This is not a Revolution


“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

I am concerned about the culture of the violin business.

This article is not about luthier and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Joseph Curtin’s character or personality.  I don’t know Joseph Curtin.  I’ve never spoken with him.  He seems like a nice guy.  I don’t begrudge him his success or fame.  I am always interested in experimentation and the work of modern makers.  Power to him, I say.  He has never said he is a revolutionary or genius, these descriptions were bestowed upon him by others, after all. What I’m exploring here are the problems with the nature and popularity of his recent paper on comparing musician’s reactions to old and new violins.  This is mainly a critique of the culture of the field itself.  It is also an examination of the how Curtin’s study and the uncritical publicity surrounding it serves to blind us to new possibilities and keep us enslaved to the status quo ante. 

 The Strings Magazine article titled, “Luthier Joseph Curtin Leads the Violin World’s Politest Revolution,” published in its October 2016 edition is the real genesis for my revisiting this topic.  It is only one of the many admiring, uncritical pieces published on the study. The problem is that I don’t see anything revolutionary in this latest paper or in any of Curtain’s work for that matter.  I’m not saying it’s bad, because it most certainly isn’t.  Luthiers have a long history of subjecting musicians and themselves to blind playing/listening tests.  In fact it seems to be an obsession.  This paper is simply the most organized form that this old idea may have taken.  The question of old versus new violins is hardly wild and new-fangled, as any crusty old timer in the business can tell you.  I even remember seeing a vintage ad from the end of the 19th century by a violin maker going so far as to claim that old violins were dirty and caused disease (!) – living makers contending with players preferring antique instruments is not a recent development.  Acoustic testing of instruments has been around for a long time as well.  The scientific studies of Coleen Hutchins, Norman Pickering, and Joe Regh are just a few examples. Experimentation in making and set up is as old as the field itself; long pattern Strads, the conversion from baroque to modern violins, patented bass bars, odd bridges, “tuned” tail-pieces, self-rehairing bows, Vuillaume style frogs, carbon fiber, metal bows, violins without corners, high arching/flat arching, different string materials and tensions, just to name a few examples.  As interesting as Joseph Curtin’s work is, and it IS interesting, it is not revolutionary.  If anything it is reactionary – in that it recycles the tropes of the past and seeks to preserve and practice traditions rather than to truly challenge or change them.

In a past blog posting I wrote as the result of a careful reading of his scientific paper and its  attending documents as published in PNAS, I commented that it feels that Curtin and by extension his colleagues (whose expensive instruments were used in the study) seem eager to join the pantheon of “great violin makers” rather than demolish it.  He and his colleagues charge multiple tens of thousands of dollars for their instruments, which are oftentimes beautiful replicas of classic Italian models.  While their violins may be less expensive than a Grancino, they are still the highest priced living modern makers of today.  This is hardly revolutionary – it’s a desire as old as the field itself.  Of course modern makers in every age wish to make a living at their craft in what can be a competitive and challenging field.   This is why we also have a long history of self-promotion and advertising.  Certainly this paper comes with a fair amount of positive publicity.  Asserting or seeking to prove that modern violins have merit, even when compared to the classic Italians, isn’t an effort to subvert the old order, it’s simply the latest repetition of a familiar pattern.

Here I want to make it clear that I disagree the methods and concept behind the paper Curtin worked on, Soloist evaluations of six old Italian and six new violins.  Supposedly the results upset some people, but not me.  I’m a big supporter of modern makers and a critic of the over fetishization and over-pricing of old instruments.  But yes, I feel the study was flawed, specifically due to a list of potentially critical variables.  For example, instruments were set up and adjusted by many different luthiers and different bows were used.  I have issues with the top-down testing style and its results, but not because I believe older instruments are inherently superior.  However, my main issue is with the operating idea behind the study.  The tests (there are several) have been billed as, “provocative experiments pitting new violins against old Italian instruments,” by Strings Magazine.  To my mind this isn’t true.  The study is not about testing instruments, it is about testing musicians.  For me, this is the main issue and one that has been lost in the flurry of superficial articles generated by the media.

Why is the idea of testing soloist’s ability to discern the differences between a new violin and an old Italian flawed?  Because it asks the wrong questions.  It puts the cart before the horse.  If there is anything I have learned from years of striving to meet the needs of my clients, it is that the musician comes first.  The bow and instrument are tools which remain silent without their input.  We must acknowledge that each musician comes with their own unique sound regardless of what violin or bow they may play.  I’ve learned so much about my craft by listening to players.  The instrument would never have evolved without musicians seeking the help of luthiers as they struggled to meet the demands of new composition, performance and playing styles.  What do we learn from blind tests?  We find out that musicians sometimes have trouble telling old from new, so what?  This simply recycles the status quo.  We do not learn what musicians look for in an instrument.  We often don’t comprehend their tonal and technical needs.  We don’t explore the basic attributes a good violin must have for a given application. We put our expertise first. We put the instrument first.  We’ve been here before.  Why don’t we ask soloists, orchestral performers, and quartet members what they need from their tools to better make music?  The salient question of just what constitutes a good violin and all it’s attending cultural, economic, technical and historical constituents is so potentially rewarding and illuminating that it should not be ignored.

I have a proposition which is also a challenge.  I mentioned it in my original blog post and I’ll repeat it here.  If we accept that the results of the paper prove that soloists cannot tell new instruments from old, then there is an interesting and logical corollary.  By extension it follows that soloists will not be able to tell the difference between modern makers and new mass produced examples.   If the authors of the study say that here is no way one can compare beautiful handmade modern instruments to mass produced models, are they not simply recreating the same prejudice that said modern instruments could never compete with Cremonese violins?  Let’s put it to the test, but improve on the methods of Curtain et al.   An equal selection of violins by the most sought after modern makers and those by Chinese firms will be fully set up by a single luthier (including adjusting fingerboards, etc.) and will use the same strings.  We will then follow the published paper’s methods, except that players will share a single bow.   If Curtin is right, musicians won’t be able to say which violin is which.  Soloists, quartets and symphony musicians around the world playing on $2500 factory violins would indeed be revolutionary!

I believe Curtin is sincere and honest in his efforts.  At least he is actually trying to explore some fundamental technical concepts, which is hard to argue against.  While I wouldn’t call his work revolutionary, I believe that he is actually one of the latest practitioners of an old and honorable tradition within the craft:  the tinkerer and experimenter.  One’s work need not be revolutionary or even unprecedented to be worthwhile, after all. It is also important to remember, that while he may be one of the better publicized members of our craft, his work still deserves critical attention and that there are plenty of less celebrated figures doing interesting and important work that need to be heard from as well.

I understand and sympathize with the plight of new makers, I myself being one, but the most effective way forward is not through testing musicians abilities to tell the difference between instruments, acoustical research or hero worship, it is in creating more inclusive makers organizations, instituting new forms of cooperation and education, challenging dealer-defined economic and business models, and actually communicating directly with musicians.  We must evolve.

Tradition plays an important role in our craft.  It represents the hard won knowledge of those who came before us.  We can’t operate without it.  As a culture we love the words “genius” and “revolution,” but we dilute and distort their definitions mainly to sell products and promote personalities.  Our field needs more wisdom, less genius – more outreach into other fields and ideas, less navel gazing.  At the same time we need less cult of personality, and greater appreciation and promotion of the unglamorous side of our craft, namely the discipline it demands. Tradition wouldn’t exist without its indispensable partner, evolution.  Evolution can be a slow and steady change, almost imperceptible to outsiders, but it can also come in unexpected eruptions or floods of change (which some may call revolution).  Our craft has effectively evolved from within in so many ways, predominantly in specialized matters like restoration or making techniques. Some changes have come from outside forces, such as mass Chinese production or the legal considerations of insurance and appraisal.  What our craft and field really needs is a consideration of deeper questions that address our very relationships with the world we live in.  After all, evolution and revolution are not always positive forces.

My First Blog Entry on Curtin’s Study:

Strings Magazine Article on Study: