Carleen Maley Hutchins
The Catgut Acoustical Society


One of the enduring names associated with Carleen Hutchins is the Catgut Acoustical Society (CAS), "...a group of people interested in the support and development of new musical instruments and improvements on existing instruments."[FN 33] The CAS grew out of intense collaboration among Hutchins, Saunders, John C. Schelleng, and Robert E. Fryxell in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Saunders, as dean of American violin research, had always drawn to him others interested in the field, and late in his life Hutchins, Schelleng, and Fryxell were all corresponding about their research. That Hutchins was in the middle of this group was no accident, because as early as the 1950s she realized that researchers working in violin acoustics were often loners, working in isolation and hearing little about the work of others. From her early years in the field she has tried to draw these persons together, and to find interested scientists to work on problems that she has often helped describe.[FN 34] These activities were crucial to the founding and continuing development of the CAS, and will be described in more detail below when her scientific collaborations are described.

John C. Schelleng (1892-1979) was a graduate in electrical engineering from Cornell University who spent most of his career as a specialist in radio waves with Bell Telephone Laboratories, concluding his career there as research director. In the estimation of a number of persons in violin research he is one of the strongest contributors to the field. His 1963 article in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, "The Violin as a Circuit," is a classic in the field.[FN 35] Robert E. Fryxell (1924-1986), who held a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Chicago, was employed by General Electric and as a violin researcher worked in the areas of wood and moisture, bow hair, and varnish.[FN 36] As was the case with Hutchins and Saunders, Schelleng and Fryxell were amateur string players--in this case both cellists--and were also members of Helen Rice's organization, the Amateur Chamber Music Players.

The extent of collaborative work done by these four persons in the last five or six years of Saunders's life may be seen in the correspondence archives of the Catgut Acoustical Society.[FN 37] Work was done on individual and collaborative projects, and communication was maintained in a lively correspondence and in occasional meetings, sometimes at the home of Helen Rice in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At the time that the work was taking place, Hutchins and Schelleng lived in New Jersey, Saunders in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Fryxell in Cincinnati, Ohio. The extent of the correspondence may be seen, for example, in Schelleng's file, where seven letters dated from March to July 1961 to either Hutchins or Saunders survive. The letters are highly technical with abundant drawings and formulas; it is clear that they were struggling with a number of research problems. Reaction to Schelleng's work appears from Saunders in letters to Hutchins that date from March 10 and 16. Schelleng was laboring on his paper "The Violin as a Circuit," which he introduced to his three correspondents on May 2, 1962: "The elephant has labored and herewith is enclosed a copy of the mouse answering to the name 'The Violin as a Circuit."[FN 38] He asked for comments from the others, noting that the drawings would be done properly by Hutchins. Hutchins has summarized the article:[FN 39]

...Schelleng used electrical circuit methods to formulate the behavior of string-body vibrations, the general shape of the response curve, the role of the lowest 'air' mode in promoting effective radiation above its resonant frequency, a better view of the mechanism of the 'wolf-note' as well as the effects of wood properties on the violin.

Another article which came out of this spate of research was Hutchins's "The Physics of the Violin," published by Scientific American in 1962. Hutchins's work was starting to become known; articles about a "housewife making fiddles in her kitchen" had appeared in local papers like the Montclair Times,[FN 40] but by 1962 work on the violin octet (described below) had reached a public stage and her other work was starting to make national news as well. There was, for example, a profile of her in Time Magazine on June 15, 1962 mentioning the demand for her violas by professional violists and briefly describing the octet.[FN 41] (The article has the same condescending tone that published descriptions of her work tended to have in the 1950s and 1960s, but today Hutchins recognizes that as characteristic of the time.) The November 1962 article in Scientific American awakened the first general interest within the scientific community in her work. In the article Hutchins described the violin physically, the violin octet, Saunders's loudness curve tests as a technique for measuring instruments, the use of experimental instruments in testing, and her recently-published work on tap-tones done with Hopping and Saunders.[FN 42] Following its publication Hutchins received about 200 letters, many of them from physicists, offering praise and criticism, some showing interest in her use of Chladni patterns. In answering this mail Hutchins discovered the problem of celebrity, hiring a secretary to assist her with correspondence. Among the major developments to come out of Hutchins's exposure was an article in Life Magazine in November 1963 (reduced in size because of President Kennedy's assassination) and a television documentary on Hutchins's work produced by the California Academy of Sciences, taped on April 14, 1964.[FN 43]

The founding of the Catgut Acoustical Society, brought on by the collaboration between Saunders, Hutchins, Schelleng, and Fryxell, took place in 1963 around a ping-pong table in Hutchins's garden. Many published accounts state that the CAS was founded by Frederick A. Saunders, but it happened not long before his death, and those founding the organization were trying to carry on the spirit of research on violins--and other musical instruments--which Saunders had been furthering and fostering for thirty years.[FN 44] There is no question that Saunders considered the four researchers as a group: in a letter to Hutchins from January 4, 1962 he spoke proudly of their group as "we."[FN 45]

The group jokingly called itself the "Catgut Acoustical Society," but they grew fond of the name and kept it.[FN 46] The CAS grew from the 50 charter members to over 800 in 1981, although the membership has dropped in more recent years as Hutchins has curtailed her lecturing schedule.[FN 47] The first issue of the Newsletter appeared on May 1, 1964, describing a meeting on May 16, 1963 of twelve members at Hutchins's house.[FN 48] Among those present were Schelleng, Hutchins, Fryxell, the musical acoustician Arthur H. Benade, Penn State acoustician Eugen Skudrzyk, violin makers William Carboni and Louis Condax, doctor and amateur violinist Virginia Apgar, and architect Maxwell Kimball. Members outlined their current research, and a number of projects were agreed to be worthy for continued work. Progress on the violin octet was also described, and the next meeting on May 24, 1964 was announced.

The immediate growth of the CAS may be seen in the second Newsletter, dated November 1, 1964.[FN 49] Nearly fifty persons attended the May 24 meeting, which included an informal concert of the violin octet. The Newsletter includes a detailed description of the octet and the beginnings of what the CAS newsletter became: articles on research related to musical instruments. Although each article in the second Newsletter concerned research on the violin family, articles on other instruments have been included over the years, especially other string instruments like the guitar. Fryxell served as the first editor of the Newsletter, continuing in that capacity until his death in 1986. The publication has continued to appear semi-annually, and for the November 1984 issue the name was changed to the Journal of the Catgut Acoustical Society, a refereed publication found in libraries throughout the world. In addition to the Journal, the CAS has sponsored meetings, sometimes in association with conventions of the Acoustical Society of America, or at venues in other countries.[FN 50] In order to foster activity elsewhere, and to recognize the organization's international focus, the CAS now has vice presidents in the United States, Scandinavia, Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The CAS office remains at Hutchins's house in Montclair, where part-time secretary Elizabeth McGilvray maintains a lively correspondence. Hutchins has always been at the center of CAS activities, but the scope of organization extends far beyond her. Hutchins's research collaborators number in the hundreds, and many of these persons have published articles in the Journal, as have many persons not associated with her work.[FN 51] The Newsletter and Journal has faithfully reported on the activities and publications of Hutchins and many other members. It is Hutchins who started a process in the late 1980s to provide for the future of the CAS, reducing its dependence on her house and allowing for it to continue its work after her death. After contacting a number of institutions, the CAS has entered into an agreement with the Center for Computer Research in Musical Acoustics at Stanford University for housing the CAS archives and the hiring of a part-time director to oversee the organization's work. In addition, it plans to fund fellowships for graduate students to work with the octet and with musical acoustics. Fund-raising for this project is in the early stages, but transferral of CAS files to Palo Alto has begun, and Hutchins is gratified to see a plan for the future of the society.[FN 52]

The CAS promotes research in musical instruments, but is not a grant-providing organization. There are, however, a number of projects closely associated with Hutchins and the CAS which should be described here, the first of which is the violin octet, probably the most famous product of the work of Carleen Hutchins.

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