Although wood is also a composite of cellulose polymers and fibers and the natural glue lignin, carbon-fiber composites are sturdier than even the hardest woods. Initial prototypes of composite instruments sounded "boring" to some professional musicians, says Charles Besnainou, an instrument maker who has been building and studying the acoustics of composite instruments at the Paris Conservatoire and France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) since 1986. What the musicians heard was homogeneity in the way the sound dissipated, he says. Besnainou has since tweaked the viscoelasticity (a measure of both rigidity and flexibility) of the composite materials so that the sound damps less uniformly, mimicking the response of wood.
Luis and Clark cellos are unusually light—one and a quarter pounds (0.6 kilogram) lighter than its wooden counterpart—and seamlessly smooth to the touch. The woven carbon-fiber mats make the instruments appear to have a snakeskinlike surface when viewed up close. (Farther away, the surface appears to be pin-striped.) The unconventional appearance bucks longstanding musical tradition. In his studies, Besnainou sometimes covers his composite instruments in wood veneer to avoid musicians' preconceptions of black plastic. When they're impressed with the sound, musicians will ask Besnainou to prove that the covered instrument is a composite in wood's clothing.
Leguia says that his instruments have a fuller sound, which requires a light touch in some cases. The sound is "glorious" with a microphone, says cellist Peter Sachon, who plays his carbon-fiber cello nightly in the current Lincoln Center production of South Pacific in Manhattan. Falling music stands and microphone stands in orchestra pits and extreme temperatures are real-life occupational hazards, he adds, and a durable instrument that is not also a nearly priceless objet d'art offers extra peace of mind.