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Jonathan Cooper: Violin Maker with an Ear for the Fiddle
Peter Anick
2016-04-26
Chances are if you have listened to contemporary string band music lately you have heard a fiddle made by Jonathan Cooper. The list of performers using his instruments includes the likes of Jim Van Cleve, Kimber Ludiker, Darol Anger, Bruce Molsky, and Mark O’Connor. Many of today’s promising young fiddlers also have an opportunity to play one on loan through an annual scholarship program in memory of the slain journalist and fiddler Daniel Pearl.

New Englanders can usually find Jon plying his craft at his shop, Acoustic Artisans, in Portland, Maine. The venue hosts an intimate concert series which attracts some of the best acoustic musicians around. But Jon also enjoys taking his violins on the road to fiddle camps and bluegrass festivals. It was at the Massachusetts fiddling weekend known as “Fiddle Hell” that I had a chance to take a break from the workshops and concerts to chat with Jon about his ever-growing reputation as a violin maker for top flight fiddlers.

You have more of an association with fiddlers than violinists. Have you always thought of yourself as making instruments for fiddlers?

I played the fiddle since I was young. It’s the kind of music I prefer to listen to. Not just fiddle music but the whole range of acoustic music and traditional music. I was trained in classical violin making in Cremona and you learn how to make violins in a very specific way, but you find that the violin, just like the music itself, has to keep up with the times. Instruments were made then and are made now for the people who are playing them. I noticed that there are differences in the needs of a player who is playing acoustic music with a banjo player and a guitar player, and accordion player, whatever. It’s very different than if you’re going to be a soloist in front of an orchestra or if you’re going to be in a quartet or a piano trio. The sound of the instrument has to be fitting into the other instruments around it.

Had you played classical music yourself?

No, I have not studied the violin as a violinist, but you learn to listen to those things. Part of the training as a violin maker is to listen to that kind of music and those kinds of sounds. And they’re different. I noticed just from surveying instruments that people were playing that there was no one making an instrument specifically for this kind of music. But people were gravitating to certain kinds of instruments. They tended to be a little bit darker sounding, sometimes a little bit larger. No one was thinking in these terms. They’d make a Strad model or a Guarneri model and they’d work just fine but no one had refined it to make an instrument that you could use for studio recording or use on a stage. When they made violins originally, there was no recording studio. To go into a studio and record easily and not have to make adjustments for the instrument was a challenge I had in mind. And also thinking about the setting, which was one I was familiar with. That’s how I wound up making instruments a lot for fiddle players.

What kind of music were you playing?

I was playing fiddle tunes. I was originally from the New York area but I moved up here (to New England) when I was a teenager and it was a whole different world. A lot of things that were here hadn’t existed where I grew up. I had no real knowledge of fiddle music, but when I discovered that here – all the different traditions that people were playing – I was very excited by it.

Is that what got you interested in making fiddles or were you doing carpentry or something else?

I was always one of those people who, if I got something, I took it apart. I already had some interest in guitars. I had been buying and selling guitars in high school and I was interested in instruments. So when I thought I’d like to play the fiddle, I went out and started finding fiddles. There were a lot of them around. I bought my first one for, like, seven dollars. I had thought at that point that all instruments were old, made in Italy, Germany, or France and nothing was made here. And then I started to find more and more instruments that were made in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, all over the country. I realized there had been a pretty big tradition of instrument making. It just happened to be pretty dead here in the early 1970s. Then I became interested in making instruments, because I was fixing them up to play them, to sell them. I was subsidizing being a musician by doing that.

So you just taught yourself.

Yeah, in the beginning. But then I realized, I’m not going to go any further teaching myself. I have to go somewhere. So at that point I moved to Italy, to Cremona. I had been playing over there. I was on tour and I made sure to go there. So I just picked up and moved there to learn. And I luckily got a job and worked and was there for three years.

Did you go to the school there?

I did not go to the school. I had enough tool ability that I was able to learn quickly enough. I worked for a guy named Gregg Alf, who is quite well known in the violin world. He had a shop and it was just he and I and sometimes one other person. And I just started making instruments. It wasn’t that hard for me. Luckily, it made sense to me. I made all the mistakes everybody makes but you get them out of the way pretty quickly.

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Do you tend to follow the classical patterns now?

A violin is defined in a very specific way in a certain period, and if you change them too much, they’re not the same. They were worked out with a really beautiful geometry. The upper bout has to be a certain size, the middle bout, the lower bout, the length of the instrument, the position of the f-holes, size of the openings – it’s all a very delicate balance. Those are the things that I went back to when I went to change the instrument to be a little better suited to what I would call people playing acoustic music.

What were the characteristics that you felt needed some adjustment?

I changed the size of the instrument a little bit, so that the air resonance within the body of the instrument was a little bit lower. Which makes the instrument a little bit darker. It doesn’t make it quieter but it lowers the pitch a little. You often hear instruments that are too bright and too harsh-sounding for playing this kind of music. They’re meant for something else. I do believe that there’s memory in styles of music. Especially in styles of traditional music, they go back to a time when pitch was lower. There’s a lot of drones in the music, ringing harmonics and ornaments, which is somewhat different than a violinist’s. Pitch was lower, necks were shorter, strings were more flexible and it was a very different sound. If we were to go back now and listen to a violin player from 1720, when these styles came to their peak, we’d hear a very different thing than we’d hear now. It’s a different world, but there is that sound that we want to hear.

Still, bluegrass players were playing on “classical” violins…

They were playing on classical violins but they weren’t on Strads or Guarneris. They were on French and German violins but a lot of them happened to have larger body sizes. That’s the first thing I noticed. You use the bow totally differently in this kind of music. A violinist plays with quite a range of dynamics with the bow. Fiddle players have a lot of bow technique but it’s different. There aren’t huge dynamic shifts in the music. It’s a different style.

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What things have you found that are most worth concentrating on?

Quality of the wood that you are using, the nature of the wood. If you’re using random materials that are different all the time, then you don’t get to understand what wood from one species, one kind of place is really like. So, handling the same materials. What I happen to like most about making an instrument is the sculptural aspect of making the archings. And you really get that in your eye after a while. Also, you get a feeling for the instrument as a whole. Having made the parts hundreds of times, assembling them, hearing people play them, knowing the people playing them, hearing them twenty years later – that’s the big difference between instruments that are made by one person with a unified idea of what they’re doing and instruments that are produced in a commercial setting where one person’s just making tops or backs, or parts. They don’t ever get to see them finished or hear them played.

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I know Darol Anger spent some time up at your shop. Have you had apprentices over the years?

Oh yeah, I like to teach people. When I went to learn, it was hard at the beginning to find a situation which I could learn in. I think it’s important to keep teaching people along the way, to share what you’ve learned. That’s how it gets better.

It’s certainly a golden age for instrument making.

Yes, for all instruments. Guitar, mandolin, you name it, pipes… Any instrument people play, this is the best period that I know of. Musically, too – the places people have taken music! The rise in the quality of the instruments and the playing, it’s amazing! You know, we make an instrument with all the knowledge we have and all the information from our own experience, but an instrument really comes into its own from the player who plays it. If someone has an instrument and they play it well for a long time, I hear a huge difference from what it was like the day I gave it to them. I don’t know how to quantify that in any way but it’s real. It’s what that person puts into it. It stays and has an effect.

For more information and to see examples of Jonathan’s work, visit jcooperviolinmaker.com. If you are in the Portland area, check out who’s playing at his concert series at acousticartisans.com.

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[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Spring 2016 issue.]

[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle, guitar, and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass group Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]

Photo: Liz Bieber