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Carbon-Fiber Cellos No Longer Playing Second-Fiddle to Wooden Instruments

Durable and less expensive, carbon-fiber composite orchestral instruments are music to some musicians' ears
cello, carbon fiber



COURTESY OF KEVIN SPRAGUE

Historically, carbon-fiber composites have beefed up airplane and space shuttle wings, formed rocket nose cones, and sliced through the waves in the America's Cup. Known for their stronger-than-steel sturdiness, the materials weren't originally developed with high art in mind. But instruments made from these materials offer many advantages: they're durable, lighter than wood, and insensitive to changes in temperature or humidity.

These qualities, as well as the even tone of his fiberglass Hobie Cat as it cut through the water, inspired amateur sailor and professional cellist Luis Leguia to experiment with new materials that might make fragile concert instruments lighter and more durable without compromising sound. "I wanted something with quality and projection and volume and body to the sound," says Leguia, who in 1989 began building prototype carbon-fiber instruments in his Milton, Mass., basement. "That's a hard combination to realize." Steve Clark, a shipbuilder and carbon-fiber expert who owns Portsmouth, R.I.–based Vanguard Sailboats, joined him in 1995 to work out the kinks in production. By 2000, they had formed a company called Luis and Clark in Milton and begun making violins, violas, double basses and other orchestral instruments.

The instruments are now manufactured by Matt Dunham of Clear Carbon & Components in Bristol, R.I., but Leguia plays each one to assure its quality.

The instruments have been slowly but surely catching on. The company sold 190 of its carbon creations in 2007, more than double the 85 sold just two years earlier. (Last year, the numbers dipped to 170, which the makers attribute to the slumping economy, although sales are up this year). And the carbon creations are now used by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other world-renowned musicians. At $7,139 a pop, a Luis and Clark cello is a bargain compared with the millions of dollars it costs for one made by Stradivarius or Guarnerius. At a January 30 "all carbon fiber" concert at The Calhoun School in New York City, 21 string players showcased Leguia's instruments. And Yo-Yo Ma considered using his Luis and Clark cello when he performed at Pres. Barack Obama's inauguration, according to The New York Times.

The carbon fibers that give the material their strength are graphite produced in mats. Those mats are layered in a mold and soaked with a resin made from epoxy or an unsaturated polyester, which hardens to make a composite. "By themselves [the carbon fibers] are pretty useless, but the resin bonds them all together and makes very highly rigid materials," says Richard Wool, a polymer chemist at the University of Delaware in Newark.

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.

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