(American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins, the Art & Science of the Violin. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge Press, 2016)
In my first year of undergraduate work, I met a fellow arts student who was an extremely gifted sculptor and painter. As an unabashed bumpkin, my experience up to that point with creative genius had been limited. I believed that a modicum of talent, nurtured by seasoned and patient teachers and combined with an exemplary work ethic, were all the ingredients required for greatness. Then one afternoon I visited this fellow artist’s tiny off-campus apartment, which also housed a rather unexpected wife and small child, and was completely dominated by a vast armature for a new sculpture. It was clear with one glance that all the pedestrian things that consume much of our lives – food, furniture, clothing – were utterly eclipsed by the presence of this enormous structure (I recall it as a horse, but could possibly have been nudes – something else I had little first-hand experience with). There was something more than talent, modicum or otherwise, happening here; this was talent paired with an undeniable compulsion to expand and create. It was as if art had attached a physical cord to this man’s inner being that drew him forward through life with an inexorable tug. He might, at some point, abdicate his marriage, his education, and possibly his responsibility as a parent, but unquestionably, he would always make art.
American Luthier, author Quincy Whitney’s biography of Carleen Hutchins, offers a verbal portrait of a woman who embodies that same undeniable force of creativity and curiosity. Hutchins was an artisanal polyglot who spent much of her adult life navigating the territory between the science of acoustics and the art of violin making, a path she embarked on without formal training in either field. By the author’s account, Hutchins had a life-long fascination with the why of things, which was fully matched by her desire and talent to combine materials, create and recreate.
When her parents gave her a Victrola, it proved to be too great a temptation. Carleen took apart the record player to see how it worked, then fixed the turntable as a wheel on the ground and made herself a little wagon out of the Victrola.
Whitney begins the book with a chronicle of Hutchins’s early life. Born in 1911 as the only child of a rakish, self-absorbed father and a nurturing, if somewhat complacent mother, she was an inquisitive child with unbounded energy and enthusiasm for nature, music, woodworking, athletics, and science. When discussing these early years, Whitney’s writing is both intimate and expansive, giving the reader a full understanding of Carleen’s adventurous and indomitable spirit as she moves into adulthood and embarks on a series of delightfully unorthodox (for the era) career choices.
By the middle of the 20th century, Hutchins had found her way to violin making, an amalgam of her interests in music and woodworking. She became fascinated with the science of acoustics and determined to master the skills that could produce a contemporary instrument to equal the violins produced in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1949, Hutchins met Frederick Saunders, a retired Harvard physicist with a keen interest in violin acoustics. Thus, began a vibrant collaborative relationship that lasted until Saunders’ death in 1963. Together they explored the intersection of art and science with the process of free-plate tuning (free plates are the front and back of a violin before it has been assembled) by measuring tap-tones (the sound a free-plate makes when tapped) with an oscilloscope or sound meter.
Quincy Whitney is an accomplished and widely recognized arts writer, and her work is exquisitely crafted and reverential, mirroring her regard for Hutchins’s contribution to the science and art of violin making. Chapters detailing Hutchins’s life and work are interspersed with pages (printed on wonderfully tactile, smooth, pearl-grey paper) that illustrate the history of violin making, the science of acoustics, and engaging anecdotes that provide texture and context to the narrative. Yet what fascinates me most about American Luthier, is the accessibility of a contemporary genius. The author’s obvious deep regard for her subject and comprehensive knowledge of music and history are illuminated by first-hand accounts of her conversation with Hutchins. American Luthier gives the reader a giddy sense of discovering an unexpected treasure in one’s own back yard, as well as the faith that atavistic genius transcends the challenges of a modern and complex society.
In describing Hutchins’s life, Whitney writes:
Is it hubris, curiosity, naïveté, or ignorance that blinds one to doubt or propels one past it? The luck and lore of the outsider in any field is that he or she does not know the jargon of the canon, so is less likely to fall prey to false assumptions. …This kind of single-mindedness provides its own momentum, regardless of territory, credentials, authority, or approval.
Would that we all could experience this self-assurance of inner purpose – this “calling” to a life’s work that cannot be denied. Perhaps it would not be the easiest way to live a life, but I can’t help but think it would profoundly satisfying.
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Jody Handerson is a working writer who lives in Minnesota.