Carleen Hutchins wasn’t formally trained in violinmaking, but despite that—or because of it—she changed the profession forever. With handfuls of Christmas glitter and a 150-year-old technique, she was able to visualize the vibrations of violin plates, allowing luthiers to rely to on the principles of acoustics instead of just “feel.” Traditionalists were outraged, but Carleen didn’t seem to mind. She had already spent most of her adult life pushing back on the constraints imposed on women in midcentury America. This episode explores Carleen’s life and legacy, the history of acoustics, the act of making sound visible, and our obsession with old Italian violins.
I spent a lot of years studying the history of sound in graduate school, but the first I heard of Ernst Chladni was from some graphic designers. It was early on the development of this show, but a) I knew I wanted the show to have a visual identity that matched the way the show sounded in my head, b) I was already using this “visual identity” stuff as a way to procrastinate actually editing the audio, and c) it was really fun and inspiring to hang out with the team at Art & Sons.
So I’m in their studio one afternoon, and they start showing me images like this. I was shocked. In my experience, the visual language for sound-related things was pretty limited: waveforms, transistor radios, vacuum tubes, phonograph horns. This was something I hadn’t seen before; it had energy, mystery, beauty.
So I go home and start googling the hell out of it. I find all kinds of things, from oddly poetic demonstrations to insanely produced car commercials. But soon I also came across Carleen Hutchins, who applied Chladni’s technique of vibrating plates to the plates of violins. And while I was saddened to learn that Carleen died in 2009, I was excited to learn that there was a recent biography about her, and that the author of that biography, Quincy Whitney, had already done some radio appearances. I devoured the book, wrote her an email, and the episode took off from there.
You can learn more at the links and resources below, and you can discuss this episode on Substack.
This is where we work. Start that again, will ya?
This is where we work a good part of the time, mostly in the winter when it’s cold. And we can keep this place controlled—temperature and humidity—especially downstairs. And we’re working on all sorts of things here. This is the parts of an alto violin, which has a good deal of sound in it and the plates, you can tap and listen to what the sound does, in all sorts of different ways. We can talk about that later.
She’s got an interesting paradigm because she’s inclusive from the start. She’s interested in anybody who wants to talk fiddles. Open the door, ring the doorbell, you know, she’ll give you the tour, and she’ll talk about plate tuning.
We’re trying to tune these plates so that mode two and mode five are an octave apart, and at the same frequencies in both the top in the back. That’s quite a trick to do that when we’re really working on this kind of thing. We’re going to go for mode number five in this particular piece of wood right now. And that will give us an idea of how it’s going to vibrate when it gets into the finished instrument.
I’ll need to put these on because it’s a lot of sound and I don’t wish to go deaf.
This is how Carleen Hutchins built instruments: with sound. I mean, she used woodworking tools, too but it was this step—blasting a piece of wood with amplified tones—that’s what made her famous. Carleen was largely self taught as both a scientist and a violin maker, but she ended up making major contributions to both of those fields. No one doubts that. But there is some doubt as to what exactly her contributions were. Today’s episode is called “Vibrational Patterns,” and it’s about Carleen, acoustic science, American domestic life in the 1940s German science experiments in the 1780s, Italian violin making in the 1690s, and Christmas glitter. But before we get to that, here’s some stuff you should know.
Carleen died in 2009, but we have access to her voice thanks to James June Schneider. He’s a filmmaker who interviewed Carleen for a documentary project and generously shared his tapes with me. You’ll also hear from Quincy Whitney. She’s a former arts reporter for The Boston Globe who became Carleen’s biographer. Quincy spent a lot of time with Carleen toward the end of her life and is our guide through this story. The name Ernst Chladni is going to be important in a few minutes. He’s the guy doing those science experiments in the 1780s. He’s sometimes called “the father of modern acoustics,” and he met Napoleon once, just to put that in historical context. And if you haven’t heard the word “luthier” before, it just means instrument maker. As for me, I’m Craig Eley. I’m recording this in my basement in Madison, Wisconsin. As for you, you’re out there listening. And for the next 30 minutes, we’re in this together. It’s the very first episode of Field Noise.
[archival voice during theme music]
There is more to maintaining these radio circuits than simply throwing the switch and speaking into the microphone.
That’ll give you an idea of what it sounds like. I had a lot of fun playing viola for some years, but it’s hard to keep going and I had to choose. If I’d been a better player, I might have stuck with it. My friends used to say, Carly, if you want people to enjoy your instruments, don’t demonstrate them yourself.
When she’s teaching at the Brearley School for the first time, she finds out that her colleagues like chamber music and they’re all playing stringed instruments. And so they invite her to come to a session one night, and she’s a trumpet player from college, right, and she brings her trumpet. And after one session, they of course all turned to her and say, you know, the trumpet’s too loud for a Manhattan apartment, we really need to a viola—as every string ensemble always needs a viola. So she goes out and buys a $75 Viola because she largely wants community. She’s tense about the fact that she can’t do what she wants to do. She was at a point in her career where she had a chance to take on about five jobs. And this is the way she told it to me, that she could have had. But she realized that she couldn’t stay married. She couldn’t have that domestic life, too, and do these jobs. So there was a frustration, there was a tension always building in her. A woman was expected to be a wife and not be pursuing career at all in the 1930s. It just wasn’t acceptable. So the viola—playing the viola with this chamber music group, and her friends—that becomes her community.
Eventually, it sort of sits in her hand and she’s been carving wood since he was five years old, she was a master woodcarver by the time she was in high school. So she keeps looking at this viola thinking, “Gee, maybe I could make one.”
Well actually I’ve been interested in wood and loved it ever since I can remember. I learned a lot about woodcraft, which has given me a feel for the trees, and the woods, and how they relate. This can be used for the half of the top of a violin. And the piece, the other piece we had is, well, this will be one half of it. Here’s the other half. And this will make the top of a viola when it’s put together. Now there are a couple of knots in here on the plan is to try to work around those knots so that they won’t have trouble.
So she made this viola and she’s showing it around her chamber music friends, and they’re playing it. And Helen Rice says, “We really ought to go meet Frederick Saunders. He’s a retired Harvard physicist who lives out in western Massachusetts near my farm. We really ought to go and he oughtta just look at your instrument.”
So she does that. She hands him the instrument. Saunders takes it taps it, looks at it closely and turns to her and says, “This is really a great first instrument. I’ll be fascinated to see your next one.” And at that point, she had not planned to make another one. And so Saunders hands her a couple copies of his scientific articles that he’s done about violent acoustics, primarily in his retirement as a sort of a passion that he’s following because he’s an avid string player. So he’s written up some papers. They’ve been published, and now he hands his reprints to Carleen, she’s never, you know, she’s reading these papers written by a physicist, and she’s thinking, you know, I didn’t really understand the jargon at that point. And so she said, “But the one thing I do notice, Dr. Saunders, is that most of the experiments you’ve been doing, are putting the weight on the top of a bridge and testing it in a sound chamber.” And he said, “Well, yes, because I don’t want to ruin the instrument.” And she said, “Well, what would you do if somebody could make you instruments that were expendable? That could be used in experiments?” And he said, “Well That sounds really rather crazy. Like what luthier would be crazy enough to make instruments if they are going to be destroyed?” And she says, “I will.”
If Saunders had been in the middle of his career, he wouldn’t have time number one, and there would have been this big hierarchy between a Harvard physicist who’s a doctor, has his PhD, and this self taught violin maker who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, who’s working out of her kitchen.
Here, here, here, and here. I will make four separate tests, one after the other, and then I will turn the instrument over and make four separate tests on the back and the same places which I’ve marked carefully. When I get the test, all eight test together, I can tell by the amplitude of that particular air mode, whether those four places of the top and those four places at the back are working in sync, shall we say.
She ends up doing her research by reading about Félix Savart. And what he does with suggesting about plate tuning. And so she’s the first person who sort of puts together this idea of doing the Chladni patterns. Ernst Chladni had developed this, this method of seeing sound by putting particles on a plate and vibrating and discovering that there are all these amazing geometric patterns at different frequencies.
So the experiments that Chladni is interested in doing is to render these vibrations visible as well as audible at the same time. So, he takes a metallic square plate, puts it on a stand, sprinkles grains of sand on the plate, and then he takes a bow and then he bows the plate perpendicular to one of the edges.
This is Myles Jackson, I’m the professor of the history of science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
And he also places his fingers on various portions of the plate—he takes the bow, he bows with his right hand and touches the plate with his left—in order to influence the way in which the plate vibrates. So what he does is he generates these amazing figures, quite aesthetically pleasing figures, but he’s interested, really in seeing what the actual patterns are and how that corresponds to pitch. Because he’s first and foremost interested in in inventing, you know, musical instruments, which he does. And his argument is where the where the dust settles, where you have those Chladni lines, that’s where there are no vibrations, right, that’s where the plate is at zero, the vibrations of the play cancel each other out. Chladni interested in the bits of a metal plate that’s not vibrating with the view of locating that bit so that you could put a piece of metal or a piece of glass or piece of wood, and you wouldn’t change the volume or the pitch of the instrument.
So then she thought, “Well, what what happens if we, if we try that on a violent plate?” If you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s no rules or boundaries for how you do it.
This is a very nearly finished back of a viola. And what we’re doing here is measuring the normal modes that the exist in a piece of wood that’s this shape with the contours that it has. It also is telling us everything that’s happened to that piece of wood since the tree was started as a seed, it gives us the sense of the stiffness of the wood which violin makers have been feeling and bending for the last several hundred years. And that feel and that bending, this kind of bending is what we’re assessing here. Only what we’re doing is we’re giving it much more accurate measurement because we can tell from a loudspeaker under the table here, and this equipment which gives us a sweep of a sine wave, a single frequency like a siren, it goes through this wood, and at the particular frequencies where the normal modes occur, we will get some patterns. Because what I’m going to do is sprinkle aluminum flake, colored black, it’s like Christmas glitter. Sometimes we use the glitter itself when we want to get something on a dark plate, and as I turn up the gains on this equipment here, you’re going to see the actual patterns form.
By focusing on particular modes, particular sound patterns, at a certain frequency she starts to see patterns that basically help her figure out where the plate is too thick. You know she’s got 10 plates she’s working on there’s this plates, not got that perfect shape with the glitter. So she starts to use them, to tune them in the sense that she’s really having a visual aid to see about the arching of the plate. And that kind of innovation is what she discovers that the luthiers hate her, because she’s asking them to bring science into the workshop. You know, and even though music has been a science since the beginning of time, they have basically done things intuitively with their hands and they’re not interested in science.
Initially, I was pretty skeptical about science, you know, sort of butting into violin making, but when I met Carleen, I was very impressed by her energy and enthusiasm. And I think I heard her give a talk at a conference and, and that was what led to me inviting her to give this this workshop.
My guest tonight is world renowned master violinmaker, Joseph Curtain. Joseph crafts original world class violins for the 21st century at his studio right here in Ann Arbor…
What plate tuning was intended to solve, I think, from her point of view, was given a vast variety of wood that you that you find as violin wood, how do you how do you optimize it for a given instrument? And, you know, there’s a notion that you can tune it to some ideal frequency and that should do the trick. Typically, violin makers, you know, feel the stiffness of the wood, they bend in various ways and use normal workshop practice to arrive at graduations. There’s no evidence that the old Italians or anyone else really had done plate tuning—or, not non scientists anyway. But she was proposing a practical system for use in the workshop and as such, it was very appealing.
There was a famous cover of Scientific American in the 80s, which showed a number of photographs of violin tops and backs, with the vibration patterns revealed through…there was little bits of glitter or tea leaves. And the violins had been vibrated and the the tea leaves bounced off the areas where it was vibrating and settled in the areas where it wasn’t vibrating. And Carleen had done demonstrations of that on a few different frequencies. And there was this very striking cover. And, you know, I think that that was the first time that many people had that view of the instrument. And it was like, “Whoa, this is more like, you know, it’s a Mr. Science project, it’s not a renaissance artists project.”
So, the fact that you could see these vibration patterns, and you could tune them meant that that’s what people were focusing on. My name is Sam Zygmuntowicz. I’m a violin maker, I have my studio in Brooklyn, New York.
What I’m interested in now is to see what the waves that are traveling through the wood are like. And those are the things that I think are making a lot of difference in the way energy and the waves of energy can go through the wood itself. And wood has all sorts of sort of discontinuities, if you will, that will make the energy have to slow down or go around something. It’s a little bit like a river flowing and if you put some rocks on the edge of a river, you change the whole flow of the river downstream. I think that’s what’s happening in violins. There are certain ways that those blockages, the discontinuities, can worked out. And that’s the kind of thing I’m looking for—is to see what happens. Because some of the beautiful instruments that I’ve been working with and testing show that there’s a good deal of this sort of thing going on.
The thing is she left out how heavy the plates were. And if you don’t if you don’t know how dense the the wood is then tuning the plates to get some ideal frequency it can lead to counterintuitive results. She also had got caught up with this notion of tuning in octaves, which is sort of a seductive notion that you know, the proportion of an octave—you know, it goes back to the sort of the music of the spheres type of thinking but there is really no scientific basis in that so I think she got a little off a little astray with that. She She claimed to have measured the plates of a Strad violin and found that it was in octaves, at least two octaves. And I don’t doubt that that exists, it happens. They tend to arrive naturally with normal graduations in the area of an octave. But there’s two problems. One is if it is in octaves that make any difference to the final sound? And the second, why would it? I mean, you know, look, you’ve got actually establish a causal connection before you try and convince violin makers to use it, but she kind of skipped that stuff as far as I can tell.
You know, as soon as people could see the pattern on the top and back with the tea leaves, they thought, Okay, well, you know, look, look at a few good violins and we think the top should be tuned to 360 and then should be half of that for mode two and then mode one should be half of that again. And if all three are lined up, that was an idea. Tri-tone tuning, which meant there was a there was all in octaves, and people really worked to get that and you can get it turns out that the good violins in general are not tunes and tritones, but it was a very satisfying idea. So a lot of people spent a lot of time doing tritone tuning. And I’m sure a lot of them got very nice results, too. However, if you do a broad study of old violins, it’s not what you see. In fact, there’s, you know, the tuning of the, the top and the back. It’s just one of 100 factors, and not necessarily the most important one.
You know, the project that I was involved with—Strad 3d—was the first attempt to capture the vibration patterns of Strads and Guarneris in 3d. So you could see how much it was moving forward and backwards and side-to-side. And then to create animations that you could see for any given node or any given frequency, you could see in what way the violin was vibrating. And one of the things about the violin which is when you actually see all these patterns, which is totally unexpected, is the the violin is not vibrating in one way. It is vibrating in 100 different ways all simultaneously or many of them simultaneously. So it’s like a horse is galloping and on the horse is the saddle and on the saddle is a person and on the person is a fly, and they’re all doing things at the same time and we’re all moving and the Earth is spinning, and it’s all moving through the universe. It’s a, you know, it’s almost that level of complexity for a violin, everything’s happening at the same time. So it’s quite difficult to tease out single motions. But you know, the implication is clear that the very tantalizing promise for a maker is that if you could see the structure, then you’d have a shot at changing the structure. And if you could change the structure, you could change the sound. So that was a real switch, you know that the romance of the violin is sort of built around the idea that there’s this object it’s been designed by man but almost by with divine intervention, and it works in ways that we don’t understand and we can’t even do it nowadays is sort of the mythology. It involves some lost knowledge and then it is a very romantic vision and and one that I enjoy as well. However, if you are a composer, you don’t want to hear that Beethoven’s the only guy who can compose and if you’re a violin maker you don’t want to hear that Stradivari’s the only guy who can make violins.
There’s this notion wildly popular around the world that science somehow is not up to discovering the mystery of Stradivari. There’s sort of an archetypal announcer saying, you know, for centuries scientists have struggled in vain to discover the secrets of Stradivari. Really? In vain? Why in vain? Have you read any of the papers? There’s actually fantastic work done. What was never done and could have been done is to do blind tests and see if there really was a difference between Stradivari and any other instrument’s sound. So before you want to invent a theory about why a certain phenomena is the case, you want to make sure that it exists—and no one really bothered to do that until the last few years when we started doing double blind tests. We got first in Indianapolis and in Paris we got a Paris we had 10 violin soloists and six old Italian violins, five of them Strads and six new instruments and had the soloist blind test them. And it turned out that the soloist, the most preferred violin easily was a new violin, the least preferred was a Strad. And we did the same thing with audience. Audiences found the new ones projected better and, and the subsequent tests in New York showed that they also preferred new, they preferred what projected better. So there was absolutely no evidence that the Strads had any qualities that even first rate players could detect. Oh, yeah, none of them could tell the difference between new and old better than chance. So it was a big, kind of a big anticlimax and got a lot of publicity and there’s probably people who still don’t believe it, but that’s it’s pretty hard science.
I don’t know. What else can we learn That’s a very iconiclastic finding. Either violin making has got a lot better in recent decades and or there was never such a big difference as the public imagination has supposed. I think there’s been a big advance because a) there’s a market there’s a, you know, huge number of violinists and very few old violins left and not any of those are very good. And so as soon as you have a market, then you can actually earn a living making a violin now, you couldn’t really, in past decades, you know, you had to do repairs and restoration. So there’s that. Then there’s the crucial thing which I think Carleen Hutchins helped with, which was sharing of information. The traditional European guild system held things very private. So as soon as you get sharing and bunch of people doing things, things are going to get better. I mean, violin makers, professional violin makers will look at her and say, Well, she’s really a scientist. And I think some scientists would look at her and say, Well, she’s really a violin maker. But But I think everyone at least Certainly the scientists I’ve talked to who, you know, would absolutely credit her with, in a major way with, you know, getting the field going. In America at the time.
Carleen as a largely self taught woman luthier, she found a niche where she was doing something really unique, and wasn’t just being wasn’t competing head to head with him with, you know, whatever prejudices she would have met as a woman. I mean, if you want to think about I hadn’t really thought about this before, but that someone who was that tradition would normally have excluded might have interest in skirting that tradition and finding an alternate narrative. I mean, as far as that goes, you know, I’m Jewish and the golden era violin making no Jews would have been allowed or few to join guilds and things like that.
You know, we can’t enter the culture that produced Strads and Guarneris. We, you know, we can’t we can’t go back. We wouldn’t fit in if we were there. We can’t go back there anyway. So it’s up to us to pick the parts that, that that speak to us. And it’s our prerogative to find whatever points of entry and any way to enhance it and take it forward. And it’s it’s not about tradition, for tradition sake. It’s tradition because it holds all the empirical knowledge that’s been, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s stuck in there. But it’s not the only knowledge.
The beauty of instruments…first of all, there’s the paradox in the string world because you have makers who swear they know what they’re doing, but the true test is with the player, and the player is also unable to really translate back to the maker, right? So there’s this subjective interchange between what the player thinks is perfect and sounds perfect and all that and what the luthier actually knows. And so you can diminish her science if you want. But there are musicians who would disagree with you.
Her legacy is nothing short of overturning the violin world in several different ways. I think if Carleen had been a man, she would have been coordinated for her field. Carleen opened the door and started a dialogue. Suddenly, there was not the secrecy of centuries and people guarding their work. Well, I don’t know if a man had come along, would he have had the same inclusive paradigm? I don’t know. And whether it was gender only her paradigm was to be open. And to share. And I have to say that there wasn’t that paradigm before. She would want the science to move on. She was open to the dialogue. You know, she did it. She did everything—she wore every hat you could possibly wear in her field. You know, author, catalyst, editor, she did it all and transformed the whole, the whole climate.
And I’ve been going around feeling the trees in this area or feeling the trees down in Montclair as I take a walk along the street. I’m sure people think I’m a little crazy, but it’s very exciting to put your hands on a big tree, and then move them slowly away and back again and feel the energy that’s coming out of that trunk.
The song you’re hearing right now is courtesy of Her Space Holiday. Special thanks to Marc for his enthusiasm about Fied Noise right when I really needed it. The show’s theme song from earlier is by Slow Machete. Their music is based on samples recorded in Haiti, with all the proceeds going back into Haitian communities. The rest of the music in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions. Thanks so much to James June Schneider for sharing his tapes of Carleen and to Quincy Whitney for making Carleen’s story known through her award winning biography American Lucier, Carleen Hutchins, the art and science of the violin. There’s so much more to the story than we could fit into this episode. Please check out that book.
Thanks again to Joseph Curtain and Sam Sigmund for taking the time to explain how violins work and how they make them. Thanks also to Myles Jackson for talking to me about Ernst Chladni’s life and work. Colin Richie and Pete Becker provided some much needed technical advice at various stages in this project. Caryl Owen is my engineering inspiration. Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamps and the whole staff of to the best of our knowledge taught me how radio gets made. The logo and other visual elements of the show including field noise.com, which I hope you’ll visit, were designed by Charles barrows, and the crew at Art & Sons. Field noise is produced, recorded, edited and mixed by me If you liked what you heard, please tell a friend and leave a review somewhere, anywhere really just just leave one. You can also follow Field Noise on Instagram where I post little videos and sound clips. I’m Craig Eley. Until next time, keep your ears open and look alive out there.