Building Better Violins…With Science

17:29 minutes

Carleen Hutchins must have seemed like an unlikely candidate to upend the world of violin-making. Not only was this New Jersey mother only an amateur at viola, she already had a day job as a grade school science teacher. Nevertheless, between 1948 and 2009, Hutchins crafted nearly 500 instruments and published more than 100 technical papers, bringing new scientific rigor to the art of violin-making. Furthermore, Hutchins fulfilled a centuries-old dream of luthiers—she crafted a set of instruments that maintain the timbre of the violin over its entire range, thereby creating a true violin family.

Author Quincy Whitney tells Hutchins’ story in her new biography American Luthier: The Art & Science of the Violin. She joins Ira to talk about Hutchins’ landmark invention—the violin octet—and some of the experiments Hutchins conducted in her basement lab.

It was composer Henry Brant who challenged Carleen Hutchins to create a family of violins that could span the tonal range of a piano. When Hutchins delivered with her violin octet, Brant composed “Consort for True Violins” to showcase the possibilities of her new violin family.

Here, Brant’s “Consort for True Violins” is performed by the Hutchins Consort East, live at The Tank on May 27, 2010.

Performers: Christopher Otto (treble violin), Erik Carlson (soprano violin), John Richards (mezzo violin), Emily DuFour (alto violin), Kevin McFarland (tenor violin), Alex Greenbaum (baritone violin), Joe McNalley (bass violin), Greg Chudzik (contrabass violin)

Carleen Hutchins' violin octet: a family of eight violins spanning the tonal range of a piano. Courtesy of the Hutchins estate
Carleen Hutchins’ violin octet: a family of eight violins spanning the tonal range of a piano. Courtesy of the Hutchins estate
Hutchins testing a plate in her basement lab on October 25, 1963. Credit: H. Grossman
Hutchins testing a plate in her basement lab on October 25, 1963. Credit: H. Grossman
The first trial of the Hutchins violin octet, on May 24, 1964. Courtesy of the Hutchins estate.
The first trial of the Hutchins violin octet, on May 24, 1964. Courtesy of the Hutchins estate.

*Apologies classical music fans! During our broadcast, Science Friday described a string quartet as “violin, viola, cello, and bass.” A string quartet consists of two violins, a viola, and cello.

Segment Guests

Quincy Whitney

Quincy Whitney is author of  American Luthier (ForeEdge, 2016). She’s a former arts writer for Boston Sunday Globe NH Weekly, based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


Ah, the sweet sound of the string quartet. Violin, viola, cello, and bass, working together in perfect musical harmony. At least that’s what I hear.

When Carleen Hutchins listened to a string quartet, she heard room for improvement. Hutchins was a luthier, a maker of violins, and not just any luthier. Over half a century, this former school teacher– science teacher– up-ended the world of violin making by bringing science to the woodworking table.

In her basement lab, she took apart her creations, running hundreds of experiments to figure out what makes a violin sing. And she even one-upped the string quartet. She created her own violin octet, tackling problems with the original violin family that had plagued violin makers for centuries. We’ll hear a little of that octet later.

Quincy Whitney tells Carleen’s story in her new biography. It’s called American Luthier: The Art and Science of the Violin. She joins me from Boston to talk about it. Welcome to Science Friday.

QUINCY WHITNEY: Thank you very much, Ira. I’m honored to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you.

Let’s start at the beginning. I mean, how does this grade school science teacher get hooked on violin making?

QUINCY WHITNEY: It’s actually a whim and a dare, and then also a creative outlet. It’s a whim because she used to whittle. She started whittling when she was a tomboy about age six. And she had this $75 viola in her hands and just kept thinking maybe she could make it better.

It was a dare because her best friend, Helen Rice, just said it was an impossible task, and why would she try to do that. And it took her two years to make one.

And it was a creative outlet because she’d just left her job. She just became a new mom at a rather late age of 36, and I think she needed an outlet badly. And it became carving the plates of her first viola.

IRA FLATOW: How did she decide that the standard, you know, quartet, string quartet, is not good enough?

QUINCY WHITNEY: It’s not that she decided that, it’s that after she had been studying acoustics with retired Harvard physicist Frederick Saunders and doing experiments, and after she had also been making about 35 violins with a German violin maker, learning that craft, she got a knock on her door one day at 112 Essex Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey, and it was composer Henry Brandt from Vermont who had read some articles about this New Jersey housewife violin maker who was making a little bit of news. And he sort of confronted her with the question. He said, you know, medieval instruments, we have families of instruments in the Renaissance that are recorders, we have families of viols, but we’ve never really had a family of violins. And what do you think? Do you think you could make one?

So with the question, she sort of decided she would try it. And it took her the next decade–


QUINCY WHITNEY: –to do that.

IRA FLATOW: So she creates a whole new family of violins?

QUINCY WHITNEY: Yeah. It’s really based on the fact that the string quartet has been considered a bit of a sacred cow for many centuries, and everybody thinks it’s perfect. But actually, tonally, it lacks. It lacks a true tenor voice, and also a true alto voice.

In fact in 16– I think was 1690, Stradivari actually got an order for two alto violins that were going to be played as a contralto and a tenor. So if you look at the string quartet today, sometimes the second violin will play an alto part, or the viola will play a tenor part, but there are alto and tenor gaps in the middle of the string quartet. And that really became the sort of focus for these eight violins across the range of a piano.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. I always thought that where the violins leave off, then the viola picks up there. And the viola leaves off, the cello picks up. You’re saying there are gaps instead?

QUINCY WHITNEY: If you look at a family of recorders or a family of viols, it’s like the range of the human voice. You have– and that’s exactly what these eight instruments are. They’re across the range of the human voice.

So it starts with a treble and then a soprano and a mezzo, an alto, a tenor, a baritone, a bass, and a contrabass. So in that way, you see how complete the range is with eight instruments because it’s across the range of the piano.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. So she created a piano for the violin, basically?

QUINCY WHITNEY: Basically. A range, yeah. A tonal range that would fill in the gaps. And also they were tonally matched so that the violins– each one sounds– has the same dynamics. The treble, the tiny 11-inch treble, can compete with the contrabass in terms of dynamics and pizzicato. And that’s sort of revolutionary, too.

IRA FLATOW: OK, now let’s talk about her as an experimenter. She’s an engineer, and she doesn’t just– well, she starts her work by saying, you know, I have to take these things apart to understand how they work, right? And that doesn’t go over so well with some of the violinists.

QUINCY WHITNEY: Yeah. Actually, she starts by suggesting that science could make a better fiddle. And that upsets the violin world, because, of course, they’re copying Stradivari for three centuries now thinking that he perfected the craft.

But she’s suggesting, first of all, that it was OK to apply science to the woodworking shop for the violin maker. And the violin maker was giving her a hard time about the fact that she might be demystifying the art. And she used to laugh at that because she said, of course, you can’t separate acoustics from music.

Music is a science, and sometimes we forget that. We marginalize it as art only. But we can’t separate acoustics from music.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. So she creates what’s called the Swiss cheese violin. What was that?

QUINCY WHITNEY: One of her most dramatic experiments with Saunders– I think it might have been after Saunders– was a Swiss cheese violin where she punched 64 holes in the ribs of a violin and then plugged each full hole with cotton. And then as she and Saunders were playing that instrument, they would pull cotton out and see what happened to the sound.

She always said that we did the right thing for the wrong reason, because they thought originally that they were studying the wood modes. And then they realized that maybe the more important thing to study were the air currents inside the box. And there might be hundreds of air currents, and Carleen spent 50 years studying basically two, the relationship between two different ones.

IRA FLATOW: Because we always hear, oh, Stradivari was the great because he had the right wood and the right pattern. And you’re saying she discovered it was the air that was really–

QUINCY WHITNEY: Yeah, that actually we could look at the violin as a wind instrument.

The other thing people forget is that Stradivari was, in fact, a contemporary maker. He wasn’t copying anybody. He was making instruments. So in his time, you could buy a contemporary instrument from Stradivari.

And what’s happened hence is that three centuries, violin makers have thought they had to just copy Amati, Guameri, and Stradivari. And she was suggesting that just maybe we could go further than that.

IRA FLATOW: So she does some more research. She does some experiments with Christmas glitter. Tell us about it.

QUINCY WHITNEY: Yeah, Ernst Chladni was the German physicist who started sort of showing the footprints of sound by taking plates– this is, like, the 1780s, he published a whole paper on it– where you could take sand grains and put it on a plate and then vibrate the plate at different frequencies and different geometric patterns would form.

The parts of the plate that’s vibrating, the sand falls away from to the nodes where they plate is not vibrating. So it becomes these beautiful geometric patterns at different frequencies, and Carleen decided to try to apply that to a free violin plate, which is a top or back plate that’s not connected to the ribs.

And then when she saw these different patterns, she started to use it as a guide where she had to keep carving the plate. The luthier’s always looking for that ratio between stiffness and flexibility, which has to do with carving that place in a meticulous way. And Stradivari, Amati, she was always saying that the old Italian masters had learned to do it intuitively by touching and tapping, and that this was merely a guide to help modern luthiers do it more consistently.

IRA FLATOW: So when you say she got certain tones in the plate from putting the glitter on it and when she discovered from people who knew music that, ha, that’s the right tone, she knew how to then make the next piece of wood do exactly the same thing by–

QUINCY WHITNEY: It wasn’t quite that simple. It was hundreds of hours of trial and error.


QUINCY WHITNEY: She would carve a plate and then she would put the whole instrument together and give to a player and get a reaction and see what the player thought. And then she’d go back to the drawing board, take it apart, recarve it, test it again with the Christmas glitter, and then all over again. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of cut and try.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So just to pay tribute to her and talk more about it, let’s listen to her– Carleen Hutchins’s new violin family. This is a group called The Hutchins Consort playing a tune you might recognize.


Wow. Wow. Of course that’s Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Quincy, how would you describe this octet sound?

QUINCY WHITNEY: It’s like something you’ve never heard before. It’s a new palette of sound in string instruments. It’s revolutionary.

I listened particularly to that piece about 11 times when the Hutchins Consort was on an East Coast tour in 2011. They’re amazing group. They play everything from Medieval and Renaissance to jazz and modern. They do about 40 concerts a year, and on the West Coast. And I’m really hoping that they can come back for an East Coast tour now that the book is out because they’ve been waiting for the book because the book has a chapter on them and tells their story.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. So how do you describe the sound differently from if it were just a regular string quartet?

QUINCY WHITNEY: The balance is amazing. And the fact that the dynamics are amazing also. The treble can talk back to the contrabass. The pizzicato is phenomenal. The pizzicato was, of course, the plucked string, and that’s where you really hear the dynamics of an instrument.

You hear how– lots of times in an orchestra, if you look at the reconfiguration of the orchestra, we have 30 violins to one or two brass instruments. And I’ve had a cellist who plays her baritone, Akua Dixon, say that she could finally play a duo with her maybe former spouse, I’m not sure, who is a wind player. So one string instrument could play with a wind instrument in an equal way because those dynamics and resonances are more powerful now with the research of Carleen Hutchins.

IRA FLATOW: Is it easy to find someone who’s playing the octet? Or a group of people? If you want to–

QUINCY WHITNEY: They’re very unusual.


QUINCY WHITNEY: She made seven octets, and four of them are in museums, unfortunately, not being played, although one in Edinburgh can actually be loaned to players. But the only ensemble currently is the Hutchins Consort in San Diego, California.

But there are about seven luthiers now, seven to 10, who are students of Hutchins. And if someone ordered one octet tomorrow, an alto, a baritone, any of them, they could make them. In fact, there are luthiers who have them now, who’ve made them.

IRA FLATOW: What would it cost to make one?

QUINCY WHITNEY: I think the going price would be anywhere from five to 10, I’m not sure. $5,000 to $10,000. It just depends on where that is in the luthier’s repertoire at this point.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re talking to Quincy Whitney telling the story of The American Luthier: The Art and Science of the Violin– great new book– on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

But you couldn’t really– is there any place to actually put an order in for one? Or could a group get started if they wanted to with a group of them?

QUINCY WHITNEY: Actually, that’s a great question, and it’s something I should answer on my website. That’s one thing I have not answered. If someone would like to order one, I can certainly list those luthiers on my own website that would be able to produce one.

Some of them have already have them in their repertoire. They already have them in their shop. And there’s one particular one in– there’s a maker out in New Mexico who has really focused on the vertical viola big time and thought it was that whole solution, you know, for violists if they would be willing to play something vertically. And that’s not happened as greatly as a she would like, but there are luthiers that make these instruments.

IRA FLATOW: You knew Carleen for 12 years. What kind of person was she?

QUINCY WHITNEY: She was conflicted a little bit, and contradictory. She would always talk fiddles with anyone who walked in the door. She was a generous spirit in terms of a teacher. But she was very private with respect to her personal life and her personal expression. But she was a very generous, passionate kind of person who sort of got taken away by her passion.

She was a mother of two, but I think she found it difficult sometimes to put the pieces of her passion together with parenting. She was very lucky to have a modern spouse who basically raised the children because she was taken away so much with her fiddles. But a very– a kind person and generous-spirited and very determined. She was a taskmaster when it came to being a teacher, too.

IRA FLATOW: How did you bump into her?

QUINCY WHITNEY: I was a Boston Globe Arts Reporter for the New Hampshire Weekly section of the Sunday Globe for 14 years. And someone said to me at a New Hampshire Humanities Council meeting that if I covered the arts, I ought to go meet this violin maker who lives up on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. So I did.

I called her up, and I said, this is Quincy Whitney with The Boston Globe and I’d like to do a story on you. And she said, no. I don’t have time. And I thought, this is an 87-year-old woman who doesn’t need me, and I was very intrigued.

So I hung in the phone thinking what else could I say. And she said, what’s your angle? And the first thing that came to mind was the truth. I said, I’m interested in the stories where science and art overlap. And she said, well, that’s exactly what I do. When do we talk?

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And how much more difficult, is it more difficult, for regular string musicians to play the octet?

QUINCY WHITNEY: There is definitely a learning curve. And the Hutchins Consort players can particularly address that. And depending on the instrument, which of the eight you’re playing, there are more or less adjustments.

The real conundrum at the center of the octet is the alto, which is a vertical viola. So, of course, the joke is that violists have to, in some sense, be trained as a cellist. But that’s also just a conundrum.

There’s also three other instrument– two other instruments, the baritone and the tenor, that are opportunities for cellists. So it just depends on which instrument you’re playing. There’s a Russian virtuoso on the treble, Gregory [INAUDIBLE], who is a St. Petersburg Philharmonic player, and to listen to this man on the treble is an amazing, controversial, and revolutionary experience because you can’t believe his fingers can overlap the way they do on the strings and cover such a tiny instrument.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s like having a cell phone trying to play an instrument.


IRA FLATOW: The keyboard’s so tiny.


IRA FLATOW: The strings are so small–


IRA FLATOW: –and close together.

QUINCY WHITNEY: But Gregory’s an amazing virtuoso on it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, I guess there are albums out there somewhere that we can listen to him.

QUINCY WHITNEY: I would suggest everyone should go to my website, which is quincywhitney.com, but also the hutchinsconsort.org, for further information about their recordings.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you very much, Quincy, for taking time to talk about this great book.

QUINCY WHITNEY: Ira, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Quincy Whitney is the author of American Luthier: The Art and Science of the Violin. And if you want to listen a little bit, we ask you to go to our website at sciencefriday.com/violin and you can hear some of the Hutchins violin octet on our website.

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