The String's the Thing

It's fair to say that violin making, a craft that hasn't evolved much since the 1600s, is the Stradivarius of arts professions. This rarefied and tradition-bound vocation places a high esteem on antique instruments by pedigreed makers, first and foremost the Italian master Stradivari and Guarneri  families, whose centuries-old pieces sell in the millions of dollars. Just seven schools in the U.S. provide instruction in the craft.  And violin, viola, and cello maker David Burgess estimates there are only about 20 (twenty!) full-time independent violin makers in the United States.

Amazingly, a few of them, Burgess included, are right in Ann Arbor, which appears to be ground zero for those in the trade of lutherie. The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, an association of makers, restorers, and dealers who have been vetted by their professional peers, has seven Ann Arbor-based members. Compare that with the infinitely larger metros of, say, Los Angeles and Chicago, which have eight members apiece.

Burgess, active in the stringed instrument trade for 40 years and independent since 1991, defines this group as one-off makers, not those working in a semi-factory or production-type setup. Most lutherie school graduates, he says, support themselves by working in repair and restoration, not by creating new pieces. "I think part of the thing is it's really difficult to establish a market for new instruments. If you're a new maker, people want some kind of a track record. It's a hard thing to get into. I feel very fortunate."

Burgess, whose mother was a musician, started playing the violin at age five and, while on the fast track towards a career as a violinist saw his passion take an unconventional turn.

"What I found is that while I loved music, what I loved more was doing things with my hands and making things," Burgess says. He started working in a violin shop at age 14 and was set to attend Mittenwald, a lutherie school in Germany, when respected violin maker and restorer Hans Weisshaar, co-founder of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, invited Burgess to apprentice at his Los Angeles shop instead. It was there that, at age 18, he made his first violin. After five years, he moved to Ann Arbor to work at Shar Products Company, now a major retailer of stringed instruments, where he made instruments and managed repairs and restoration. In 1991, he opened his own workshop.

His easy manner belies his accomplishments in the industry. A program director in the vaunted Oberlin College Conservatory of Music stringed instrument program, Burgess also leads a violin restoration workshop at the college. His expertise is sought in the form of contributions to Strings magazine and judging at international violin making competitions. His instruments have recently gone to principals and players in the Carolina Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, top music students, and even collectors – private and public. You'll see his work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum and the Stradivari Museum in Cremona, Italy.

Also of note: There is a 3-year waiting list for his violins and violas, which cost $26,000, and cellos, which are $42,000. Those prices do not include the bow, which at this high level comes from a specialized bow maker. Every year, Burgess makes half a dozen instruments from maple and spruce, by hand, using primarily knives and a gouge, a special tool that resembles a curved chisel, and other proprietary tools he's developed over the years. Each instrument requires over 200 hours of labor (more for cellos, which are larger). He chooses to be a soloist maker because another employee would involve more administration and less actual work time. In addition, he feels that "…when people buy an instrument in this price range they are expecting an instrument that's made by one person, and that's what I actually do."

Burgess, who has much more to do at his bench, isn't playing his swan song yet. "You know, I think the neat thing about it is you never stop learning," he believes. "I think if I learned a trade and just did it all my life it would be rather boring, but violins are complex enough that you can spend a lifetime learning."

Learning by leaps and notes

As far as knowledge goes, MacArthur Fellow Joseph Curtin is well-versed in the acoustics research that intrigues top physicists and guides the latest innovations in violins. Like Burgess, he too started out as a violin player in his youth. After studying musical performance with the wife of Hungarian violin maker Otto Erdesz, the Toronto native realized he wasn't going to become the kind of violinist he wanted to be. "I started rather late and whether I would've had the talent if I started earlier, I don't know. I know that making suits me far, far better." Under the tutelage of Erdesz, he made his first violin in 1978.

After living in Italy and Paris for a few years, where he met fellow luthier Gregg Alf, the two decided to open a workshop together and chose Ann Arbor for its proximity to the University of Michigan's top music program and the active University Musical Society, Curtin says. After running the Curtin and Alf workshop together for 12 years, the pair parted in 1997. Alf continued his full-time Ann Arbor practice, Alf Studios, while Curtin opened Joseph Curtin Studios.

Curtin is known for taking an experimental approach in a tradition-steeped field. For a time he used graphite in his instruments, but found it didn't offer significant advantages over wood, especially since its native tonal properties don't resemble those of a violin, he says. He's since returned to using layers of wood in his experimental instruments, including lightweight balsa and spruce and maple. Precision is the charm; a violin top measures only 2.5 to 3 mm thick. Because wood is a natural product, each violin tends to be unique, making industrial production at a high level difficult. Thus, "… a lot of being a violin maker is about understanding details of construction, of how it works, of trying to address the sound according to the sound you have in your inner ear, that sort of thing," he explains.

The profession is all-absorbing. "I get to play in all the areas I've been really interested in in my life, music and science and design and art and writing. I write a lot of articles. It's a unifying subject for me." He lectures for the Violin Society of America  and contributes to journals and to Strings and Strad magazines.

Formerly he crafted about 15 or 16 pieces a year with full-time help. Now, as half of his day is occupied with writing and research, he builds about five or six pieces annually on a commissioned basis with the assistance of Sharon Que, an Ann Arbor multimedia artist and fellow violin maker. Guido Bruschstein also comes in weekly to help him with woodworking. On his client list are violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, jazz violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch, and dozens of other concert masters and top soloists, plus 40 orchestras and quartets from around the U.S. and Europe. The waiting list for his instruments, which start at $30-$34,000 apiece, is currently a year and a half long, but often runs to two years, he says.

On being awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship in 2005, he notes, "…It gave me a bit more confidence that the things I was playing around with, the research and innovation, were possibly of wider interest."

Curtin is continuing with the same research and experimentation he's been at for the last 10-15 years, and has most recently returned from a meeting with
Jim Woodhouse, a top acoustics researcher in Cambridge, England. Stateside, in conjunction with Dr. Gabriel Weinreich, a professor emeritus of physics at U-M, designer Alex Sobolev, and electrical and sound engineer John Bell, he's working on an electric violin with digital processing that emulates the sounds of acoustic violins.

Does this have a commercial ring? "I'm mostly interested in this as a research project. One way to understand how something works is to try and create it synthetically as it were and if you can get a certain kind of sound via electronics then you know what's going on, whereas with wood you're never quite sure," Curtin explains. "At the same time, there's a good place in the market for a high quality electric electronic instrument and so, who knows, but that's not the first thing we think about right now."

His other research thrust is to measure and understand the workings of acoustical violins and to redesign the traditional violin to improve its response, projection, and stability – in short, to make it easier to play. "The violin is supposedly a perfect design," Curtin says, "but I've never met an instrument that didn't have some area where it could be better, so it's interesting to try and put all that together and see if there are some little things we can do to try and continue the evolution of the instrument."

With a 500-year-old tradition behind it, there's nothing like tinkering with the violin status quo. Would Antonio Stradivari roll over in his grave? Actually, Stradivari was a renowned experimenter himself. Bet he'd sit up and listen.

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Concentrate and Assistant Editor at Metromode. Her previous article was From Scratch: ThinkStretch.


David Burgess at his Workbench-Ann Arbor

A Burgess Work in Progress- Ann Arbor

David Burgess at work.-Ann Arbor

David Burgess Doing Even More Work; I Couldn't Stop him-Ann Arbor

Joseph Curtin at Work-Ann Arbor

A "Curtin Detail"-Ann Arbor

Violinsaplenty-Joseph Curtin Ann Arbor

All Photos by David Lewinski

Dave Lewinski
is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.  He wishes he could play the stringed instruments pictured above...

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