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Innovations in Cello-Making Materials

"New material demands new methods, and new methods fling a challenge to old convention." - Lawren Harris

From the beginning, luthiers have experimented with the materials they use for cello-making. Traditional makers compared maple and poplar – and other woods for cello backs and ribs. During the 18th and 19th centuries, in small villages without fiddle makers, local blacksmiths or even shoemakers would make cellos out of materials they had at hand, like iron or copper.

Cellos in this exhibition range from the long-lived metal instruments to the ephemeral ice cellos. The youngest maker represented was 12 when she made her first instrument. The construction of cellos included here was influenced by seemingly unlikely sources, including blacksmiths, boat builders, and bullet trains.

Making techniques range from using molds to glass blowing and from hammer work used to create the noses of bullet trains to one that was fabricated from parts made in a 3D printer.

What began as a list of about five cellos, has become a collection so large that we decided to split our originally-conceived exhibition about Innovations in Cello Design into two parts

  1. Innovations in Cello-Making Materials
  2. Innovations in Cello Design

This first exhibition focuses on materials used to make cellos. We have included instruments that differ from standard cellos primarily in the materials from which they are made.

This means that while the instruments you will see here exhibit some variations in terms of shape and design, most are easily identified as cellos at a glance.

The future exhibition will explore the many shapes and physical designs that have been used for cello.

This brings us to definitions. What is a cello? Is a cello defined by the numbers 321.322-71?

For the purpose of this exhibition, our definition of a cello matches that of the maker. If a maker calls it a cello – even if it is played by striking and scraping it rather than by bowing or plucking a string – we define it as a cello.

Why? Because we are exploring what makers are doing with new materials to create instruments for cellists. Also, all of the instruments here, with perhaps one exception, look like cellos.

The cellos that follow range from the late 18th century through 2019. When we organized them, they fell into several types of materials:

  • metal
  • glass
  • ice
  • plastics
  • fiber

We thank all of the makers, archivists, curators, and institutions who have helped and continue to assist us with this exhibition.

We also thank all of our visitors for joining us on this exploration of Innovations in Cello-Making Materials.


Please note, when viewing an individual instrument, click on the images to enlarge them and see them without the overlay captions.
 

Metal

Metal cellos, ranging from the 18th century through 2019, represent the oldest to one of the newest cellos in the exhibition as well as a range from the crudest examples through some of the most sophisticated.

Why make a cello out of metal? In some cases, like the blacksmith-made church cellos, iron was what was readily available.

These anonymous makers were familiar with standard instruments but lacked the training and/or tools to make wooden cellos.

Although some are crude, these cellos were made with care and attention to detail – and were clearly made with love for the instrument.

Another factor was curiosity. The makers were experimenting with materials. For instance some makers used copper (there’s one example in the exhibition, but others exist) and one that appears to be made of brass – a copper alloy. Unfortunately very little information about these examples survives, so it is impossible to say for certain what the intent of the makers was.

Two aluminum examples represent opposite ends of the quality spectrum. One, from the workshop of G. A. Pfretzschner, was made for its durability rather than its beauty, likely for use in a school.

The other was made by some of the most skilled metal workers in the world, the Yamashita Kogyosho craftsmen who make the Shinkansen bullet train noses by hand. The president of the company decided to showcase their intricate hammering technique by making aluminum cellos.

Finally, the newest metal instrument represented was made by a mechanical engineer cellist, Jared Harris, who decided to make a steel cello.

Glass

When someone mentions musical instruments made of glass, the first instrument that springs to mind is often Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica from 1761, which was inspired by musical glasses he heard during his time in London and Paris.

Other instruments one might think of are glass bells or even flutes. Glass flutes survive from the early 19th century.

But glass cellos? They would certainly not be robust enough for use in school strings classes. For the professional, having to transport a glass cello would be an adventure. Can you imagine having to fly with one?

However, they do exist, and the skills required to make glass cellos are mind-boggling.  We know of two different makers, each using a different glass-making technique.

  1. The Japanese glass company, Hario, known for its tea and coffee pots, made several instruments in the early 2000s, including one glass-blown cello.
  2. Glass artist Gary Word has been making cellos for over a decade and through the creation of several prototypes, has arrived at his final glass cello model. He uses a kiln-forming glass technique, creating his cellos out of 33 pieces of glass.

Do you know of any other glass instruments? If so, please let us know about them.

Please note, we have not included glass fiber instruments in this section. For a glass fiber cello please see the Fiber section below.

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Sources

Ice

Ice cellos are the most ephemeral instruments in the exhibition. Those who play ice cellos are not snobs about the age of their instruments. Rather than having a life-long relationship with these cellos, players gain from the short-lived and temperature-sensitive experience of interacting with them.

Composer Jim McWilliams first envisioned an ice cello for cellist Charlotte Moorman in 1972. He gave her verbal instructions for the piece, and it became one of her signature works.

McWilliams’s Ice Music is about time and how it affects us. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud revived the work in 2001, nearly thirty years after Moorman’s premiere. She made use of modern technology to enhance the performance.

Taking the piece even further, Seth Parker Woods and Spencer Topel performed their own version of the work on the 45th anniversary of Moorman’s London premiere. Woods and Topel added layers of both meaning and technology to the work in an artistic call to action for our own time.

All of the Ice Music performances used intruments that, if classified in a university seminar, would not be defined as cellos in terms of their method of sound production.

Why include them here? They were conceived for and played by cellists, and ultimately, they are called “ice cellos” by those who conceived and played them.

Now we turn to instruments that would pass a classification test in a college classroom – at least one that teaches Hornbostel-Sachs numbers.

This century has seen a surge of interest in concerts featuring musical instruments made of ice. In addition to the element of time explored in the previous examples, these concerts, instrument makers, performers, and audience members also consider another factor – our relationship with nature.

This is the intersection of cellos and our current climate crisis. All involved in the ice concerts are affected by warmer temperatures and melting ice. Even without delving into issues of global warming, it is safe to say that ice cellos, particularly those made and performed outdoors are affected by the weather.

Variations in temperature alter the behavior and sound of ice cellos, even more drastically than the changes in seasons familiar to most cellists.

Two great ice cello makers are represented in this exhibition: Tim Linhart and Bill Covitz. They have different approaches to making instruments, but both have beautiful results. Covitz makes the point that working with ice cellos is not about expectations – it’s about the experience.

Plastics

“There is a great future in plastics. Think about it.” – Maguire, The Graduate

These makers certainly have been thinking about plastics as new materials for cello-making.

Plastics represented in this exhibition include two kinds of Styrofoam, 3D printed plastic, and plastic LEGO bricks.

This part of the exhibition includes our youngest maker, Anika Beauquesne, who was only 12 when she made the cello you see here.

She was inspired by another young maker, Tim Duerinck, who was studying in Ghent at the time. When his experimental Styrofoam cello was shown on TV and in the newspapers, she decided she wanted to try to make a cello, too.

Yet another young maker is Maddie Frank, who recently tied for first prize for her beautiful 3D printed cello in the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) Advanced Finishing Competition (2019).

One of the most surprising cellos in the exhibition is Nathan Sawaya’s LEGO cello. Sawaya has created striking cellos using only straight-sided plastic bricks, in spite of the fact that the cello is traditionally almost entirely curves.

Fiber

Cellos made from carbon and other fibers are a promising way forward for cello-making. Many are more durable than cellos made of wood, some sound wonderful, and most are more affordable. Perhaps this is why carbon fiber cellos are becoming more and more popular in this century.

Pioneers like Luis and Clark and innovators like Tim Duerinck are forging new paths in cello-making, creating carbon (and other) fiber cellos that both look and sound beautiful, without using up valuable wood resources.

Now there are many options, not only of carbon fiber instruments, but other fibers as well. The fibers included here are carbon fiber, paper, flax fiber, and even a see-through glass fiber cello.

We know of silk violins, but have not seen any cellos of this fiber yet. Do you know of any other kinds of fiber cellos? Please get in touch if you do.

Acknowledgments

The Cello Museum wishes to thank the following for their assistance with this exhibition:

COMING SOON!

In the meantime – you know who you are, and we thank you very much. We add another thank-you for your patience.