American Luthier

From the time of Stradivari, the violinmaking world has been a cloistered male bastion preserving closely guarded secrets and a lucrative violin market. When chamber music friends asked Carleen Maley Hutchins, a grade school science teacher, amateur trumpet player, and New Jersey housewife in the 1950s, to trade her trumpet for a $75 viola, she decided to try making one, setting in motion a surprising story of a self-taught genius colliding with an ancient guild. Hutchins carved nearly 500 instruments, conducted 100 experiments, and built the first violin octet – a family of eight violins from an eleven-inch treble to a seven-foot contrabass. She wrote 100 technical papers, two benchmark Scientific American cover articles, founded an international society devoted to violin acoustics and was the only woman to win the Acoustical Society of America Honorary Fellowship, first given to Thomas Edison in 1929.

Woven within the Hutchins story is the saga of her violin octets – five reside in museums in Edinburgh, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, South Dakota, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Hutchins legacy lives on in the performances of the San Diego-based Hutchins Consort, the only professional ensemble performing on a Hutchins violin octet. Hutchins died in 2009 at the age of 98. The most innovative luthier of the modern age, she explored two worlds she knew nothing about – violins and acoustical physics – and changed everything in a world that had changed little in three centuries.