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New Directions in Violin Making

New Directions in Violin Making

by Joseph Curtin

from his 2008 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in American Lutherie #97, 2009

I started violin making as a frustrated player. My viola teacher’s husband was a viola maker, and at some point I just switched rooms. Otto Erdesz was his name, and he was a kind of crazy genius. I had a very informal education with him, which I realize now was good in some ways. He used to say, “If you take my advice, you do what you want.” The first instrument I made was a viola based on an asymmetrical model of his which had the upper bout cut away so you could reach higher positions. It seemed like a very good idea. He made about twenty of them, and then got frustrated at the resistance of musicians. Just the fact that it was different was a disadvantage.

I moved into traditional violin making, which means more or less making copies of instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries. Trying to do that well, trying to do that in a beautiful way and a faithful way and a way that sounds good, is an absolutely fascinating technical challenge. It’s very useful to have the limits provided by these traditions. But after twenty years I started to feel that making another Guarneri copy was a little boring. My mother is a painter and my father is a photographer, so I come from a visual arts background. In the visual arts, the general idea is to do something different each time. It would be embarrassing to do the same painting twice. With crafts, there’s an emphasis on repetition of forms. I think there can be a balance between those approaches in instrument making. And I think there is much more openness now to new design ideas among violin makers, and I’m sure among guitar makers too.

I’ll show the work of various makers, including myself. I don’t want to give the impression that this is a major movement. It’s small, but hopefully it will grow. It’s fun to spend some of your time following your imagination as much as the traditions.

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