create a signature sound. Composers do, too, obviously, and have over the centuries. Why not violin makers?
That’s the question Norwegian maker Jacob von der Lippe asked himself a decade ago, and one he continues to explore with each violin he handcrafts: Can a luthier make an instrument of his own device—as in, not a carbon copy of a classic—that emits a sound so singular that there’s no mistaking its modern provenance?
Von der Lippe responds with an enthusiastic yes, and in late November 2022, to underscore that optimism, he released Sculpted Sound on CD and vinyl through his side venture, Von der Lippe Records. The recording captures live performances in a series of concerts at famed venues throughout Oslo, such as Tomba Emmanuelle, a vaulted mausoleum known for its remarkable acoustic reverberation and the resting place of the Norwegian artist who also created its dark, secular interior, Emanuel Vigeland.
In performance were some of Norway’s finest string musicians playing the violins von der Lippe had created for each of them, some upward of 20 years ago.
The question asked of the musicians and the audience at the back-to-back concerts: “Can a characteristic of sound be heard among instruments created by the same log of spruce and the hands of one specific violin maker, even if played by different instrumentalists?”
Violinist Matias Jentoft, who performed a Bach partita at the Tomba Emmanuelle venue, describes the experience, on von der Lippe’s website, as “an impressionistic painting of sound” with the added drama of the acoustics in the “tomb of a bygone artist.”
Time will tell if von der Lippe’s hypothesis that his instruments created what he terms the “sound of now” is true, as he and those who participated in the events take a closer listen to the recordings. For those interested in hearing more, audio clips are available at vonderlippe.com.
“Ninety-nine percent of makers today are making Stradivarius and Guarneri copies,” says von der Lippe. “I’m trying to find my own voice.”
The quest for stylistic independence began in 2010, when von der Lippe stopped imitating the masters to concentrate on his own sense of constructed musicality, tossing out what didn’t work for him and keeping “the best qualities,” many of which, he says, were discovered through conversations with his playing customers.
“We have to move forward,” von der Lippe says of his belief in the evolution of the violin during a Zoom conversation from his Oslo workshop. He is not dismissing the past—on the contrary. Von der Lippe believes we are living in “a golden age for the violin,” thanks specifically to the knowledge that has been passed down to luthiers over the many years. There are so many skilled makers, “from New York to Oslo and Singapore,” says von der Lippe, and all are interconnected by the internet. “It is a fascinating time for a violin maker.”
With more than 60 commissioned violins completed over the 22 years since his studies at the esteemed Istituto di Istruzione Superiore Antonio Stradivari Cremona, von der Lippe admits he has an edge in his quest for a signature sound. The advantage is not just through his formal education, and a teenage fascination with playing and making his own cello, but also because of where he lives: Norway, home of some of the world’s finest violinists and composers, from the legendary, flamboyant Ole Bull—in speed and virtuosity the Nordic version of Paganini—to the famed Arve Tellefsen, at 86 still a force in classical repertoire.
Also, there’s Norway’s history of musical innovation, famously the elaborately decorated, melodious hardanger fiddle with its set of double-decker strings. The hardanger emerged in southern coastal Norway about the time Stradivari was at work in Cremona.
Combined, the wealth of skilled players and the musical heritage of his homeland represent what von der Lippe considers his strongest motivator: proximity to greatness.
“I live in a city with a rich musical life; I am where the music is,” he says. “The instruments I make today are a result of the ongoing relationships I have with the musicians. I listen to their wishes, and I really try to make the instrument sound the way they want. Not all musicians are looking for the same thing.”
Making a violin is an esoteric exercise, arising from inspiration and also gut feelings, says von der Lippe. Luthiers and others with a trained eye can see the slight differences in von der Lippe’s instruments, he reports; the rest need guidance. For example, proportionately, he says his violins are within classical measurements but “on the wider side of the spectrum.”
“All the shapes and curves have been drawn from scratch,” says von der Lippe, rather than copied from an old instrument, and as a result his silhouette is “personal and unique.” The differences also extend to his scroll design and f-holes.
Von der Lippe makes his oil varnish from scratch, brewing up the linseed oil and resin in an outdoor cooker for a week, much in the same way it was made 300 years ago. “It’s all about the ratio between the oil and the resin,” he advises.
He uses rabbit-skin glue for the entire violin, and, notably, most of his instruments come from the same tree that he found in the Italian Alps. “I bought one log of a spruce and had it cut into pieces,” he says, adding that it takes six to ten years before he uses the wood to build a violin. “The wood needs to be dry and stable.”
Von der Lippe says 99 percent of his violins are made by hand; it takes 250 hours—roughly a month and a half—to finish one. Making something new, he says, is a process of evolution and, as such, a never-ending story.
For the past 22 years, von der Lippe has documented each violin he has made, as evidenced by a stack of five hardback journals he holds up during our Zoom call. Each instrument gets two or three pages, with photographs and notations on the specs, size, and so forth. “It is a fingerprint of the violin,” says von der Lippe, flipping through the pages. “You put so much of your personality in every instrument you make—I feel like my violins are 60 small children.”
Pausing, he says, almost to himself, “Maybe I should sit down one day and try to put some of this data together. There is a lot of material here.”