Elatia Harris

Keith_photo_for_website In the studio on his farm in Manchester, Michigan, Keith Hill makes musical instruments, has done for 35 years.  Until recently, most of those instruments were harpsichords played by professional musicians all over the world.  But then he began questing for the maker’s grail – a violin from his own hands to equal those of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.  It’s a long quest, and he has plenty of company.  For the secrets of the great violin makers of Cremona have, famously, never been penetrated, and the attempt to make an instrument sounding that gorgeous has been the fruitless life’s work of countless luthiers in the 250 years since Giuseppe Guarneri made his last.

How is it that Keith Hill could be the maker who gets there?  And how close has he already come?  That’s what I wanted to look into, intrigued that instruments made by some of our era’s most illustrious luthiers do not sound necessarily better than much cheaper mass-produced violins.  Why not?  When physics, mechanics and acoustics have been brought to bear on Cremona violins, and luthiers spare nothing of craft to copy them, creating instruments capable of extreme optical seduction.  And yet, what goes missing is the sound – characteristic, authoritative and ravishing.

Over several years, and more recently, over several focused conversations, Keith Hill and I have talked about the approaches that makers have taken to reclaiming the lost art.  In the world of violin making, Hill is not just a particularly fastidious maker, but a real maverick who conceives of his task differently than others, and is – to use a term that weighs heavily with him — prepared in his imagination for a different result.

What do you think happened between the time of the great makers — Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri — and the present time for their methods to be such a puzzle to modern makers?

KH: The modern frame of reference happened, and it takes some doing to know the world as a maker of the 17th century would have known it. This includes thinking about acoustics from a completely different point of view. There was a huge shift in the whole basis of scientific culture between the 17th and 18th centuries – towards observation, verifiablility and mathematical proof.  Science began to be dominated by the eye.  Before that, science was closer to what we think of as alchemy, with one favorite activity of a scientist being to draw correlations between everything in the universe.  A musical instrument was a microcosm, governed by Pythagorean ratios and proportions, and before attempting to understand the makers’ way of doing things, it’s necessary to remember that the great violins got their start in the time just before Galileo.

EH: And that the last of the great makers had died before the Enlightenment got underway?

KH: That’s right.  The instruments we’re talking about came from the workshops of three makers in Cremona, between the final years of the 16th century and the first half of the 18th century.  The first was Andrea Amati, who invented the violin as we know it, but the best of the Amati line was his grandson Nicolo, the teacher of both Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.  Stradivari was almost 40 by the time he went out on his own in 1680. He was active for a very long time, until the late 1730’s, and extremely productive — he averaged about 25 violins a year, compared to 3 or 4 a year from a good maker today.  Stradivari’s workshop, but not his genius, passed to his two sons. Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu” was the grandson of Andrea – the top of the line and rather short-lived.  He died in his 40’s only a few years after Stradivari, in 1744.  So these were family businesses, with the greatest instruments produced by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri in the early 1700’s.


EH: What would a violinist today be thinking about in choosing one of these instruments over another?

KH: A violinist is always going to be thinking of the best-sounding and most playable instrument he can find for the money — whatever the money. And even among the best of the best, there is something to choose.  A Guarneri “del Gesu” is about twice as loud as a Strad. It has vocal qualities, whereas a Strad has qualities that are more organ-like.  So it’s apples and oranges.  And of course these instruments don’t change hands very often.  Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin played Guarneri “del Gesu” violins.  Itzak Perlman was playing a Strad in the 1970’s, but he also owns a Guarneri “del Gesu.” By the way, the term “del Gesu” comes from Giuseppe Guarneri’s personal label, which incorporated the intitials I-H-S.  It’s how you tell — from looking, that is — his violins from others of his shop.

EH: What about the differences between them from the modern maker’s point of view?

KH: It’s important to me that Amati used non-harmonic ratios – minor thirds, perfect fourths, minor sixths, and so on. Whereas Stradivari pioneered the shift to harmonic ratios and knew how to tune wood perfectly.  But it’s pretty easy on a Strad to squeak when you play.  When I discovered the connection between tuning with harmonic ratios and the ease of squeaking, and the difficulty caused by these ratios to the ease of speech of the string, I called the effect “distortion resistance.” And Guarneri worked very hard to overwhelm that, which increases the playability of his violins.

3violinists EH: It’s interesting you don’t say a thing about the differences in how these instruments appear. Is it important what a violin looks like?

No, but that’s what later makers have fixated on anyway.  The great violins do present different appearances.  An Amati is a gorgeous-looking violin.  Stradivari had a very good eye.  A Guarneri violin can show a certain indifference to craft, although that’s not always the case.  By the 1690’s, Strads had found their way to all the ports of Europe, and they are certainly beautiful-looking instruments.  Within 10 to 20 years, Stradivari’s reputation had taken hold securely, and within 100 years of that the demand had taken off.  So copies of Strads and Guarneri violins had become common by the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  If you’re copying, you’re relying on your eyes – the more exact people can see that your copy is, the better for you.  Not everyone who could afford a copy of a Strad had actually heard one played, but they’d heard of it, and knew it ought to look like a rare, fine thing. This is when a cabinet making approach began to dominate violin making, and the level of craft a maker could bring to an instrument decided its value. It’s still that way, with Strad copies taking months to make and looking very close to a real Strad costing lots of money on that basis alone.

Something is wrong with this picture…

KH: It is. This is because a violin isn’t an artifact that looks a certain way to please your eyes, and when you make one you shouldn’t be testing it with your eyes but with your ears – just as you test the worth of a recipe by taste, and not by how the dish looks when it’s presented.

But looks aside – why isn’t the whole point of all that craft to make a great-sounding violin?  One that rivals or matches the great violins in sound?

KH: If that were the whole point, it would have been done by now, and many reasons have been given by makers why their violins do not come up to that level – lack of the right woods, the right varnish, the right number of decades for their violins to age to have a shot at sounding like a Strad.  If time was what it took, Guarneri “del Gesu” violins would not have come into their own for decades after Giuseppe Guarneri died, and Strads would not have been coveted all over Europe within 10 years of Stradivari setting up his own shop.  It’s true, even a great violin has to be played-in to sound wonderful, but that can be brought about in a matter of days. We have the choice of wood the great makers had, and then some.  But we don’t even use some – like willow – that they did use.  As for varnish, it really can be a tricky affair, but myths about holy varnish should be disregarded, because the violin has to be a great-sounding violin before it is varnished.  If it isn’t, no varnish will make it so.

You sound like you had a lot of trial and error yourself.

Enough to eliminate a great many false paths.

So, if it’s not the wood, and not the varnish, and not the years, and if makers like the lady with all the machines and meters and earphones in that classic Nova episode “Secrets of the Great Violins” haven’t gotten close –

KH: That’s Carleen Hutchins.  She’s very committed to her own approach, which she believes is a scientific one, and she’s trained many students to do the work the way she does it.  The fact that she is shown on Nova in her workshop “tuning” a plate using the tone generator and wearing ear protectors says just about everything regarding her approach.  To me, the notion of building a musical instrument without the benefit of hearing is…well, what can I say?

EH: Then how do you even get on the path to go after these secrets?

Antoniostradivari KH:  By not conceiving of them as secrets, to start with. Contrary to popular opinion, there were no secrets in the musical instrument workshops of the 17th and 18th century makers. This is because everyone knew just about the same things as everyone else, and left to his own devices in the privacy of his studio each maker developed personal habits and ways of doing things that were distinctive and even unique.  A maker who had some special knack for making a wonderful sound was merely considered more talented, just like today. So the main question is, what did the best makers of the past know about how to make a wonderful sound that we don’t seem to know? To answer this question, you need to know how they thought about sound.

And you have some ideas about that…

KH: I have made some discoveries about how the great makers may have considered acoustics so as to build sound the way they did.  It takes into account a worldview that has been eclipsed, scientifically speaking, but is no less accurate now than then, when applied to the making of musical instruments. Modern science has been just about useless in that pursuit, if the idea is to make a great violin that can speak to us as the great violins of the past do.  For that, we need to go straight to what the great makers knew.

EH: Something that’s kind of mystical?

KH: No, just something about the way they saw the world.  For instance, I observed about 25 years ago that nature constructs living organisms and tunes the parts of their structure to pure musical ratios — this is what the ancient makers must have known.  Our bones, then, are tuned to pure musical ratios that are part of the harmonic series, and it is the complex of these harmonic ratios in the various bones that makes each of our voices unique. The ancient musical instrument makers then figured out how to “build” these musical ratios into all the parts of their instruments and the results were musical instruments that sound like human voices. This way of thinking is what was lost shortly after the death of Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri, as makers became fixated on mass production methods and lost touch with the other practices of their traditional acoustical infrastructure.

This is where there have to be similarities between your work and that of Stradivari and Guarneri – in the acoustical infrastructure.

My work is entirely based on acoustical principles, not on copying the appearances of violins that the great violinists have come to love, respect and covet.  If my violins bear any similarity to the work of Giuseppe Guarneri, it is not because I copied one of his violins, it is because, in a manner of speaking, I copied his mind-set.


EH: The better to make the same discoveries he did?

KH:  Exactly. There are principles that I have discovered, learned, intuited, or received from one or two researchers in the field who had a good idea. But I base my designs mostly on my own discoveries about how the sound of the violin can be enhanced. When I discover a way to enhance the sound of my violins, I try to inspect a great antique violin to notice if that same idea was used by any of the great antique makers.  When I can observe that the great makers used that same idea in their making, I know that I have found yet another piece of the puzzle. When I put all the discoveries together in a single expression – in my design for a violin, that is — it will usually end up looking exactly like a 17th to 18th century Cremona violin.  If I am missing a piece of the puzzle, then I can see and hear and feel the differences when I compare my work directly to a great antique violin.  And the closer I get to a sound that compares with a Strad or a Guarneri “del Gesu” violin, the more obvious the perceptual “holes” become.

Why is that?

Because anytime you enhance the perception of a thing you enhance everything about it, including all its defects. Sometimes the perceptual “holes” are of such a nature that the idea, concept or principle needed the fill the hole is really elusive.  This is especially true about the violin, and it’s why the solution to the problem of how the ancient makers built sound has universally managed to elude makers, ever since the18th century.

: I noticed that Richard Tognetti, the music director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, was recently made a long term loan of a Guarneri “del Gesu” violin – the “Carrodus” – but that’s a 10.5 million dollar instrument the likes of which very few even fabulously gifted violinists will ever get to play.  Are you making instruments with them in mind?

No. It is not enough to build something that is good enough to satisfy even a great musician because too often even the greatest musicians will be impressed and satisfied if an instrument works well enough to play music on, and sounds good enough not to annoy or irritate the sensitive ear, and is suggestive enough of good sound for them to imagine enjoying playing it again.  I asked Isaac Stern to play my first violin – not because I wanted to know what he thought of it, but because I wanted to know what I thought of it being played by him.

Okay! What did you think when you heard Isaac Stern playing your first violin?

It sounded pretty good – no thanks to the violin. We are talking here about the difference between musicianship and building sound. If you have the musicianship, you can compensate very well for a less-than instrument.  For me, that is not good enough, and if I was forced to build instruments of that calibre, I would rather do something that makes tons of money much faster than violin making.  It is only good enough to build a sound that totally inspires the souls of players and listeners.  That is my standard.  If this standard is so high that it will always be out of my reach, I can live with that and die in the process of solving the puzzle.  But both Stradivari and Guarneri knew how to consistently create instruments that inspire the souls of men, so it is not an unreachable goal.  My task is to avoid being influenced by the expectations of the culture at large – and this includes players of genius.

EH: Sounds a little lonely out there.

Sometimes I relate to that very old movie about Pasteur. Everyone who disagreed with Pasteur was utterly convinced they were doing good work, and that he was the one on the wrong track.


EH: So, where are you in the quest to build that sound?

Well, you’re asking at an interesting time.  Just in the last two years my own estimation of my violins has significantly increased in proportion to how close they sound to what I’m after.  But they aren’t 100% there yet, although my last violin is especially close.  I’m not interested in showing these violins to concert artists just yet, even though I know that at this point they are better than the best 19th century violins, and better even than the second-best 18th century Italian ones.  Having the reputation of a maker who aspires to equal the great makers of Cremona does not interest me.  I have to determine for myself that my violins are indisputably among the best of the best, and when I do that, I will have built sound ready for the best players.

How easy is it to isolate what’s still missing?

KH: I listen simultaneously for many, many qualities in the tone of the violin, and I listen to assess its playability. The more you can discern these numerous criteria for judging an instrument, the better you will know which are missing from your own.  I continuously ask myself not only what is missing, but what is missing from my violins that is not missing from the greatest violins of the great period.  Right now I’m working on a component I call directness.

EH: How do you define directness?

Well, it’s the absence of indirection.  The difference between suggesting a point and making a point truthfully, with immediacy, and without regard to how it will be received. And it’s a quality that is both wide and focused.

You can tune for such a quality?

KH: What I found recently was the precise cause for that effect and I can now produce it reliably on each instrument I make.  Before that, I was working on the effect of velvetiness. 

How would you describe velvetiness?

KH: When you hear mellifluousness in a voice, what that translates to in a violin is velvetiness.  It’s the complete absence of anything harsh or grating.  It’s soft to the touch, but intense to perception. It’s like velvet in that it really calls attention to itself, and can’t be mistaken for anything else.

EH: How many qualities of this type do you listen for?

At my webpage on how to evaluate or judge violins, I have a list of criteria with 33 traits that anyone listening to a violin can learn to hear in the sound of just about any great violin.  Yet, I suspect there are more that I have yet to isolate in the sound of the antique violins.  As soon as I am aware of them I will be able to figure out exactly how to build those remaining traits into my violins.

This reminds me of the distinctions that perfumers make – they describe scent fluently in ways that most of us would never have imagined being able to apprehend it. 

If you’re talking about mastery, you can only control what you can articulate for yourself – not necessarily for others, but for yourself.  Horowitz really analyzed the business of touch – he had around 30 different touches for the piano.  He obviously didn’t think that was more than he needed.

EH: Do you think other people can learn to build their violins for these effects? 

I know they can, but they do need to have normal hearing, not less.  My recent Internet friend Pierre Leiba plays the violin and is a mechanical engineer — as a maker, he’s a neophyte.  We’ve been corresponding about an aspect of instrument making I call “area tuning.” On these first MP3 sound samples, you will first hear Pierre playing a violin he made before doing the tuning.  Next, you’ll hear him playing it in two different samples after he took it apart and tuned the wood according to the area tuning principle, but still insufficiently.  Finally, for the last two MP3 recordings, Pierre popped the violin apart and tuned the wood for more precision.

MP3 #1    MP3 #2    MP3 #3

EH: That’s an incredibly dramatic before-and-after demo.  Is there more?

Yes, here’s Pierre again – he’s playing his violin, and it’s his tuning, after spending a week refining the tuning at my suggestions. What do you think?

MP3 #4    MP3 #5

EH: Wow — that’s no accident.

KH:  No.  No accident.  And pretty soon Pierre should be able to tune wood like a real pro, rather than repeatedly popping the violin apart and going back to revise what he’s done.  The goal is to be able to bring an instrument to completion before you evaluate it. To get the result you are prepared for in your imagination every time.

Tell me about “tuning the wood.”  And more about “area tuning.”  I’ve heard you refer to these things a few times, and I think I’m getting what you mean.  But it could be I’m not the only one who has a mental picture of a violinist tuning an instrument by twirling its pegs to tighten or loosen the strings…

KH: Well, that’s not quite it. The way I teach people about how tuning works is to make an analogy to road engineering.  That is, the sound energy from the string is like a super expensive racing car that is the fastest car ever made.  The sounding surfaces of a musical instrument are like the road.  The question for the driver is: do I want to drive on a road that is full of potholes, bumps, and ruts, or, do I want to drive on a smooth uniform pavement that angles against the curves and offers no impediments or barriers to driving as fast as my car can go?  Every musical instrument begins its existence like the road with all the potholes, bumps, and ruts.  Every Stradivari violin began its existence that way. Every Guarneri violin began its existence that way.


KH: It is the nature of the materials, especially wood, that they are out of tune.  Meaning, the road is full of potholes.  The business of area tuning – and of the tuning principle specifically — is to systematically acoustically fill all the potholes, acoustically grind down all the bumps, and acoustically grade the surface to remove all the ruts.  To acoustically engineer the musical surface so that the sound energy encounters zero impediments to its motion through those materials and to make its way out into the atmosphere where the sound can be heard.  Anything that slows down this energy causes the listener’s perception of that sound to be radically reduced. 

EH: Then a maker can’t prevent that reduction by copying how a great violin looks?

When makers think they are doing something responsible by making an exact copy, they are deluding themselves and others into thinking that the end result will be of the same quality as the original.  When they assume that making iron filings dance around in patterns by adjusting the flexibility of the violin plates, as so many so-called scientific instrument makers do, they are pretending to do something significant.  The truth is, they are deceiving themselves and others by building the road and leaving it full of potholes, bumps and ruts.

You’ve met a lot of resistance to this thinking, though.

KH: Absolutely. The resistance I’ve met is because of a nasty problem caused by enhancing a sound – that everything in the sound becomes obvious to the ear.  That is, all the other acoustical defects that were hidden by the un-tuned wood are now out in the open for everyone to hear, notice, and be disgusted by. This happened to me too, when I was figuring out harpsichords, so I know how awful it feels.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The more purely and more carefully the wood in the violin is tuned, the more sweet, resonant, intense, brilliant, focused, expansive, and carrying its sound will be. Only the courageous instrument maker will prevail.  Though this is the point at which most makers who try area tuning revert to the safety of their old bad road building habits.  After all, who can tell that the road should have been inclined upwards into that curve to help keep the car on the road if the car can’t travel any faster than 5 miles an hour?

EH: So how does a maker know to push on with area tuning rather than push off?

You take the attitude is that you can only fix problems in the sound that you can hear.  What you can’t hear, you can’t fix.  I want to hear everything, all the problems and all the good things.  The good things I want to keep and strengthen and the bad things I want to systematically eliminate.  And I will keep at this until I am dead.  Only the truth sets you free.  Only the truth allows you to know what not to do.

EH: I don’t want to ask you for trade secrets, but — seeing the principle, I want to talk about how it might translate directly into decisions you make at your bench. And directly into the specific sound a player would make with that violin.

KH:  Area tuning works like a stencil.  With a stencil you create the pattern you want and the stencil eliminates every other possibility for you.  The musical ratios you select for your tuning system are like the holes in the stencil.  The size of the areas to which you tune a ratio is like the size of the hole.  That is, if you want to hear lots of nasalness in the sound, you choose a larger area for the 3:2 ratio that makes the sound, or you make more than one area with the 3:2 ratio.  The stencil or pattern of ratios controls how much of such and such an overtone will be apparent, of the various harmonics you select.  So, when the violin is finally playing, the sound you hear will reflect that ratio according to how much surface area is devoted to that ratio.  In other words, the ratios you select for the tuning system will be heard in the sound in amount according to how much surface area you gave to that ratio.  It is a direct correlation.

This is wonderful of you to talk with me.  It’s what I’ve been hoping for years to make a start on understanding. I’ll be back!

KH: It is important to me that the rest of the world, and not just the aficionados of the violin, be able to comprehend the true nature of sound and all that there is in a great sound to be delighted in.  The more mystery is removed, the more wonderful the experience of listening is made because it is in the very nature of complexity that it delights the mind the more its intricacies are grasped by everyone.  Knowing about how things work only increases our feelings of wonder and awe about them, just as keeping things mysterious only causes us to argue and opinionate.  As one acoustical scientist once told me, in science we try to keep things simple…if it isn’t simple enough, we can’t study it. So maybe that is why they have failed?