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String Theory and the Science of the Violin

In 1993, Cal Meineke, a doctor with a talent for playing the violin, set out to solve a perplexing mystery: Why do some stringed instruments produce a heartbreakingly beautiful sound, while other, nearly identical instruments do not? After almost two decades of obsessive violinmaking and intense scrutiny, he thinks he has the answer

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A violin scroll being carved.


A brief lesson on the instrument’s beginnings

Not everyone was a fan. Some credentialed luthiers—the traditional term for people who make and repair stringed instruments—dismissively referred to Meineke as “that doctor.” Some high-toned dealers refused to say anything about him if asked. Meineke entered two of his instruments in competitions sponsored by the Violin Society of America, where their less-than-perfect appearance resulted in low marks. A few violinists from the Boston Symphony Orchestra took time out between concerts one year to play a couple of Meineke violins and gave mixed reviews. “Somehow I wish they had more heft, wish they resisted me more,” one said. “When I work harder for the sound, the instrument gives back more.” Some observers who listened to Meineke describe what he was hearing in a violin couldn’t hear what he heard. They wondered if Meineke might be dealing in emperor’s clothes of his own.

“I’m not a professional violinmaker,” he told people. “I’m an investigator. A professional respects the traditions of the profession and does what he’s taught to do. An investigator tears it all down, questions everything, asks, ‘What should we be doing?’ It’s a completely different posture.”

By freely taking apart instruments and reassembling them, and by aggressively regraduating the interiors of finished instruments, Meineke found himself cutting against the conservatism of the craft. He was forming a theory that would place him almost entirely outside of the field: A well-tuned instrument, he believed, had to be built in layers, like a boat being built up from the keel. He understood the violin to be a closed box that needed to function as a whole. But he theorized that if either of the two main parts of the box—the top or the back—wasn’t by itself in tune with the strings, no amount of adjusting could make the whole box sound clear. He wondered if it would be possible to isolate the various parts of the violin and hear their tones independently, without interference.

* * *

In 2001, he created a climate-controlled workshop in his basement. He often put in a full day at his medical practice or teaching internal medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and then came home, had dinner with his family, and worked for five or six hours in his basement lab. When he came to the brink of figuring something out, he’d work maniacally through a weekend, 12 hours a day. He stopped going to movies, didn’t take vacations. He was no longer merely curious, but engaged by a narrow, extraordinarily complex quest, the kind that sometimes leads to major advances—or can look, from the outside, like delusion.

He designed two custom forms to isolate the components: one a fixed fingerboard that accepted a top plate underneath; the other a crosspiece that spanned an instrument’s back plate, supporting the bridge and strings without the presence of a top plate. Over hours of listening and training his ear, he found that the different woods (historically spruce for the top plate, maple for the back) inherently produced different pitches from the same string. Merely copying the thicknesses found in an earlier instrument would make beautiful sound only if the maker were using wood identical to the original. Unless you were using Stradivari’s wood, copying a Stradivarius wouldn’t get you there. To have any hope of consistently creating exquisite harmonics, Meineke was convinced that a maker had to tune each plate to the strings, then the plates together, then the instrument as a whole. The only way to do it, he now believed, was the way Stradivari probably did it: by listening as he was building and by knowing what he was listening for.

Meineke’s skills improved along with his growing understanding. His son, Greg, a skilled carver with a good ear, enrolled at the highly regarded Chicago School of Violin Making and brought some of his formal training back to his dad’s workshop. The results jumped again.

Meineke began demanding his earlier instruments back so he could bring them up to his rising standards. He insisted that Sue Ann Erb bring her violin to him as she passed through Midway Airport on a layover. He regraduated small sections of it—a fraction of a millimeter here, a couple of scrapes there—and handed it back to her on her return trip through Chicago. It got to be a routine between them. They’d talk on the phone and Meineke would say, “What notes don’t you like? Are there any parts of the strings that are too hard to play?” Erb might reply, “Maybe the B-flat in fifth position on the D string could be a little easier.” And Meineke would say, “When are you flying this way again? I’ll meet you at Southwest.”

He occasionally made violins in less than a week—ridiculously fast, rushing the finish work—but he couldn’t make them fast enough to keep pace with the experiments he wanted to try. In 2007, he began buying instruments from Germany and China so that he could accelerate his investigation. He bought the finished violins for a few hundred dollars apiece, took them apart, worked his science, and then resold them to students for a thousand dollars, reluctantly, to finance his habit. He stockpiled violins—a couple dozen lined the shelves in a basement storage room—and experimented like mad. Some weekends he worked on five or six instruments. He spent hours alone in the cluttered shop, his silver hair uncombed, barefoot on the cement floor, wearing a T-shirt and shorts even in winter, unaware for a whole day that his shirt was inside out, oblivious to distractions. An out-of-date calendar displaying glossy photos of old Italian violins hung on a wall above his spindle sander (“My pinup,” Meineke called it). A clock above his bench stayed on daylight-saving time year-round. He might grab a cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie for lunch at 3 p.m., or he might not remember to have lunch at all. He plucked and listened, sanded and scraped, plucked and listened, his ear to the instrument, his ear to the paper cup, moving the dowel an inch, half an inch, and plucking again, listening as if he were using a stethoscope, hearing a heartbeat.

When he was close—maybe there—he’d assemble the instrument and run it upstairs to the dining room, where a curly-birch table overflowed with violins and where the acoustics were good. He’d play a soft scale or a Bach partita, soulfully, his mouth slightly open, his eyes closed. At such times, he seemed filled with art, with music, as if something else were driving him—even as he looked like a mad scientist, his shirt full of sawdust, a stray piece of masking tape stuck to the bottom of his foot. It didn’t matter. He’d grab a different violin off the table for comparison, play something more lively into the higher registers, then a snippet of a Beethoven sonata, switch back to the violin he’d been working on, and then run down to the basement again.

* * *


Photograph: Julia Meineke


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