Nov. 23, 2012 at 5:02 PM ET
In a small, sun-drenched studio outside of Boston, Benoit Rolland runs his hand over thin, dark planks of wood. He taps them to demonstrate how the percussive sound of each species varies. The pitch is higher in one plank, the reverb more durable in another.
By his count, Rolland is one of only a handful of people in the world who makes custom bows for violins, violas and cellos. It’s a traditional kind of work – another Frenchman, François-Xavier Tourte, settled the form of the bow in the 18th century, and most bows today are based on this design.
Though Rolland’s name might not be widely known, his bows are played on instruments with recognizable names like Stradivarius and Guarneri. Rolland has been making custom bows since the early '70s, and today he can produce as many as 30 in a year, selling them for up to $15,000 apiece.
In almost any other field, a machine would have replaced his job, but his clientele are the professional musicians who travel the world performing at the top of their field.
Befitting such an expensive piece of equipment, Rolland’s process for designing a bow is very specific. It begins with a private audience. If a customer lives abroad, he asks for them to send an audio recording.
“After a small while, I’m able to guess the bowings," Rolland said. "And then the fingerings. And the fingerings are very important, because they are linked to the bowings. And the bowings are linked to the fingerings.”
"It's a circle," Rolland explains. "When I can get into that circle, I have a fair idea of who I’m working for.”
After listening to the performer, Rolland chooses a specific wood and works up a design that accommodates their strengths and weaknesses. He prefers to use a species of Brazilian wood called pernambuco, celebrated for its tone, strength and longevity.
Unfortunately, pernambuco is an endangered species, and it’s impossible to buy more of the rare timber.
Rolland has a stockpile of the wood that he hopes will last the rest of his life, but anticipating the eventual disappearance of pernambuco, he began experimenting with alternative materials. In the 80s, he was one of the first people to create a bow from carbon fiber.
Unlike the warm sound of a wooden bow, Rolland says, “Carbon fiber conveys a very fast vibration. It’s not an advantage. We have to damp the vibration a little bit to give more warmth through the sound.”
His innovations have won him recognition. In October, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “Genius Award,” for the improvements he has made to the enduring wooden stick.
One of his recent changes to bow design was to slightly alter the angle at which the bow hair sits on an instrument, yielding greater sound and improved control.
“I do not plan nor intend to change the sound of the violin, otherwise it wouldn’t be a violin anymore," he says. "But, you know, violin playing is very difficult.”
When asked what he has in store, he demurs. “I have several inventions that are cooking," he says with a grin. "I don’t say that because I’m French. “