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Experimental Viola
by Carleen Hutchins, Montclair, New Jersey, 1953

NMM 10181.  Viola by Carleen Hutchins, Montclair, New Jersey, 1953 Side view of Hutchins viola Back view of Hutchins viola

NMM 10181. Viola by Carleen Hutchins, Montclair, New Jersey, 1953, modified by Frederick A. Saunders, South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Spruce top. Maple ribs and back. Flat belly and back allow free movement of the sound post without refitting it. This example is one of three flat-topped violas on which Hutchins and her mentor Frederick A. Saunders (1875-1963), retired Harvard physicist, performed numerous acoustical experiments including varying the shape and location of the soundholes, manipulating the purfling grooves, moving the bass bar, trying out different sizes of ribs, testing various bridge materials, and studying the viola's air and wood modes of vibration. The scientists also studied the effects of adding wood to stiffen the plates. One of these patches is still visible on the instrument's back. According to a 2002 interview with Hutchins, conducted by Paul Laird, University of Kansas musicologist, Hutchins noted that this viola ". . . was the most important instrument I ever made because we did at least 100 experiments, maybe more, on it and learned an awful lot that has proved quite valid ever since." Gift of Carleen Maley Hutchins, Montclair, 2002.

Soundholes of Hutchins viola

Originally small and diamond-shaped, the viola's soundholes were progressively lengthened and enlarged by Saunders who tested the acoustical effects of the enlargements after each cut. According to Laird, Saunders "found no real difference until he reached the length of F-hole that is more or less normal for a viola of that size. Then he started to widen the area of the holes (producing what they called for awhile 'spiral nebulae,' for their shape)." Ultimately, Hutchins and Saunders decided that the viola sounded best when the soundholes reached the size of standard f-holes.

The bass bar, normally located underneath the belly, was placed on the outside of this viola so that it could be more easily moved for experimental purposes. Hutchins and Saunders determined that the conventional placement of the bass bar produced the best sound, although acoustically it made no difference whether the bass bar was located inside or outside of the viola's body.

Hutchins made 35 different bridges for this viola, using 7 different woods, each cut in 5 different thicknesses. Saunders' tests with the bridges led him to choose paduc as his favored wood.

Front of pegbox on Hutchins viola Side of pegbox on Hutchins viola Back of pegbox on Hutchins viola

Hutchins' flat-top instrument was played in concert by William Berman, viola professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, for the 1969 Philadelphia meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. According to Laird, Hutchins "remembers considerable disbelief at what the instrument sounded like, but she noted: 'It is a good viola except for the difference in the overtone structure. It represents the elements that are necessary for good sound, none of the fancy stuff that everybody thinks is so important.' In more recent years, three members of the New York Philharmonic tried the instrument. After laughing at its appearance, they were quite surprised by the quality of its sound."

For additional information about this viola, see Paul Laird, "Carleen Maley Hutchins Work with Saunders," Ars Musica Denver, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall 1993).

Go to description of The Carleen Hutchins Collection and Archive at the National Music Museum.

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