Making Materpieces: Violin Making
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JEFFREY BROWN: Sam Zygmuntowicz has a thing for wood.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: In a way, this is the most enjoyable part of the whole process, like playing… like playing with your toys.
JEFFREY BROWN: He scrapes it, gouges it, and sands it. He bends it, carves it, and colors it. Above all, he listens to it. (Violins playing) At 43, Zygmuntowicz is a leading maker of violins, violas, and cellos, part of what some see as a modern renaissance in a very old craft. After studies in Salt Lake City and work under master teachers in Chicago and New York, he opened his own business in Brooklyn in 1985. There, in an industrial warehouse building, he plies his decidedly pre-industrial trade, making instruments the old- fashioned way.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: I’m not really sentimental about handwork or about craft, or really even about tradition per se. What’s important about these things is they contain an element of great value which cannot be found somewhere else. It’s taking something which has been refined over centuries and trying to refine it just a step further.
JEFFREY BROWN: In this shop, wood is something like fine wine. It’s picked from European forests and aged for decades. Small pieces can cost hundreds of dollars, up to a thousand for the best.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: You can start to get a sense of the wood already just by the sound that the plane makes going through it. It’s very lively wood.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bosnian maple is used for violin backs; for the tops, spruce from the Italian Alps, prized for its lightweight strength, and resonant for a rich, lively sound.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: You can even feel it just holding it in your hand. That’s how easy it is to resonate.
JEFFREY BROWN: Zygmuntowicz patterns his instruments on classic old models, varying the thickness and curvature of the plates. Small variations give each instrument a unique sound.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: I started out as a kid training to be an artist, and that’s still a big part of how I feel when I’m really working with wood, when I’m shaping things and carving things, just trying to create the forms and taking the personal pleasure of creating an object.
JEFFREY BROWN: To get a hold of these objects, musicians are waiting two and a half years and paying $20,000 to $30,000. 24-year-old Nokothula Ngwenyama, known as Tula, grew up in Los Angeles. Today she’s a rising soloist with a brand-new Zygmuntowicz viola.
NOKOTHULA NGWENYAMA: I think it’s like when you meet somebody and you feel like you’ve met your soul mate or somebody that you just click, the chemistry is there. That’s what I felt like with this instrument. I felt something going oomph! You know, it was alive.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tula’s real-life mate is born-born violinist Ruggero Allifranchini, a member of the Borremeo string quartet, who bought his Zygmuntowicz two years ago. Both had been playing on fine older instruments on loan to them.
NOKOTHULA NGWENYAMA: I was using a viola that’s made in 1750, a wonderful instrument, but, of course, out of my price range– definitely over $250,000 at this point.
JEFFREY BROWN: Which you didn’t have to spend.
NOKOTHULA NGWENYAMA: Which I didn’t have and which I don’t have. ( Laughs )
JEFFREY BROWN: For these young players, Zygmuntowicz offered the perfect solution.
RUGGERO ALLIFRANCHINI: Not only an instrument that just sounds very healthy and powerful, but something that, you know, with a personality.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reporter: You’re Italian, great makers of the past were Italian. Did you ever think you’d be buying a violin from a fellow in Brooklyn?
RUGGERO ALLIFRANCHINI: No, actually since I was a kid, you know, you always grow up with this idea that the best instruments are Italian, you know. And a lot of people would rather sell their soul, you know, than play anything but an Italian instrument.
JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, it’s almost universally thought that the best instruments are Italian and very old. At New York’s Metropolitan museum, curator Laurence Libin offered some history, even some violin pre-history.
LAURENCE LIBIN: The earliest bowed instruments seemed to come out of central Asia in ancient times. We have no idea how long ago. The nomads of central Asia depended on the horse for their existence, and they made stringed instruments in the shape of horses and using horse materials. It’s not a coincidence that the strings and bow hairs are made of horse hair. We talk about the instrument having a body that has a belly and a back, it has a tail, it has a neck, it has a head.
JEFFREY BROWN: By the late Middle Ages, various kinds of fiddles were widespread in Europe. In the 1500s, professional craftsmen began to refine their work, creating the forms of today’s violin, though their products retained a decidedly unrefined image.
LAURENCE LIBIN: Violins at first were not instruments of high status, and there are a lot of terms in our language that reflect this. We talk about fiddling around to waste time. Fiddle sticks is nonsense. To fiddle someone is to cheat someone.
JEFFREY BROWN: But in one town: Cremona, Italy, and in one relatively short period beginning in the late 17th century, violin making reached its heights.
LAURENCE LIBIN: This is the best of our three Stradivari violins, made in 1693.
JEFFREY BROWN: And instruments by Antonio Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesu remain the gold standard to this day. Valued in the millions… .measured and studied meticulously by modern makers, even though a Stradivarius like this one has been much altered to survive through the centuries.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: A Strad is, it’s like the body of a ’56 Chevy which has had the shocks changed, a new motor dropped in, new transmission, a stereo system installed. If it isn’t working well, we can take it apart and redo it again. I feel quite intimate with Strad in a way. I’ve seen it in bits, taken apart in small pieces.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, one of his specialties is making copies of great instruments of the past, as a great musician of the present learned over the last several years.
ISAAC STERN: I’d heard of Sam Zygmuntowicz, tried one of his violins and found it extraordinarily easy to play. And I met him and learned also to what degree he had this extraordinary eye and capacity to literally copy your own violin.
JEFFREY BROWN: Isaac Stern’s violins have included two famous Guarnari models made in the first half of the 18th century. One is named for violinist Eugene Ysaye; the other for Stern himself. When Stern wanted to let them get an occasional breather, he turned to Zygmuntowicz, and was pleased with the results.
ISAAC STERN: In this room, as we sit, if I took this violin and my Guarneri and did an a-b… ( Playing violin ) …You’d find it difficult to tell the difference.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even top musicians can be fooled. Stern once used his copy in a rehearsal without telling his friends, all famous musicians, including cellist Yo Yo Ma.
ISAAC STERN: We were playing along, and I was amused because they didn’t… And then they looked at the violin and said, “My God, that’s clean. When did you have… It’s gleaming new.” Then they took a better look and realized that this is a copy of the Ysaye. But they had been watching it, listening to it for an hour, didn’t notice anything.
JEFFREY BROWN: They couldn’t tell the sound?
ISAAC STERN: No. Well, I’ll tell you, there’s one thing about sound. There was a story about Heifitz. Somebody came up and said, “oh, Mr. Heifitz, what a wonderful concert and the way that violin sounds, it’s so wonderful. What a wonderful fiddle.” And he went, “oh, really? Here, would you like to try it and see how it sounds?” ( Laughs )
JEFFREY BROWN: Ruggero Allifranchini had that very kind of experience when he got to try the violin once used by his hero, another of history’s great players, Fritz Kreisler.
RUGGERO ALLIFRANCHINI: And I remember putting the bow on the string, and I was like, “ooh, how disappointing,” you know. (Laughter ) not the sound of the violin. It’s superb, it’s a fantastic violin. Am I sounding like Kreisler? Not at all. Not even close.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reporter: Today, Allifranchini is happy playing his own violin and sounding like himself. And joined by Tula Ngwenyama, offering their favorite violin maker a Mozart and Zygmuntowicz duet. But can modern makers really equal or surpass the masters of the past? Isaac Stern says that when it comes to violins, only time can tell.
ISAAC STERN: With a great Stradivarius or Guarneri, the wood is still alive. That’s the secret of those… That base… the base varnish and then the color varnish. It kept the wood alive, singing and vibrating to this day, and we’re talking 250 years later.
JEFFREY BROWN: So the test for a Zygmuntowicz is the test of time.
ISAAC STERN: Exactly. So far, God bless him… ( Knocking on wood ) …Knock on wood, it’s stood up very well.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, as the sun sets in Brooklyn, there’s time for some real fiddling around. ( Bluegrass music playing ) Zygmuntowicz the violin maker is also Zygmuntowicz the country fiddler, greatly enjoying the fruits of his labor.
SAMUEL ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Usually when I’m working on an instrument, it’s… During every stage you have to be quite critical, like, well, is this thick enough? Is it thin enough here? It’s too thin. How does that look? And it’s this constant, sort of inquiring and critical state. But there’s a certain point when it goes from being a project to where it’s really… It comes together and you just say, “oh, wow, I did that.” ( Bluegrass music playing )