all in the family


Jen-Luc Piquant was tres desole in mid-August when she learned (via The Perfect Silence) that pioneering violin maker/acoustician Carleen Maley Hutchins had died at age 98. For those who follow the acoustics of musical instruments, and violins in particular, Hutchins was a legend — unorthodox, innovative, and completely unapologetic about her work, which occasionally met with skepticism, if not outright hostility. As Margalit Fox wrote in the New York Times obituary for Hutchins: "Working intently and noisily in her home in Montclair, NJ, she helped reimagine the idea of what a violin could be. In the process she designed and built an entire family of violins, eight instruments proportional in size and pitch known collectively as the new violin family or the violin octet." The eponymous Hutchins Consort performs exclusively with her instruments.

My favorite description of her personality comes from Gabriel Weinreich, a professor of physics/acoustician at the University of Michigan: "No respect for authority; a long attention span; scrupulous honesty; enthusiasm for intellectual collaborations; and the willingness to spend a lifetime beating a path through the jungle." I had the honor of interviewing Hutchins (then a spry 94) by phone at her New Hampshire home in 2005 for the American Institute of Physics' Inside Science News Service, and Weinreich's description fits my impressions of her. I never did get around to meeting her in person, which I regret.

It's the no respect for authority and stubborn perseverance that impressed me most: you can't be
cowed by the The Man if you're going to be a trailblazing pioneer, and
Hutchins had the deck stacked against her from the start. It's easy to forget how far we've come in the last 100 years in terms of women being welcomed in the professional/academic sphere. Hutchins was born in 1911 in Springfield, Massachusetts, grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, and stood out from her peers even as a child. For instance, she loved woodworking and played the trumpet — both highly uncommon pursuits for girls of that era.


Even more unusually, she attended Cornell University, where she studied entomology and earned a degree in biology in 1933, followed by a master's degree in education from New York University in 1942. This enabled her to land a decent job as a teacher at a private girl's school on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She married chemist Morton Hutchins in 1943, a man who shared her love of woodworking: the couple built their own house together. At the Brearley School, Hutchins made friends with several other faculty members who invited her to join their chamber group. She showed up, trumpet in hand, but it was far too loud for a chamber group. They really needed someone who played the viola. Rather than bow out, Hutchins learned to play the viola, buying an instrument for $75.

While she enjoyed the musical interludes, Hutchins became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of her bargain viola, and asked her uncle, a violin maker, to build her a better one. I guess he didn't want to enable her or something, because instead, he suggested she build one herself — she did have all that woodworking experience, after all — and gave her the name of a Russian violin maker in New York City who could help her get started. The Russian man wasn't exactly encouraging, but Hutchins wasn't easily dissuaded. "He didn't think much of a woman making an instrument, but at least he sold me a blueprint and a book and told me how to get started," she told me. And gosh darn it, she succeeded in building her very first viola over the next two years.

From the start, she was serious about the science behind building violins, striking up a long association in the late 1940s with Harvard physicist Frederick Saunders, who studied violin acoustics. She specifically designed instruments he could analyze and pick apart to determine just what gave rise to the distinctive quality sound associated with Stradivari violins, for example. Nor was Hutchins above the occasional scavenging. The New York Times obituary relates my all-time favorite Hutchins story. In 1957, she became enamored of a maple shelf in a phone booth in Columbia University's medical school; it was just the thing for the back plate of a new viola she was building, and she had an "in" at the school: her good friend Virginia Apgar, a doctor at Columbia and herself an amateur maker of violins. As Fox tells it:

One night [Apgar] and Mrs. Hutchins stole into the building with some tools and a replacement shelf stained to match. As Dr. Apgar stood guard, Mrs. Hutchins set to work. To their dismay, the new shelf was a quarter-inch too long. Mrs. Hutchins had a saw and there was a ladies' room nearby. As the New York Times reported afterward, "a passing nurse stared in astonishment at the sounds coming through the door." Dr. Apgar could think quickly. (She had, after all, devised the Apgar score, used worldwide to measure the health of newborns. "It's the only time repairmen can work in there," she said. Spirited out of the hospital, the shelf made a magnificent viola back.

Hutchins excelled at finding the critical balance between two key resonances when making her instruments. First and foremost is the natural wood resonance which can be tuned when the instrument is in pieces; the unattached wooden top and back of the instrument are known as "free plates" during this stage of the process. Traditionally, violin makers would "tune" the plates by carving away the wood underneath to specific thicknesses in order to get the desired natural resonances, flexing the wood plate in his/her hand and tapping them with a fingertip close to the ear to detect the telltale "ring." But it as much an art as a science; Hutchins thought there might be a better, more precise way to tune the plates to the natural resonance, and invented "free plate tuning." She used a loudspeaker to get the plates to vibrate, and spread glitter on top of them, watching where the tiny particles settled in order to find the exact lines that would give her the desired resonances. You can see the process firsthand in this nifty YouTube video featuring Hutchins herself, hard at work, talking about her process and her abiding love for wood:

The other critical resonance for a violin is the air resonance that is produced once the instrument has been assembled. That's the resonance that arises from the body cavity — kind of like what happens when you blow air across a glass bottle with a narrow neck to produce a tone (and that tone will be higher or lower depending on how much fluid is in said bottle). A violin has two holes that serve a similar purpose. After studying hundreds of master violins, Hutchins and her collaborators concluded that the best resonances always occurred within a very narrow range: the two open middle strings. The D string, second from the bottom, provided the fundamental air resonance, while the wood resonance fell one-fifth higher, on the next highest violin string (violins are tuned in fifths).

Another of Hutchins' innovations came in 1974, when she and collaborator Daniel Haines developed a graphite-epoxy composite to replace the usual spruce wood favored for the top of violin bellies. Choice of wood, and how that wood is treated, has long been a hot area of study by acousticians eager to uncover the "Stradivari secret" — what gives a Strad that unique quality of sound. (I've written about this topic before here.) Granted, it's a highly subjective analysis — the BBC organized a blind listening test in 1974, where not even world-famous violinists and violin dealers could all correctly distinguish between a Strad and a modern instrument — but there does seem to be evidence that treating the wood can enhance an instrument's acoustical qualities.

This was bolstered by the news that made the science headlines a couple of weeks ago during an annual conference in Germany on, um, forest husbandry. Empa scientist Francis Schwarze and a Swiss violin maker named Michael Rhonheimer collaborated on building violins with wood treated with fungus for up to 9 months, and pitted their modern instrument against a Stradivarius in a blind listening test. (Star British violinist Matthew Trusler did the playing honors.) Of the 180 or so people in attendance, 90 chose the fungal violin (dubbed Opus 58) that had been fungally treated for nine months to be the best of the lot, and fully 113 actually thought Opus 58 was the Strad.

Per Horst Heger of the Osnabruck City Conservatory, this could make acoustically superior instruments available to talented young musicians who would never be able to afford their own Strad; now they could have the same tonal quality for less. It all comes down to the quality of the wood, he explains. The fungal attack changes the cell structure of the wood, reducing its density and simultaneously increasing its homogeneity, thereby giving an instrument made with that wood a "warmer, more rounded sound." Antonio Stradivarius might not have benefited from fungus, but he did get help, apparently, from the "Little Ace Age" that hit Central Europe from 1645 to 1715. Trees grew more slowly and uniformly as a result of the longer winters and cooler summers, and that makes for wood with terrific acoustica
l qualities.


I don't know what Hutchins would say to that, with her instinctive feel for trees and wood. But she knew a little something about re-learning the lessons of the past. One of the most fascinating things she told me back in 2005 was her rediscovery — while building the first violin octet at the request of composer Henry Brant in the late 1950s — of lost musical principles once described bby the 17th century German composer Michael Praetorius. (The week Hutchins died, I listened to Praetorius on my morning commute in her honor. It seemed fitting.) Another musically inclined colleague told her about the composer's three-volume treatise, Syntagma Musicum, published in 1619, which detailed musical practices and instruments of the period. 

In particular, Praetorius described an octet family of violins tuned to the same ranges Hutchins was developing. For instance, Hutchins' baritone violin — similar to a large cello — featured the same dimension and string length as that pictured in the 17th century text. Ditto for the contrabass violin. "He was writing about something that was common knowledge at the time. That knowledge was lost," she told me. She figured that the tone of these early octets was not up to snuff acoustically, and thus they were replaced when the great 17th century violin makers began building instruments with exquisite resonances ideally suited for the performance needs of the era. Those earlier designs were abandoned, only to be rediscovered over 300 years later by a stubborn violin maker named Carleen Hutchins.

The traditional violin family includes the violin, the viola, and the cello, each different quite a bit in timbre. In contrast, the instruments in Hutchins' octet family range from the seven-foot contrabass to a tiny treble violin tuned a full octave above a standard violin. The sizes are graduated at each half-octave, filling in the gaps in timbre. The result (quoting the New York Times again) is "an even, densely woven tissue of sound, almost like choral music without the words."

An unexpected consequence of the redesign is that the placement of the key resonances shifts in the violin octet instruments. (Fans of the octet claim the instruments correct the acoustic imbalances of traditional violins.) Classical composers wrote music specifically tailored to the strengths of traditional instruments on those key resonances. For instance, Hutchins told me that in Mozart's two-viola quartets placed the first viola through the upper of the two main resonances and the second viola through the lower. With the octet, those resonances shift, which means most classical pieces must be transposed and rearranged before, say, the Hutchins Consort can perform them on this new family of violins. (There are modern composers now writing specifically for the violin octet instruments.)

Similarly, even world-class musicians like cellist Yo-Yo Ma must reacquaint themselves with these new instruments. Ma recorded Bela Bartok's violin concerto using one of Hutchins' alto violins (it has the register of a viola but is played vertically, like a cello), and found he had to play the instrument a bit differently in order to achieve the resonances he needed, for example. Robert Spears, a violin maker who trained under Hutchins (who I also spoke with back in 2005) thinks that the shifted resonances give the octet violins more tonal uniformity across the strings than traditional instruments. "A common complaint among musicians is that as one goes from string to string,  each one can sound like it's on a different instrument," he explained. "Skilled players do a terrific job of minimizing these effects. When suddenly they don't have to compensate for it anymore, it's almost a handicap at first until they realize that particular problem is gone."

Not everyone is a diehard fan of Hutchins' work; I think it's safe to say that she offended her share of colleagues over her long, distinguished career; even her fans would admit she could be abrasive. But even the skeptics admire her fortitude, her perseverance, and there's no doubt she made lasting contributions to the ongoing study of violin acoustics and instrument building. Hutchins herself made seven full octets over the years — no small feat, since it requires a good 2000 hours to do so. Her "disciples" have built even more. Several of her creations are now housed in museums collections, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musik Museet in Stockholm, the University of South Dakota, and at the Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments.

The remaining three octets she built are in the capable hands of the Hutchins Consort. Hopefully we can look forward to their continued use in performance (and in the lab). After all, Hutchins said that her instruments "still need to be explored in depth and played seriously by a group of dedicated musicians who will give them the same treatment that is given to learning any stringed instrument." Carleen Maley Hutchins may have shuffled off this mortal coil, but her spirit lives on with the violins she built — particularly every time they are played.

2 thoughts on “all in the family”

  1. Jennifer, thanks for this detailed post about Hutchins and violas and acoustics. I swear, every time I check in with this blog, there’s some fascinating fact to focus on. I’m a viola player, too, so I was glad to read about it all.

  2. We live near the Hutchins Consort, and have been going to their concerts for a few years. The players are excellent, and the sound is amazing. If you’re in the Southern California area, try to get to one of their concerts.
    Hutchins Consort

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