Santa Rosa luthier builds ‘The Redwood Violin’ — from all-local materials
Most everyone has heard of “The Red Violin,” a 1998 film with a soundtrack by John Corigliano and violin solos by superstar musician Joshua Bell. The plot revolves around a mysterious red-colored violin as it passes through various hands over the course of four centuries.
Now there’s a new iteration: The Redwood Violin, an instrument Santa Rosa luthier Andrew Carruthers is carving, gluing and varnishing from materials sourced within 30 miles of his studio.
The top plate of The Redwood Violin — along with the bass bar and sound post located under the belly — are made of redwood. The back, neck and head are made of applewood. The “fittings” — tailpiece, fingerboard and chinrest — are made of manzanita.
Through the curves and acoustics of the Redwood Violin, Carruthers hopes to paint a portrait of Sonoma County and pay tribute to its redwood forests and apple orchards, its talented artists and crafts people. His vision is to embody the principles of the Go Local movement.
“It’s a way to show, especially in this pandemic, that you don’t need all this exterior commerce,” he said. “We have amazing resources here in terms of musical talent and craft.”
Although he normally sells his hand-carved instruments to serious music students across the country who are entering music school or the job market, the luthier plans to use the all-local violin to promote local education programs and orchestras.
The Redwood Violin will debut this April in a recorded concert by the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, part of the Santa Rosa Symphony Institute for Music Education. YPCO’s co-concertmaster Aedan Seaver will be the featured soloist in Concertina for Violin and Strings composed by high school junior Gwendolyn Thalia Przjazna of Cotati. The virtual concert will be released to the public in early May.
“I do want it to sound good. ... It’s going to have my name on it,” Carruthers said. “It’s going to the youth orchestra, and it has to be at least as good as their best player is playing on. I hope it will sound as good as my other violins.”
As part of the ambitious project, Carruthers is collaborating with an array of local businesses and crafts people, including wood turner Kalia Kliban of Sebastopol, who is making the pegs and the endpin on her lathe, and fine woodworkers Greg Zall and Mark Tindley of Petaluma, who are creating an elaborate marquetry design for the back of the violin.
“I’m looking forward to hearing this thing once it’s finished,” Tindley said. “There’s so many different kinds of wood in it. … Although he’s using a lot of eccentric materials and techniques, he’s being super-careful to build it properly. I fully expect someone to be playing it in 500 years.”
A craft bound by tradition
Since Andrea Amati created a set of string instruments in the 16th century for the king of France — including a small violin dated 1564 that is regarded as the oldest surviving violin in the world — not much has changed in the art of the luthier.
Violin makers such as Carruthers still employ many of the ancient methods, molds and materials that were used more than 350 years ago during the Golden Age, when luthiers Stradivari and Guarneri perfected many of the design features and techniques.
“Violin making is very traditional, and we tend to do what they were doing in Europe 200 years ago,” said Carruthers, an understated Brit who has been working on string instruments for the past 30 years. “It’s mostly because there’s a particular sound associated with a particular wood and a particular look.”
Carruthers normally sources wood and materials from all over the world for his instruments, including ebony from Africa or India for the pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece and chinrest; maple from Europe for the back, sides, scroll and neck and spruce from the European Alps for the top.
“All of my decisions are based on function and practicality,” he said. “It has to be the best substance I can get. ... Everything has to be strong enough ... but no stronger than it needs to be.”
At its most basic, the violin has four strings, held under tension by pegs inserted in a scroll at one end. A horsehair bow makes the strings vibrate as they stretch to a tailpiece over a bridge, which transmits the vibrations to the soundbox below. The soundbox acts as an amplifier.
Violin backs traditionally are made from maple because it has the density and thickness to create the right sound, Carruthers said. It carves nicely and has the flame-like pattern that has become synonymous with violins. The top of the violin is usually made from spruce, a light yet strong and flexible wood. It needs to vibrate easily but be able to withstand the pressure of 80 pounds of string tension.