Fitting the Fiddles

Maine Violin, MPBN, Down East Magazine

Violinists are honoring Portland master luthier Jonathan Cooper with a tribute album.

[U]sually, a tribute album celebrates those who play instruments — not those who make them. But Portland’s Jonathan Cooper is about to be honored with a record featuring some of America’s best fiddlers. Known for the sound and craftsmanship of his instruments, Jonathan Cooper is one of only about 100 violin makers nationwide considered masters.

“I make every part of it from beginning to end,” says Cooper. “I present it to the musician, I hear the person play it, I know that violin.”

Cooper taught himself to play the fiddle before deciding to learn how to build them over the course of a three-year apprenticeship in Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the Stradivarius violin. Over 35 years, Cooper has made more than 400 instruments, including cellos and violas. Most, he says, are made to order — designed with a client’s particular needs in mind.

“I ask them about what kind of music they play,” he says. “How much they play, how much they travel, what conditions they are playing under, whether they are playing in an acoustic setting, using microphones, or doing a lot of recording.

The answers affect parameters like the curvature and thickness of the wood, key factors when considering how the instrument’s going to sound. That attention to detail, and to the specific needs of the player, has earned Cooper a growing clientele of devoted performers like Darol Anger, world-renowned violinist and co-founder of the groundbreaking chamber jazz group the Turtle Island String Quartet.

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Anger moved from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, in large part because of Cooper’s presence and he’s one of several fiddle superstars recording tracks for the tribute album, slated for release next summer and yet untitled. For Anger, it’s about more than just superior sound. Cooper’s instruments, he says, “are some of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever been in contact with.” — Tom Porter

This article is adapted from our content partner, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Tom Porter, courtesy of MPBN (violin)

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