Luthier Douglas Cox: Making a Quartet of Instruments
Cox goes all out on a string quartet for Lawrence University
It might sound like a student musician's worst nightmare. In November 2008, when violinist Danielle Simandl and her comrades in the Viridian String Quartet took the stage in a packed concert hall at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, all four musicians were wielding brand-new instruments they'd first seen just 48 hours earlier.
The 22-year-old Simandl, a Lawrence senior, normally performs on an older French violin. But that Friday night, as her parents watched from the audience, the Viridian's first violinist put her bow to an instrument handcrafted by Douglas Cox—part of a quartet of stringed instruments delivered to the school by the Vermont luthier two days before the concert.
"It was pretty adventurous," Simandl says with a laugh. "Not only did we have to get a handle on the instruments and figure out how to make them work together in two days, but we had to share them with the soloists who would be playing them also."
For Simandl, Cox's first violin was love at first sound. "I went directly to the E string and I really liked it," she says. "It's very 'first violiny,' if I can use that term. That instrument is so good at projecting into the nosebleed section anything that's played on the fingerboard."
Making the instruments work together turned out to be easier than Simandl had anticipated. "We were going from a Hayden quartet to late Beethoven, so it was very challenging and exciting figuring out how to get those very different sounds," Simandl says. "But as far as making the instruments blend as a quartet, we quickly figured out we didn't have to worry, because that's what they were made to do."
Such sentiments are music to Cox's ears. Two years ago, the award-winning luthier was commissioned to create the quartet by a philanthropist who wanted the school to have a matched set of instruments. Cox saw the commission as an opportunity to explore some fundamental issues: What makes a string quartet effective? How does a violin maker create four instruments that each have a distinctive voice but also blend together when necessary?
Armed with such questions, Cox began gathering information and opinions from a wide range of sources. He checked in with fellow luthiers at the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop, held each summer on the campus of the Ohio school, spent months listening to quartets perform at Yellow Barn and other music festivals, and talked to such musicians as Ivan Chan, first violinist with the Miami String Quartet.
"You ask ten people their opinion and you get 11 different opinions," Cox says with a chuckle. "But those discussions were important because they shaped my own opinion of what I was looking for and what would be appropriate."
In one 24-hour period, Cox heard three Hayden quartets played by three different ensembles. "The performance that I found the most exciting was by the Jupiter String Quartet, in which there was a wonderful dynamic tension, almost conflict, between the voices of the instruments," he says. "They were certainly working together, but there was this very passionate dialogue. And it was easy to follow the dialog because each voice in the quartet had a distinctive color to it."
Instrument quartets have a mystique that may rest in part on their relative rarity. Most luthiers think hard before creating a quartet because of the time involved, and most professional quartets use instruments made by different makers.
Indeed, Cox was surprised by how little concern most quartet players he spoke to showed about matching the colors of their instruments.
"I asked them about the process they would go through if one of the players had to get a new instrument," he says. "Would all the musicians have to approve whatever he or she decided on? And the general feeling was that each individual musician is responsible for [his or her] sound and instrument."
To provide a unifying theme for the Lawrence University quartet, Cox settled on Guarneri del GesÃ¹ styles. The first violin is modeled on the "Kreisler" del GesÃ¹—a circa 1730 Strad-like pattern that delivers the power and flexibility that impressed Simandl. Cox modeled the second violin on del GesÃ¹'s 1743 "Leduc," with the goal of providing more power and a dark, woody color in the low-end sound.
Wood choice plays a key role in Cox's violin-making philosophy. Cox wants his instruments to reflect the place and time of their making, so he prefers using maple and spruce from the forests around his studio, which is located in the hills near Brattleboro. The Lawrence University instruments are made mostly from local wood, except for the cello. "I haven't found logs in this area large enough," Cox says.
He used similar top wood to give the instruments similar response characteristics. The spruce for the two violins and the viola all came from the same log. "I'm finding [Engelmann spruce] to be preferable on Guarneri-pattern instruments," Cox says. Because Engelmann is less dense than many other commonly used varieties, the tops can be thicker. "Denser woods require a thinner top and get more stiffness from the hardness of the wood, rather than the thickness," Cox explains. "There is a subtle stiffness-to-weight ratio that works well with the Guarneri arch."
Cox has crafted two other quartets—a set of Baroque instruments and a quartet for a Violin Society of America competition. But creating the Lawrence University quartet posed a special challenge, since the school plans to keep the instruments together for use by a wide range of students for years to come.
"In talking with folks there, we were throwing around 200 or 300 years as the expected life span of these instruments," Cox says. "Since I don't know who will be playing them in years to come, I wanted to avoid extremes of size."
For the viola, which Cox saw as the starting point for creating the quartet, that meant going with a 16 3/8-inch body length. "That doesn't compromise the color and the character of the sound, but it's small enough to be manageable for different players," he explains.
"I wanted a viola that is not a little violin but has a distinctive voice."
The result is remarkable, according to Matthew Michelic, an associate professor of music at Lawrence who teaches viola. "His viola is so playable, and the response is like lightening," Michelic says. "It's strong in all registers."
Several cellists advised Cox to begin building a quartet from the cello up. Cox didn't follow that advice, but the cello was a key building block. "I decided to go dark and easy in the cello, very generous and free in its sound without a lot of edge," he says.
Cox had to take special care to create a cello that had a distinctive voice and yet was able to work well with the other instruments. He succeeded, according to Michelic.
"I really like the distinct sound in the lower register of the viola as opposed to the lower register of the cello," Michelic says. "I could really hear those two instruments distinctively, and yet they also blended well."
When the quartet made its public debut in the hands of the Viridian String Quartet, Cox was in the front row. "When I'm sitting at the bench with a violin in front of me, it's somewhat abstract work," Cox says. "As much as anything, I'm playing with my dreams of what this is going to sound like. And to get to the other end, to actually hear the instruments play, feels very good.
"I have a very nice warm spot from that concert that is there still."