Brattleboro, Vermont, luthier Douglas Cox crafts internationally recognized violins from the woods of Vermont.
The garage-top shop of luthier Douglas Cox has the climate and good humor of a screened-in porch. The door is left open, the windows arch out, and a yellow Lab named Sophie lounges on the rug. Outside, freshly varnished violins hang from their necks.
This might seem like a recipe for disaster since many luthiers work in climate-controlled studios, and humidity can affect the sound and weight of instruments, but the radical openness of Cox’s making space is key to his philosophy. “These instruments are gonna be out in an ever-changing world in all kinds of situations so they better get used to it sooner rather than later,” he says. Building in a weather-permeable shop forces Cox and his pieces to accept early that “the life of the violin is how it relates to changing weather conditions.”
And live these instruments do. The main body of the violin is includes a front, a back, and two ribs. The largest pieces are carved out of wood cuts that grew side by side in a tree. When they’re cut apart and glued together again in a new formation, they reveal a symmetrical pattern akin to a butterfly with its wings open. Thus, the violin’s body pays homage to the tree from which it came.
Then, there are the sounds: Cox keeps “fairly comprehensive acoustic records of the instruments.” While he knows what works well for him after 50 years of making, he doesn’t believe that humanity is anywhere close to an algorithm. In his mind, “the predictive making process,” won’t be available to luthiers anytime soon.
Cox muses that talking about a good violin with professional players “is like talking about wine or cigars.” When commissioned to build an instrument for an artist, consultations require that he “try to develop a language to describe something which you really can’t describe.” Where language fails, taste prevails: “When things go best, there is a falling in love process.” To date, he’s crafted over 800 violins, and his instruments are played around the world. Owners of Cox violins include Jaime Laredo, the current conductor of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
Cox began his studies at a trade school in Mitenvall, Germany where instrument-making classes were “parallel to those that train electricians and plumbers.” After school he returned to the United States and worked for a shop in Boston. “Ten years doing repair and restoration. That’s where I learned what a good instrument is, what good players are looking for, and what goes wrong.” Those ingredients, he says, are what established his independent business in the early ’80s and what have helped it flourish ever since.
“There’s a mystique about old instruments,” Cox reflects. “Most everything I do is antiqued… it’s made to look as though it’s been around a while.” Mystique duly acknowledged, organizations like the Vermont Symphony Orchestra hope to excite people about new instruments too. During the 2016-2017 season, Cox served as the VSO’s first ever luthier in residence, exhibiting a violin in progress at performances. “Trying to do some of the work there had its risks,” he says, but for a person who builds things that exist to be played, “putting things in people’s hands” was too exciting to forgo.