Sam Zygmuntowicz is a world-renowned luthier, or maker of stringed instruments. Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma play his instruments. In 2003, a violin he made for Isaac Stern sold at auction for $130,000–the highest price ever for an instrument by a living luthier. To sum up Zygmuntowicz’s stature as a builder of fine instruments, Tim J. Ingles, director of musical instruments for Sotheby’s, told Forbes magazine: “There are no more than six people who are at his level.”
Zygmuntowicz is the subject of a 2007 book by John Marchese called The Violin Maker: Finding a Centuries-Old Tradition in a Brooklyn Workshop. In one passage, Marchese writes about the mysterious acoustical qualities of the violin, which he likens to a magic box:
The laws that govern the building of this box were decided upon a short time before the laws of gravity were discovered, and they have remained remarkably unchanged since then. It is commonly thought that the violin is the most perfect acoustically of all musical instruments. It is quite uncommon to find someone who can explain exactly why. One physicist who spent decades trying to understand why the violin works so well said that it was the world’s most analyzed musical instrument–and the least understood.
The most famous, and fabled, stringed instruments are those that were made in Cremona, Italy, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari and a handful of other masters. In Zygmuntowicz’s workshop in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, there is a bumper sticker that says, “My other fiddle is a Strad.” Behind the joke lies a serious point. Zygmuntowicz wants great musicians to use his instruments–not because they are cheaper than a Stradivarius, but because they are better. He’s trying to break a barrier that has been firmly in place for centuries. “I call it the ‘Strad Ceiling,’” he told NPR in 2008. “You know, if someone has a Strad in their case, will they play your fiddle?”
Although Joshua Bell owns a Zygmuntowicz, he mostly calls on the luthier to make fine adjustments to his Stradivarius. But Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet told Forbes that he actually prefers his Zygmuntowicz to his 1686 Stradivarius in certain situations. “In a large space like Carnegie Hall,” he said, “the Zygmuntowicz is superior to my Strad. It has more power and punch.” In spite of the mystique that surrounds Stradivari and the other Cremona masters, Zygmuntowicz sees no reason why a modern luthier couldn’t make a better instrument. “There isn’t any ineffable essence,” he told the The New York Times earlier this year, “only a physical object that works better or worse in a variety of circumstances.”
For a quick introduction to Zygmuntowicz’s work, watch a new video, above, by photographer and filmmaker Dustin Cohen, and an earlier piece by Jon Groat of Newsweek, below. And to dive deeper into the science of the violin, be sure to visit the “Strad3D” Web site, which features fascinating excerpts from Eugene Schenkman’s film about Zygmuntowicz’s collaboration with physicist George Bissinger on a project using 3D laser scans, CT scans and other technologies to analyze the acoustical properties of violins by Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. As Zygmuntowicz told Strings magazine in 2006, “What makes those violins work is more knowable now than it ever was.” H/T Kottke
Note: if you have any problems watching the video below, you can watch an alternate version here.