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Fiddle parts and sound posts: how objects tell stories

Biography chooses us when there is alchemy between biographer and subject—a perfect fit of interlocking puzzle pieces. In my case, a lifelong fascination with objects and the craftsmen who make them led me to the story of a pioneering violinmaker—American Luthier:  Carleen Hutchins—the Art and Science of the Violin.  I soon found that the stories of violinmaker and violin were intertwined—and in the process, rediscovered the poetry of the object itself.

Distinctly different from the incident, an object acts like a prism—it reflects, refracts, illuminates a story—and so offers a wide spectrum of possibilities.  The object is also not straightforward and is wonderfully chaotic in the way it can be interpreted. Objects carry multiple stories in no particular order, and therein lies the opportunity.

In choosing the cover for my book, I wanted to use “Violin” by Walter Tandy Murch, a luminous painting owned by a celebrity.  After a little persistence, I received quick affirmation and obtained permission from the collector due in large part to the fact that collectors love to know the stories behind their artifacts as these stories add new layers of significance and relevance to their collection. On one level, Murch depicted an actual experiment set up by my subject in her basement laboratory. But on another level, by painting an abstract, mystical image of the violin, as if the violin meant more than itself—Murch captured the lifetime obsession of my subject.

Image Credit: Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, Rogers Fund, 1939, Public Domain via OASC and The Met
Image Credit: Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, Rogers Fund, 1939, Public Domain via OASC and The Met.

Beginning a chapter often depends on finding the portal that lets the story unfold. As a Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I will never forget the moment I stumbled upon the Gubbio Studiolo—the 15th century Italian Renaissance ducal palace studiolo relocated to the heart of the museum.

It took some time to figure out why this room spoke to me. Thousands of tiny pieces of different woods create the illusion of walls lined with cupboards displaying objects reflecting the wide-ranging artistic and scientific interests of Duke Federico da Montrefeltro where musical instruments sit beside scientific instruments—a compass, pendulum, an hourglass.  In this room, music was perceived as a science, alongside mathematics, geometry and astronomy—in the same time and place in which Andrea Amati “invented” the violin. As a physical object, the Gubbio merges art, science and music. Metaphorically, in representing the 15th century mindset, this room “birthed” the violin.

Listen to your reaction to an object.  As a biographer, you spend a lifetime researching a topic, a person, a world, an era. You are best able to spot an object that will best tell your story. In most cases, the object is already in front of you. You have handled it many times, studied it, stumbled over it, mused about it, but never before embraced it as a tool to tell your story.

Image Credit: : Contrepoint pour violoncelles by Armand Fernandez (1928-2005), known commonly as Arman, photo taken by Quincy Whitney
Image Credit: Contrepoint pour violoncelles by Armand Fernandez (1928-2005), known commonly as Arman, photo taken by Quincy Whitney

The “Messiah” violin sits sequestered in its glass-enclosed throne at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I had studied it, researched the violin world and the violin market, and written hundreds of drafts about violin history. But it was not until I asked myself how to begin my story that I re-stumbled upon the “Messiah” and suddenly realized that the “Messiah” was my story.  The most pristine, most valued and most famous of Stradivarius violins, has, in fact, never been heard—and as such, perfectly summed up the myriad of contradictions that make up the violin world.

Because the object can be interpreted on many levels, it is poetic in its economy—the object speaks volumes, literally.  Like the “Messiah,” an object can present irony, add humor, stretch the imagination and embrace contradiction, depicting a life, a world, in all its complexity—the grey areas, not just the black and white.

The violin itself—with its 80 different parts—led me to a new view of my subject’s life. In studying violin anatomy, I embraced the mysterious “magic” of the sound post—a tiny piece of wood sitting inside the violin just under the bridge—the heart of the violin. The more I understood its roles and attributes—it connects top and back plates; holds position through tension not glue; can be moved to maximize sound; and is as invisible as it is essential—the more I saw that my subject had much in common with this invisible piece of wood.

In 2004, I visited Martigny, Switzerland, where I stumbled upon the outdoor sculpture Contrepoint pour violoncelles by Arman.  A collage of violin parts, this tower of fiddles became the perfect metaphor for the life of a pioneering female and mother trying to follow her passion—forever taking things apart, and fitting them back together, adapting, fitting her passion around a life that would never allow her the luxury of perfect balance—a reminder of her vulnerability, her foibles, and her humanity.

Headline Image Credit: Violin plates, image supplied by Quincy Whitney, used with permission of Carleen Hutchins

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