Fiddling With Physics
Violin maker Alvin Thomas King draws on high-tech analysis to craft instruments that rival the masters'.
Courtesy Alvin Thomas King
By Konstantin Kakaes
There's an old saying about the art of violin making: It's simple, really—you start with a block of wood and carve away everything that isn't a violin. In one room of a two-room workshop that was once a jeans factory, Alvin Thomas King stores wood—some American, some from forests in Europe—that he has been aging for decades. He brought it with him when he moved to Fayetteville, Ark., from Maryland in 2008. In the other room, King, '66, keeps a series of ever-finer finger planes that resemble small thimbles with pencil sharpeners attached. He uses the tools to shape the contours of the instrument's body, sliver by painstaking sliver.
Each violin has its own distinctive sound, owing to differences in materials and construction. The old masters of Cremona—including Antonio Stradivari, Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu and Andrea Amati, the father of the modern violin—are renowned for the quality of their instruments. But, says King, "we just really don't know" why those violins sound so good. "It's a real problem not knowing what was done." The tradition of secrecy around techniques has persisted: Only within the last 30 years have violin makers started to pool their knowledge.
Along with a community of fellow violin makers, King has been analyzing the old masters' instruments to try to understand what made them sing. He once went with a colleague to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City carrying three violins—two Guarneris and a Stradivarius—together worth several million dollars. They put the instruments through a CAT scan to precisely measure every aspect, from their volume to the curvature of their contours to the density of the wood.
Still, says King, even if you can explain how a violin was made, the real question is why was it constructed this way? His pioneering contribution was an analysis of the placement of "f-holes," the curved openings near the waist of a violin that allow the top of the instrument to flex as it vibrates. He found that the f-hole placement follows a system based around the golden ratio. The f-holes on del Gesu's violins, for example, "may look sloppy, but they are positioned just right."
As a freshman, King was the principal cellist in the Stanford orchestra. He became an academic economist, but while teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the early 1970s, he decided he wanted to make a cello. "I thought I really would like to get a better cello," King says, "but I started looking around and they were very expensive and I thought: Wouldn't it be fun to make one?"
He went to Willis Gault, who was among the first to teach lutherie—the making of stringed instruments—in the United States. "First," Gault told him, "we make a violin." (Cellos are 16 times larger than violins, and the tolerances are just as tight, meaning it's a lot more work.) Gault was a "nice old man who made terrible violins," says King. "But they looked good." Under his guidance, King made his first violin—the only one he still has, having sold all of the dozens he's made since. That first violin, King says, "not only sounded terrible, but looked terrible, too."
As King's economics career progressed—he designed some of the first mortgage-backed securities for Freddie Mac, where he spent most of his career—he started spending more and more time making violins. He refined his craft with several mentors including master luthier Karl Roy, a German traditionalist, and Carleen Hutchins, an iconoclastic American who pioneered the use of technology in analyzing old instruments. In February 2000, King retired from Freddie Mac to devote himself full time to the violin sales and repair shop he ran out of his basement in Potomac, Md.
King's approach is a combination of old-style craftsmanship and technological analysis. "There are lots of ways to determine wood quality," he says. "You can bite it, or taste it." He has analyzed the audio spectrum made by tapping violin plates at certain key points to understand their stiffness in three dimensions—up and down, left and right, and twisting. The problem, he says, is that you can look at the spectrum for very good instruments and very bad instruments and not be able to tell the difference.
"Being able to sort out what is a distraction and what is worth focusing on is one of Tom's great gifts," says Dalton Potter, who owns the most prominent violin store in the Washington, D.C. area. Potter says that he has sold King's violins to musicians who chose them over 150-year-old instruments with famous names. "The secret," he says, "is that there are no secrets. You have to be smart enough and experienced enough to perceive the small differences."
Coda: In the 30-plus years since he started making instruments, King has yet to make a cello. But, he says, "I'm going to—I have an order for one."
Konstantin Kakaes is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.
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Data is from the past two weeks.