Featured Innovator - Carleen Hutchins

Carleen Hutchins (1911-2009) was both a dedicated scientist and innovative luthier. She studied how violins produce their distinctive sound, and in the process she became a sought-after viola maker. Over the years she encountered criticism for being a woman and bringing scientific inquiry into an esoteric discipline. But the quality of her instruments gradually earned the respect and admiration of many luthiers and players. In scientific circles she was known for her extensive work in acoustics research. All this she did after age forty! In her school days she had no idea how prolific her life would some day be.

As a child, Carleen Hutchins raised silkworms, joined the Girl Scouts, and enjoyed woodworking. When Hutchins entered college she studied entomology, but by the time of graduation she was interested in becoming a doctor. Because of little money and gender-based discouragement, she decided to become a high school science teacher. It was not until she was in her forties that Hutchins got involved with string instruments. She played trumpet in an amateur chamber music group during the late 1940s, but the group decided a viola would sound better. So she give up the trumpet and bought a cheap viola. Dissatisfied with her poor quality instrument, Hutchins set about to make her own. In 1949, after two years of work, her first viola was ready to play. It was around this time that she stopped teaching to start raising a family with her husband, Morton. That same year she began a six-year study with luthier Karl Berger. With his advice Hutchins made over twenty violas, four violins, and one cello. Also in 1949, Hutchins met Harvard physicist Frederick Saunders who had an active interest in acoustics. He wanted to experiment with the structures of string instruments, but luthiers and players do not like holes drilled in their expensive violins. Hutchins agreed to make “boxes” (unfinished but playable instruments) for the sake of science. Eventually she would turn her own basement into an acoustics laboratory filled with various instruments and electronic equipment. And so it was that she spent the 1950s learning both the art of violin making and the science of sound from two qualified mentors.

In her collaboration with Saunders, Hutchins made a collection of string instruments that underwent hundreds of experiments. Most of those instruments did not survive to the present day, but much was learned and many papers were published. Hutchins' skill in instrument making reached such a level that some of her instruments were being purchased by professional players. Over the years she devised a surprisingly visual method of analyzing the front and back “plates” of a violin. The setup involves holding the plate over a loudspeaker by placing foam blocks under its corners. Some glitter is sprinkled over the plate, and the speaker is activated with a frequency generator. The operator slowly changes the frequency while watching the glitter. At certain tones, the glitter will astonishingly move into definite patterns on the violin plate. These patterns are called Chladni patterns, and they indicate how the plate naturally vibrates. By observing these patterns and the frequencies at which they occur, a luthier can refine the shape and thickness of the plate for optimal tuning.

As Hutchins' knowledge of wood grew, so did her resourcefulness in finding quality materials. She obtained wood from such unconventional sources as wine crates and polo balls. One memorable story even tells of Hutchins and the famous doctor, Virginia Apgar, taking a shelf from a payphone booth under the cover of night. The shelf became the back plate of a viola and was replaced by a replica shelf of lesser-quality wood.

Once she had enough technical experience in acoustics, Hutchins felt the need to connect with other researchers and promote the sharing of information. To that end, the Catgut Acoustical Society was founded in the 1960s—bringing isolated minds into a group for studying musical instruments. The society's membership would grow to 800 in less than twenty years.

Perhaps Hutchins' most memorable contribution to violin making is her New Violin Family, also known as the violin octet. Composer Henry Brant came to Hutchins with a challenge in 1957. He wanted her to create seven new string instruments centered around the violin. Each instrument was to be tuned half an octave apart with the highest-pitched instrument tuned one octave above the violin. While certain members of this family are similar to the viola, cello, and double bass, they are designed as large violins, not mere copies of their conventional counterparts. The intention is a group of instruments that sing together in perfect harmony and with amazing clarity. With funding from the Guggenheim Foundation, Hutchins and her many collaborators had a complete octet ready for concert testing by the mid-1960s. The new family was impressive, but Hutchins would spend decades refining each violin for an ever-improving sound. In the end she made eight instruments—slightly modifying the traditional violin design. The members of this family are named the treble, soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, small bass, and contrabass violins. The mezzo violin is tuned just like a traditional violin, but its body is longer. The alto violin is tuned like a viola, but it has an endpin and is played upright like a cello. Hutchins traveled the world on lecture tours to spread awareness of the violin octet. She was met with both admiration for her innovation and enmity for trying to change the classical orchestra. Because of this controversy, it took some time for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to display an octet. Nevertheless, the quality of the octet's sound is undeniable, and musicians are catching on to it. Yo-Yo Ma has made recordings using an alto violin, and the instrument has also been favored by William Berman and Randall Vemer.

Carleen Hutchins left a legacy of acoustic innovation. One of her collaborators, Gabriel Weinreich, continues his research to this day and is developing an electric violin and speaker system that recreate the experience of an antique instrument. Hutchins also taught her methods of violin making to many students, even traveling so far as China in 1982 to share her knowledge. Gregg Alf and Joseph Curtin learned from her in the 1980s. Alf specializes in high-quality traditional violins, and Curtin is working on reproducing Stradivarius sound with electric instruments and software. The violin octet continues to be promoted by such groups as the Hutchins Consort, and hopefully its popularity will only increase in the future. Most important of all, what survives Hutchins is her open-mindedness towards innovation and using technology to blur the boundaries between science and art. More luthiers are experimenting with string instrument design and materials. More players are trying out the new instruments. Violin making used to be a stagnant, arcane subject, but it is quickly becoming a dynamic and open-minded field.