What prompted you to build instruments and what role should instrument builders have in shaping the future of music? Carlene Hutchins

What prompted you to build instruments and what role should instrument builders have in shaping the future of music? Carlene Hutchins

Carlene Hutchins
Photo courtesy the National Music Museum

I never intended to get into instrument building; I was only going to make one instrument for myself to play. I wanted to play in a chamber group with my friends at the Brearley School where I teaching science at the time. The trumpet that I played all through high school and college was too loud for strings, so when I showed up they said, “We need a viola; why don’t you get one and try to learn it.” The $75 viola I bought for myself at Wurlitzer’s didn’t have as good a tone as I had hoped and since I had worked in wood all my life, I thought I might try to make myself one. I contacted my uncle who had made violins as a hobby all his life who sent me to his violinmaker in New York where I got a book and a blue print and a few instructions from the violinmaker and went to work. I spent two years working from instructions in Heron-Allen‘s book and the resulting instrument was rated the work of a good carpenter.

After that, some of my friends introduced me to Dr. Frederick Saunders, who had pioneered violin research on this side of the Atlantic. He tapped around on the instrument and then blew in the f holes. His comment was: “Young lady, I would be interested in your next one.” I hadn’t planned to make a next one, but decided it would be interesting to make some instruments for Saunders to cut into. I showed my first viola to Carl Berger, a violinmaker then working in the Steinway building, who said he could help me make a better one if I would take my first one apart. He expertly sliced the top and back plates off and handed them to me saying if you will do this and this, it will turn out to be better. I kept working with him for five years and made over 30 instruments under his instruction: violas, violins, and one cello. I then had an opportunity for Rembert Wurlitzer to come and see what I was doing. He looked around and finally said, “How would you like to work under Sacconi?” Which I did for three years and learned much of fine Italian violin making. Since then I have been on my own and have made over 400 instruments.

The work with Dr. Saunders led me to try to do what the composer Henry Brant asked for in 1957 when he was in residence at Bennington College and was looking for a violin maker “crazy enough to try an idea he had.” He wanted seven instruments of the violin family that would carry the tonal characteristics of the violin into seven other tone ranges, from an instrument tuned as a bass to a tiny treble tuned an octave above the violin. Since I had been working in acoustics with Saunders for nearly 15 years by then, I agreed in ten minutes to try to do what Henry wanted, and it took me ten years!

In the course of the next 20 years, I developed a method of tuning the top and back plates just before an instrument was finished which turned out to work very well in consistently producing fine sounding instruments of the violin family in all sizes. This was published in Scientific American in 1982 and has gone all over the world and works very well for violinmakers as long as they would use Italian-type violin making, which is different from the German methods of tuning plates. This also made possible the construction of the New Violin Family instruments, which have fine sound. Otherwise, that whole development would have been impossible. It also would not have been possible without the expert advice and help of over 100 associates in the Catgut Acoustical Society, and two Guggenheim Fellowships.

At the present time, these instruments are finding their way around the world and are rated as the first time in musical history that such a project has been brought to fruition since it was published in 1619 by Michael Praetorius in a book called Syntagma Musicum. Hans Astraand, president of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music, has said that these new instruments are the first time in history that a consistent theory of acoustics has been successfully applied to a whole family of violin-type instruments. Compared to the standard violin, viola, cello, and bass, the Violin Octet instruments can produce increased power, wider dynamics, extended frequency ranges, enhanced pizzicatos, and tonal combinations never before heard. Over the last thirty years the qualities of these instruments have challenged contemporary composers to write and arrange over 300 pieces of music, not only for the whole ensemble, but for smaller groups and solos as well as in combination with all ranges of the human voice where the instruments are particularly effective.

At the age of 92, I continue to make a few instruments, but most of my efforts now are dedicated to getting the New Violin Family adopted around the world. There are now seven sets of the new instruments on the road and three more under construction: one in Genoa, Italy, one in Belgium, and one in the USA. Over two hundred lectures and concerts during the last thirty years have been presented to audiences in London, Edinburgh, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Russia, Berlin, Tokyo, Taiwan, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, as well as numerous other places around the USA and Canada. An Octet spent three years in the Royal College of Music, London where their new sounds were explored and new music composed for them. Another Octet was loaned for three years to the Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg, Russia, where eight distinguished professionals and professors performed many concerts to standing ovations and enthusiastic reviews with several fine recordings and numerous new compositions resulting. Sadly, there were not enough funds to keep them there permanently. Also, there is now an Octet in New York City where jazz and avant-garde music groups are using them with great enthusiasm. Currently visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City can view the Museum’s own Hutchins Violin Octet in a display in their instrument collection. This exhibit was set up along with an Octet concert in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium of the museum a year ago in May and will be there at least through September 2003.

That concert was given by The Hutchins Consort, the only ensemble in the world composed of professionals who regularly perform on their own Hutchins Octet violins. Since their founding in l998, they have performed around the USA and Italy and are planning a tour of Australia in the near future. Based in Southern California, The Hutchins Consort has tackled the challenge of adapting the techniques of traditional strings as well as inventing new techniques to master these instruments. This consort plays music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as well as that of modern masters and jazz, in addition to original compositions and transcriptions commissioned for them, and displays an astonishing palette of new sounds with the breadth and depth that groups playing on traditional instruments cannot match. To really appreciate the musical potential of the instruments of The Hutchins Octet one must hear them live. They will perform again at a concert of the Wolfeboro Friends of Music on September 20, 2003 at 8 PM at All Saints Episcopal Church, in Wolfeboro NH; come and hear them for yourself.

One of the reasons I got into this so deeply is that I feel very strongly that young players should be able to have fine quality instruments at an affordable price. Individual makers have a responsibility to continue making fine sounding instruments by putting not only the construction details together but by putting their own sense of what the wood can do and how it can be handled to get fine quality sound. Without this, no amount of mass production and quickly made instruments can compete, particularly with the old masters’ instruments. My present research is to try to discover more of what the old masters were able to do by measuring with their own sense of feeling and touch and experience with wood to create such fine sounding instruments that we still cannot match even with all our electronic and computer technologies. The human nervous system is far more important and more sensitive than any electronic measurements we know today.

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