Saturday, August 08, 2009

Carleen Hutchins

Carleen Hutchins, who created a new family of string instruments, conducted acoustical research, and invented the free-plate tuning technique used by many string instrument makers, died Friday at 98. Take a look at the NY Times obituary.


D. said...

That was amazing. She was amazing.

Christopher Blair said...

Carleen will indeed be missed. I was privileged to conduct performances on the Violin Octet back in the late 80’s at MIT and elsewhere in the Boston area. The repertoire for the octet was fairly limited at the time and I commissioned some additional transcriptions and original works for the ensemble.

According to Carleen, the concept of an acoustically matched group of eight string instruments dates back to the writings of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) but was unrealizable until the dawn of space age materials. The E-string of the smallest member of the octet (the "treble violin"), pitched an octave above a violin, is strung with “rocket wire”. This string is under very high tension, and it is advisable for the player performing on this instrument to wear some sort of eye protection.

Shortly after an early rehearsal involving her instruments, she received a telephone call: : “Carleen, this is Leopold Stokowski”. “Yeah, sure”, she responded and hung up. It took several tries on the Maestro’s part to convince her that he really was Stokowski, and that he would like to meet with her.

Always interested in tone color, Stokowski was particularly impressed with the power of her Alto Violin, pitched the same as a viola, and wanted this instrument for his viola section. However the instrument, when played under the chin(because of its size, it is usually played using a peg), is ungainly, particularly with regard reaching high left hand positions.

Stokowski asked Carleen whether it might be possible to develop an instrument with the same characteristics that could played by normal-sized people up to fifth position. She went to work and a few months later had accomplished the task. She called the Maestro and a meeting was arranged.

To meet Stokowski’s criteria, it was necessary for Carleen to reverse the position of the big and little ends of the instrument and orient the box at an angle relative to the fingerboard, pushing the big end proudly above the fingerboard. Stokowski took one look at this unusual instrument, and decided that he would never be able to get his violists to trade their traditional instruments for something so…well…ugly.

And that was the end of that.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Advisable to wear eye protection!!!

Thanks so much for this. The alto violin she made for Stokowski sounds fascinating. I can't find photos of it on the web, just of the usual alto violin. Do you know of any?

Don Ehrelich, who is now retired from the SF Symphony, famously used an ergonomic viola for a number of years, so at least these days it is possible to play an unusual string instrument in public.

Daniel Wolf said...

An extraordinary woman.

Let's not forget, too, that it was composer Henry Brant who first asked for the instruments and composed the first piece explicitly for them, his Consort for True Violins.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, indeed; the Times obit explicitly says that.