December 12, 2018
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Portland violin maker blends use of Old World tools, modern technology to create custom instruments

PORTLAND, Maine — In the Starbucks on Congress Street, customers stare at laptops, iPads and digital readers. An artificial hue bathes their faces in a cold, blue glow accompanied by the clicking of plastic keys.

One flight above is another world entirely. In a cozy studio with wood chips on the floor and hand tools hanging from the wall, Jonathan Cooper plies a tactile trade that dates back centuries.

“I make new violins that look old,” said Cooper, grabbing a plane to smooth out a maple slab that is part of the way toward becoming the back of a violin.

As one of a handful of violin makers in the state, Cooper is a craftsman with a reverence for the past and an eye for the future. Making violins for 35 years, his is a sought-after skill. Session musicians in Nashville, Grammy winners from New York City, and players from Venezuela prefer his custom violins because it makes them sound better.

“It has been really incredible,” said New York composer Mark O’Connor, who first used his Cooper for a violin concerto at Boston Symphony Hall 10 years ago.

Each violin is made by hand with a specific tonal quality in mind.

“I want the instrument to be able to speak, I want it to be able to sound,” said Cooper. “That’s why you have to make them one at a time. It has to be from one person for an instrument to have a personality that’s distinct.”

Musical styles have changed since late medieval times, when stringed instruments first echoed in church halls. The violin has not, though it’s adapted to fit into modern times.

“If you change it, you change the instrument,” said Cooper. “It’s a very precise thing.”

Buying a bespoke violin from Cooper bears no resemblance to picking one up at a music store. And the price reflects that. He charges $15,000 for a violin, and it takes a month to make it.

“When you come to a maker you say ‘this is what I want and envision,’” said Cooper.

The violin maker knows most of his clients, hears them play and often hand delivers his work to make sure he got it right.

“We are always evolving and always looking to work for the musicians in our time period,” he said.

His fascination with the instrument began when he was 20 years old. He was playing guitar in a band when a bandmate brought in a violin. Cooper couldn’t get a sound out of it and cast it aside. But the violin had other plans.

“When I went to bed that night, I had a dream that I could play the violin perfectly. I woke up the next day and said, ‘I have to play the violin,’” he recalled.

Teaching himself to play, it soon became his main instrument and center of his life. As a curious person who likes to take things apart to see how they work, he set out to discover the source of the violin and found his way to Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the legendary Stradivarius.

Though the old masters who used to fill the town had mostly died off, he apprenticed with a young maker, Gregg Alf, who taught him how to carve the instrument out of maple and spruce and make the neck and scroll out of a block of wood.

“I really, really enjoy the tactile experience of holding planes in my hand. Forming something with a plane but repetitively cutting away wood, I find that a really good way to do things,” he said.

He returned to Maine and set up shop in Portland in 1984. Last year, he moved to the Hay Building, and every year, more clients find him.

O’Connor, winner of multiple Grammy Awards, says his Cooper has carried him through many performances. Although, the musician first purchased it as a second fiddle.

He was playing an old chestnut, a Vuilluame made in the 1830s, and he “was perfectly happy with the instrument,” O’Connor said in an email.

He acquired a Cooper violin to cross-tune pieces, as well as for promotional reasons because he feared damaging his Vuilluame.

“Then one day I decided to use my Cooper violin to premiere my 9th violin concerto that was going to require a bridge pickup for electronic applications as well,” O’Connor said. “I decided that I was not going back to the Vuillaume, and that the Cooper was going to be better for me as my first violin in all of my musical settings.”

To give voice to that range of settings, Cooper uses a hand plane from the 1920s and tools such as chisels and gouges that have been around since Roman times. He creates instruments designed to fill a concert hall or a tiny recording studio.

By flexing the wood that will become the body of the violin, he measures his progress.

“I know how close I am to be done. It’s a combination of the shape, inherent rigidity of the material. If I stop too soon, it gets stiff and doesn’t speak,” he says bending a board. “But it can’t go too far.”

To O’Connor, he gets it just right.

“The range of the violin is still the greatest in scope of all the instruments even today. The qualities of the Cooper violin doubles down on that flexibility. He makes an instrument that can be used for a symphony orchestra, for a fiddle jam session, for classical soloist and for a rock band … And it is all pretty much cut from the same piece of wood,” said O’Connor.

While most of his tools are analogue, technology has aided Cooper in certain aspects of his craft. He uses digital photography and Photoshop to get measurements for models instead of relying solely on physical patterns.

Instant images have become “hugely valuable to me because I can keep someone’s interest in the project,” said Cooper, who sends photos midway through a project so clients can see the progress.

Though new violins are his specialty, vintage strings have their own allure. He hopes his instruments will be passed down to future musicians.

“These aren’t like cars that we are driving one place to the next and it doesn’t make a difference where the hell the thing’s been,” said Cooper. “These are being used for very emotional and spiritual purposes.”

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