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Making Mr Cello

Debbi Evans
The cello is an instrument surrounded by myth: we speak to a maker and world-class musicians about bringing wood and strings to life

“You know when rock and roll bands smash up their guitars at the end of a set? You just couldn’t do that with a cello. It’s like a living thing. Your interaction with it influences how it sounds, its value, how open it is. It’s deeply personal – even the way you hold it. And its form is like a human, isn’t it?” Cellist and composer Lucinda Chua pulls her instrument closer protectively as she makes her case. “A piano is like a piece of furniture. String instruments are an extension of yourself.”

“They’re very temperamental”, agrees Peter Gregson, whose compositions have landed in Hollywood films. “They travel so much you have to give them a name and a gender.” He shows me pictures of Mr Cello Gregson, strapped into a window seat in economy with a multitude of belts. It’s fairly comical. “But one of the benefits of modern instruments is in fact that they travel very well. They’re built with jetset aspirations.”

This was much less the case in the Stradivarius era: they weren’t really expected to be shipped around the globe several times a year, with all the temperature and pressure changes.

Luthier Robert Brewer Young is a purist, however, and happy to keep these historical quirks. For the last 20 years, he’s been shaping, whittling and tuning instruments to be as identical to their original intention as possible. He uses similar wood and treatment, and traditional measuring techniques which reference a proportional system rather than an outside standard like the inch or metre. 

One of Robert’s principal cello models is based on the Marquis de Corberon Stradivari, whose original we will meet in a moment. He fell in love with it when he first heard it, and its design patterns have much to do with that. “The amazing thing about the Marquis de Corberon is that it’s based on golden ratio proportions. It’s a very beautiful design.” Factory new cellos, on the other hand, usually copy a more generic design based on the B-form Stradivarius.

All in proportion

Robert has devoted years to studying the relationship between geometrical proportions and the quality of the resulting sound. This latter interest led him to pursue a Ph.D. in the philosophy of early Indian Buddhist and Hindu logic and mathematics – not an obvious source of inspiration, but one which he insists is linked. “I started looking at the harmonic principles underlying the construction of the instrument, and that led me to some pretty wonderful and exciting places which had a huge influence on the development of the violin.”

The challenge with using modern tools for measuring out the proportions of the instrument is that “we have no direct human instinctual constructive craft-type relationship to those numbers. All around us, in nature, we see the basis for (design) relationships that have a musical counterpart. We normally don’t experience them because we have the metre, the inch, the yard, and the mile, to which we have no fundamental relationship at all, they’re just kind of abstract standards. I can design a viola, for example, using a part of your body as the reference measurement.”

What’s interesting, he continues, is that in Italy where the earliest makers used to design, you’d often be able to see which measurement system locals used by going to the town square and studying whatever distance marker or proportional relationship was used by that town’s craftsmen and architects. This was usually based on someone’s body parts, a fact that is still evident in England today, with the foot (a man’s foot, obviously). 

“There was a self-taught violin maker, Francois Denis – an extraordinary scholar – he started looking into why the violin is the shape that it is, and he started asking questions of experts that no one could answer. He ended up teaching a lot about how to draw and think and look at things in kind of a different way, with the mind and tools and the vision of a medieval craftsman. Most of them were illiterate, so there was an ability to transmit an understanding of relationships, proportions, measures, harmony, that had absolutely nothing to do with an outside relationship to a standard or with the ability to read and write.”


A thoroughly modern muse

Today, there are some very different and highly academic experiments taking place. A modern, fairly experimental musician who adores technology and nerdy experiments, Peter used to work with the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Lab – renowned and revered in equal measure for their wildly innovative experiments.

Peter was involved with student Diana Young and Tod Machover’s Hyperbow, a bow fitted with accelerometers, gyrometers, position measurements and pressure sensors that was built to measure minute changes in bowing technique and advance understanding of individual playing styles. He likens it to a Wii controller, fitted in a carbon fibre cello bow. “It was amazing to be able to control sound in a third dimension – but ultimately it revealed how much control we have with an acoustic, non-augmented instrument.”

Peter does own an electric cello, but its use is nowadays almost exclusively reserved for work on other composers’ film scores. “It has no resonance, so you can fully control and create sounds which sound like nothing on earth.” And, of course, it has an easier temperament. “[Old instruments] don’t react well to being hit, they don’t react well to cold or to the heat. Wood is a living thing; it’s not fixed. These beautiful Strads and Montagnanas - they’re not easy to play. The reason they sound amazing is the people who play them are pretty damn good.”

At the cello tasting

It’s August 2013, and I’m sat cross legged on the floor, watching the legendary Steven Isserlis get ready for a ‘cello tasting’. Robert has just finished his sixth Marquis de Corberon replica (Steven has the original) and this is a chance to see how the two perform alongside each other.

Robert’s cello has never been played. Its scroll is made out of beech – a fairly rare choice, because it’s difficult to carve, although Stradivari did use it occasionally. The back is willow. “It’s from a tree that fell in Maine about 35 years ago, and I’ve got about 30 cello backs out of it.”

There’s a potential sale here, of course, but it’s not really about that. The air is thick with curiosity at what the thing will sound like after months in the workshop. What’s particularly unusual about Robert’s technique is that, in keeping with historical accuracy, he designs instruments to be played on gut strings, as the original makers intended, rather than the more modern steel. Gut strings are Steven’s particular fetish.

“It wants to be played loudly, this cello, I can feel it. It’s got a beautiful soft sound, but it wants to be played strongly.” For the next 45 minutes, he switches between the new cello, his Stradivarius and his Montagnana - trying out Bach, Elgar, Dvorak and others to test adaptability, depth and tone.


Physics gone wrong

At one point, the cello plays a wolf note – a discordant, muddy sound which Peter later jokingly explains as “physics gone wrong”. You can never get rid of it, although there are certain tools and tweaks that will push it around the instrument, moving it out of the way of the musician’s determined fingers. “The idea of the wolf note”, says Robert, “is that basically you have a note on the cello that when it’s working at its best, the instrument is working against it.”

The value of the note divides opinion among players. Peter sees no advantage to the player whatsoever. Robert, however, says a really great player will sculpt and use a wolf note to their own advantage. He collaborated with a fellow designer to create a magnetic wolf eliminator, which counteracts the movement of the note, and makes the top more efficient. “We’ve put one on the instrument of the first cellist of the New York Philharmonic, the first cellist of the LA Philharmonic, and there are some really great old instruments with great players using it now. The interesting thing was that on my cello, it worked, but it also changed the instrument it certain ways.”

The wolf note is the lovable imperfection that adds to the instrument’s character. “You could have it removed”, says Peter, “but it slightly removes the personality – and there’s no way of knowing exactly what it will do to the sound.”

Custodians for the next generation

The original Marquis de Corberon is “an old soul” – its richness and texture a result of myriad owners over the years. Robert agrees; “All the musicians contribute something. The sound is a collaborative effort; it’s the instrument that performs.” Peter likens it to owning a fountain pen, which moulds to your writing style, but whose quality is improved by previous owners breaking it in. “And yet I am sure the Marquis sounded perfect on its very first day,” says Robert.

Lucinda is aware of her place in this chain and sees herself as a custodian of something to be passed onto the next generation. “It’s over 100 years old, my cello. I don’t think it’s a particularly fancy one. But it’s going to live longer than I am. And think about all the people who’ve played it before me! It’s your duty to enjoy it and treat it well. The saddest thing would be for it to sit in an attic unplayed.”

It’s more than that, adds Peter – there’s a catch 22 with buying an instrument like a cello as an investment piece. Financier’s logic would suggest the best place for it was locked safely behind glass, in a museum. “It’s safe and isn’t going to be broken or stolen – but it’s not being played. A painting that goes unlooked at – however sad that may be – will still look much the same. An instrument unplayed will not sound the same.”

There is a common belief that an unplayed cello can take months, if not years, of playing to bring the character of the instrument back – but Robert isn’t sure this is the case. 

“I think the ‘waking up’ of an unplayed instrument often has more to do with getting the strings under tension and played in than anything else. It’s a romantic idea that they need to be constantly played but I imagine that if the Messiah were taken out of the case it wouldn’t need particular time or attention to sound magnificent.” Similarly, Steven recently played a cello that had belonged to Beethoven. “It was apparently over 50 years since it had been played – but it felt and (I was assured) sounded wonderful.”


Chemicals, timber and time

“There are definitely things that happen over time that are interesting to us as makers”, Robert says. The treatment of the wood – whether submerging it in water, heating it or drying it out completely – has a distinct, often unpredictable effect on the resulting sound. “You can get part of the way to great sound by using really old wood, but it’s not the whole story.”

Close studies of the raw materials of wood in old Italian instruments have revealed too much of a chemical change in the wood itself to be explained by time of life. Peter refers to the Stradivarius Messiah at the Ashmolean in Oxford. Attempts to age the wood – a process known as dendrochronology – has turned up freak results. Some sections suggest the wood is newer than Stradivarius himself, others much older. No one really knows how old it is – “the wood is lying,” Peter says. “The ageing is all over the place.”

Part of this could be down to the improvements and modifications made to instruments over the ages – a replaced panel here, a new back there. Maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume developed a reputation for buying Strads and tinkering with them. “He’d take them apart, swap bits round,’ says Peter. “There are very few virgin state instruments that are exactly as they were made.” They might be beautiful art, but what’s more important it that they work well.

This brings us onto the subject of varnish, which is Robert’s particular interest (he plans to write a book one day called Varnish, a love story). While it adds to the appearance of the instrument, it’s a crucial component in shaping the resulting sound. 

Glossing over the myths

“It’s one of the most frustrating and stressful elements of making an instrument. You know, no one has ever worked out what Stradivarius put in his varnish. It’s one of the longest-running chemical investigations.” He’s spent many years trying to work out the secret, cooking up huge batches of amber and vermilion in barely legal experiments on his New York rooftop. 

“I would cook this really pure amber that I got from Russian jewellers at Brighton beach – the stuff that they couldn’t make jewellery out of, by the kilo, paid in cash. I did start a fairly serious fire once, but by then I was in the countryside [at his current home in France], and I did the thing you’re never supposed to which is douse it with water. When the fire went out and everything calmed down, the varnish was left and it’s one of my absolute favourites. It’s this ruby red colour that I’ll never be able to imitate. So I’ve got enough of that left for one cello!”

The chemistry experiments came later, but Robert learned precision woodworking at a very young age. “My father restored World War One aircrafts with wooden spars. There was always an airplane wing in our basement or garage. I’d help him; it had to be very, very well done, because your life literally depended on it.”

The raw material is the source of much of the romantic storytelling around these instruments, whose sound is affected by the phase of the moon at the time it’s cut. There’s actually science behind this. “Traditionally wood would be cut in the winter months, when there’s less sap on the tree, because trees have a kind of protection against freezing, a kind of anti-freeze basically like you have in your car. Trees have that naturally. On a waning moon between January and March depending on where things are located you’ll have the right chemistry and the least amount of sugar and sap in the tree.”

The appeal of this craft, however, is that it’s exactly that: not a science. There is no one precise formula that can be rigidly followed to achieve perfect sound. “Violin makers have been looking for the silver bullet for hundreds of years, and I don’t really feel there is one. The instruments of the past were a synthesis of many, many different elements. The way things are set up, the choice of strings, the wood selection, wood treatment… People are highly secretive about these things, but I’m quite interested in the open source model of violin making. If I can tell you all of my theories, you’ll tell me which ones are crazy, which one might be good.”

And the verdict on the new cello? “It’s impressive,” says Steven, “When you think that I’m trying it out next to two of the greatest instruments around.” But ultimately, one has to remember that it’s new, missing the richness that can only be wrought by a thousand expert fingers over decades of play. “Who knows what will happen to that wood in the next 200 years?” It has potential and is a thing of beauty, but its real value will emerge after someone’s played it for several months years, and teased out its personality; a refreshing assessment of value in an age of disposable, fast consumption.

Photography by Kevin Davis; sketches provided by Robert Brewer Young.

It's one of the most frustrating and stressful elements of making an instrument. You know, no one has ever worked out what Stradivarius put in his varnish.



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