Carleen Hutchins: Rogue Luthier

Eschewing tradition, some instrument makers are redefining what a violin, viola, or cello is.

By Jacob Roberts | March 9, 2018

Der Geigenspieler (The Violin Player), artist unknown, ca. 1900. 

Dorotheum/Wikimedia Commons

The violin is an iconic instrument. The designs of the entire violin family, including cellos, violas, and basses, have hardly changed since they were first invented, and today’s luthiers are in no rush to modify them. Instead, they are focused on re-creating that special something that made the instruments of Antonio Stradivari and his Italian contemporaries so great, sometimes going so far as to build near-exact replicas of specific antique instruments. Collectors are rarely interested in buying anything that doesn’t resemble a Stradivarius, and musicians are rarely interested in playing anything that doesn’t sound like one either.

Still, there are a few craftspeople who are not afraid to question the establishment. Joseph Curtin is one such rogue luthier who builds stringed instruments out of carbon fiber, foam, and other synthetic materials instead of wood. His instruments are lighter, tougher, and cheaper than more traditional ones, and depending on whom you ask, they sound just as good too. But to many conventional violin makers who worship Stradivari, Curtin’s work is nothing short of blasphemy. They believe that Stradivari, Guarneri, and the other Italian masters already perfected the violin. To them innovating further is at best pointless and at worst damaging the reputation of their craft.

Curtin is not alone in his pursuit of improved string instruments, and I wrote about him and other inventive luthiers in a Distillations article about the mystery of Stradivarius violins. A perceptive reader of the magazine pointed out that I overlooked the work of Carleen Hutchins, a high school biology teacher turned luthier who reinvigorated the world of violin making in the mid-20th century.

In 1947, while Hutchins was pregnant with her first child, she decided to leave her teaching job at the Brearley School in Manhattan. As a pregnant woman nearing 40 years old in the hyperconservative 1940s, Hutchins didn’t have many career options outside of education, but she dreamed of getting involved in music. Emboldened by her group of friends who were similarly displeased with their predetermined roles in society, she bought a cheap viola from a store near her home in New York City and learned how to play it. The instrument looked ugly and sounded worse, so Hutchins, who had some background in woodworking, decided to improve it.

The fiercely independent Hutchins built her first instrument entirely by herself but realized along the way that a little help would make her better at her new hobby. She sought the advice of Karl Berger, a luthier from Switzerland who was living in New York. Over the next few years Hutchins built many instruments, bringing them to Berger to ask how she could improve her technique. Eventually she was constructing violins and violas on a professional level, and even Berger admitted there was no more he could teach her.

One of Hutchins’s close friends at the time, a doctor at Columbia University, was also an amateur violist. As the story goes, her friend spotted a beautiful maple-wood shelf sitting unappreciated in a phone booth in the building where she taught. In the middle of the night she and Hutchins snuck into the building and tried to swap out the shelf with a lower-quality piece of wood. The replacement shelf didn’t quite fit, so Hutchins had to make a quick adjustment with a saw in a nearby bathroom. After nearly being caught by a nurse making her rounds, they successfully absconded with the shelf, and soon Hutchins’s friend was performing with a brand-new maple-backed viola.

That story is emblematic of Hutchins’s ability to take risks and see things as they were, including the flaws in the traditional design of the violin. Like Curtin, Hutchins did not hold anything sacred just because that was the way it had always been.

Normally, violins are the stars of the show; they can be heard no matter how high or low they are playing. Other instruments, such as cellos, are often drowned out when they get too low. Hutchins suspected this was because violins have better sound projection and are easier to tune compared with other members of the violin family. In order to test her theories she designed a set of customizable violins for her friend and frequent collaborator Frederick Saunders, a Harvard physicist. Saunders ran hundreds of experiments on Hutchins’s instruments, making adjustments to the size of the f-holes, the curve of the wood, and the height of the ribs (the “sides” of the violin that hold the top and bottom together) to account for every possible factor contributing to sound quality. Eventually he created a list of optimal dimensions for stringed instruments.

Using that list, Hutchins built a modified violin designed to be played vertically on her lap rather than horizontally on her shoulder. It was capable of performing a much larger range of notes without overpowering other instruments in a concert. Not satisfied with just one new instrument, she continued building violins that could produce new harmonic intervals.

By 1967 she had designed eight new variations of the traditional violin, ranging in size from the enormous contrabass to the tiny treble. Each one could play in different ranges of octaves, ensuring they were perfectly balanced when played together in an octet. (Stringed instruments are usually played in a quartet.)

It wasn’t long before her instruments gained the attention of accomplished musicians. Yo-Yo Ma famously played and recorded a concert on one of Hutchins’s alto violins in 1993. However, even Ma’s endorsement was not enough to bring the octet into the mainstream. Many other musicians, luthiers, and instrument dealers insisted that Hutchins’s modifications were unnecessary. Even now you would be hard pressed to find a music store selling anything besides instruments based on the designs of Antonio Stradivari and other Italian masters.

The irony in all of this is that the violin as we know it today is only about 300 years old. Stradivari innovated on the designs of his predecessors, just as his predecessors modified and rebuilt the rebecs, rababs, and fiddles of the Middle Ages before settling on what would become the foundation of the violin. If anything, the current resistance to change in the music world is a reversal from how instruments evolved throughout the rest of history. Without such people as Hutchins and Curtin instrument design might have stagnated for another 300 years.

Hutchins built hundreds of stringed instruments and dozens of brand-new violins by hand before her death in 2009. Although most musicians and luthiers are still focused on the past, her innovative spirit lives on in Curtin and other luthiers who can see beyond the (symphonic) status quo.