Early 3-D printed violin prototype next to a traditional violin. [Image: Lawrence Peart]

John Adams is one of the greatest composers living today and, as such, his music pushes boundaries and offers challenges to both those who play and it and those who listen to it. One such person is Sean Riley, a violinist currently undertaking his doctoral studies in Musical Arts in the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. Riley, like most serious musicians, has his own favorite instrument, a 240-year-old violin, but this time the instrument simply wasn’t up for the task as the piece by Adams which had grabbed his ear, titled The Dharma at Big Sur, requires a violin with two additional strings.

It’s not possible, or at least it is incredibly unwise, to simply tack two more strings onto an instrument and so Riley decided to set about creating a new one. The new violin needed to have additional low F and low C strings that would allow it to enter the range of notes normally reserved for the cello while still being able to also reach the soaring high notes required for the piece. His decision to create anew came about as an accident of geography; while walking around the library thinking about where he could get his hands on a six string violin, he passed the Foundry, UT Austin’s celebrated makerspace, which is also located in the library.

A six-string violin would normally cost several thousand dollars, but Riley realized that if he could make one, not only would he have something unique and specific to his exacting requirements, but it would cost significantly less. He stopped in to begin following his idea and met Daniel Goodwin, a senior in mechanical engineering, since graduated, who was working at the Foundry that semester. Together with sculptor Rebecca Milton, a studio art major, the trio began to develop the design for the unusual instrument.

From Left, Daniel Goodwin, Sean Riley and Rebecca Milton brainstorming ways to improve an early prototype of the violin at The Foundry. [Image courtesy of the College of Fine Arts]

Goodwin recognized the daunting nature of the task that Riley had set but enthusiastically decided to take on the challenge, immediately in fact, and the pair sat down that moment and started the process of designing. Milton, who was charged with

Milton creates a cast for a piece of the violin. [Image: Lawrence Peart]

creating the look of the instrument, took inspiration from the music which is itself inspired by the rugged coastline and mountainous terrain of Big Sur, California.

The final design consisted of a mixture of 3D printing, electronics, and molded porcelain. The need for the standard hollow body shape of the violin was eliminated because of the electronic pickup which works by picking up the strings’ vibrations and converting them into digital signals. The result is a completely unique instrument and a new musical challenge for Riley as he prepares for his first recital with the instrument this February and for his final Doctor of Musical Arts recital with it next semester. But Riley is enthusiastic about the prospect of facing something new and proud of the efforts that created this new instrument, as he explained:

“I’m most proud of my team. They have been amazing and brilliantly patient with all the shenanigans that a project into such uncharted territory entails. It’s hard to describe how amazing it feels to hold the violin in my hands. I can feel that it has been made. I can feel Daniel’s hard work. I can feel Rebecca’s hard work. I fell like I’m not even playing a violin anymore. It’s something different.”

The funding for the project came from a Rainwater Innovation Grant, a source that provides funding for independent projects to advance the study of American music. And being able to bring together the different areas of knowledge required to undertake such a project is exactly what the Foundry was designed to do and is typical of the type of collaborative efforts that are associated with advanced technologies such as 3D printing. These kinds of makerspaces are popping up on campuses across the country because, as Vice Provost and Director of Libraries at UT Austin Lorraine Haricombe noted:

“All these various people came together in a way that might not have been planned or expected, but it happened because of a space like this.”

Riley performing with the final 3-D printed violin. [Image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin Libraries]

Adding two new strings to an instrument that he has been playing since he was seven is one way of spicing up the experience and will help Riley to better understand music in general and his own abilities in particular. It’s always exciting to go beyond the usual and in this case, Riley is doing that both through the 3D printed instrument and also in the piece that he is exploring.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source: University of Texas at Austin]

 

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