Black Cellos and Balsa Violins: String Instrument Makers Experiment With Unorthodox Materials

Classic Arts News   Black Cellos and Balsa Violins: String Instrument Makers Experiment With Unorthodox Materials
 
Most string players dream of owning a Stradivarius, but some instrument makers are dreaming of a new golden age for their craft, with violins and cellos made of balsa wood, fiberglass and even graphite. Recent articles in The New York Times and Canada's National Post report on luthiers who are experimenting with unusual materials — and achieving intriguing results.

The Times profiles Douglas Martin, a craftsman in southern Maine whose career is designing and building rowing shells. In recent years, Martin has been experimenting with the use of balsa wood and graphite fibers — materials he might use in his boats — to make violins in place of the traditional spruce and maple woods.

While he has only sold three of his instruments so far, Martin demonstrated one prototype, called Balsa 4, at the Violin Society of America's 2005 workshop at Oberlin College. The instrument's responsiveness and sound impressed the participants, according to the Times, with one observer — Joseph Curtin, an instrument-maker who himself received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" — going so far as to write that "the traditional violin became obsolete."

The Munich luthier Martin Schleske is also working with graphite: his latest model violin has a top mixing the carbon fibers with spruce. The Times writes that concert violinist Ingolf Turban, a former concertmaster of the Munich Philharmonic, preferred the new Schleske over a 1721 Stradivarius. After recording passages from one of Mozart's violin concertos with each, Turban said of Schleske's instrument, "I have never been playing any violin with such a singing E string. It is no longer like playing violin but like singing."

Violinmakers' aim in using the new materials is to achieve a blend of stiffness and lightness in the soundboard, which increases an instrument's ability to turn the energy created by a vibrated string into waves of attractive sound. Graphite fibers and carved balsa, the Times points out, are very stiff but far less dense than maple or spruce.

For his part, Schleske told the Times, "Wood reached the limits of its potential in the first half of the 18th century. I have no doubt that if Stradivari were alive today with the same force of innovation, he would have already discovered the fascinating acoustic properties of graphite fibers and would have ushered us into a new golden age of violin making."

The National Post looks at the carbon-fiber instruments designed by Luis Leguia, who has played in the cello section of the Boston Symphony for 44 seasons. "Years ago, I became a boating enthusiast," he told the paper. "I grew to appreciate fiberglass boats because they are lighter, stronger and more durable than wooden boats. I wondered if fiberglass could do for the cello what it has done for the boat. So I began exploring the various types of fiberglass materials, ultimately settling on carbon fiber, the strongest."

Leguia's explorations led to a partnership with Steve Clark, a designer and manufacturer of small sailboats; the result of their collaboration is an entire line of carbon-fiber cellos, violas and violins called — naturally — Luis and Clark.

Leguia has created about 300 instruments so far, and his website (www.luisandclark.com) has dozens of testimonials, including admiring quotes from the likes of Bernard Haitink, David Robertson, Robert Spano, Leslie Parnas and Yo-Yo Ma, a proud Luis & Clark owner. (The National Post mentions Ma's use of his carbon-fiber cello for an outdoor performance with the Silk Road Ensemble in Washington, D.C.'s notorious summer heat and humidity, which would play havoc with a wooden instrument.)

Another satisfied user of the Luis & Clark model is cellist and University of Toronto professor Shauna Rolston, who told the Post of a student who brought her one of the black carbon-fiber instruments, saying, "'You need to have this; it has your name on it.' I fell in love with it instantly.

"No one has an idea, if they went behind a screen, that it's not a wooden cello," said Rolston, who told the paper she doesn't think of her newfangled instrument as worse or better than the 1824 Chanot she has played since she was 11 — just different.

While Rolston's Chanot is likely worth close to $100,000, her Luis & Clark has a list price of $6,539. It weighs about 5 pounds, and she cleans it with Windex.


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