A hidden jewel of an inventor in Watertown, MA!
Benoit Rolland, a French bow-maker, invites the Consulate General of France in Boston to his creative studio.
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- Benoit Rolland in his Watertown studio.
Last Thursday, the Consulate General of France in Boston met Benoit Rolland, an incredible and inventive French bow maker who lives in Watertown (MA) with his wife. In his studio, after having been trained by the last traditional master maker in France, Bernard Ouchard, he reinvents the bow itself, by making it from time to time either a piece of jewelry with diamonds, or an innovative object integrating kevlar and carbon in its design.
Benoit Rolland only produces 25 to 30 bows a year. They are played by the most famous artists like cellist Yo Yo Ma, who played a Rolland’s bow at Queen Elizabeth’s 90th Birthday Celebration, violist Kim Kashkashian, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and many other world-class musicians.
In 2012, he was awarded a McArthur Fellowship, recognizing “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction”.
As a world-known bow maker, he has given lectures at the MIT, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the New England Conservatory.
The bow is not an accessory anymore, but an instrument in itself!
The bow, Rolland explains, has long been considered as an accessoryonly. Violins, violas and cellos were designed by famous luthiers, and musicians chose each of their instruments with great care, considering the bow as a necessary accessory to their instrument. It has been reinforced by the fact that bows are mostly produced in an industrial way, and are sold to young musicians with their instrument, as if it is part of a kit. This is unfair to the bow, Benoit Rolland explains, because a violin without a bow is only a guitar. In reality, adds Benoit Rolland: “the instrument produces the sound, but the bow makes the music. It is the true conduit for the musician’s creative energy”.
Bow-making as an Art!
In 1983, Benoit Rolland was appointed Master of the Art of Bow Making in Paris, being the first to be awarded this title by the French Government. In fact, his work as a bow maker is not only the one of a great craftsman, but it is the work of a sculptor or a jeweler creating a unique object of art. His bows are specifically designed for each musician who places an order.
Rolland spends days listening to the artist’s recordings, to know what kind of sound he is looking for, and therefore, what kind of bow would be perfect for him. Sometimes, Benoit Rolland even anticipates the artist’s wishes, being aware before the artist himself of what he will be playing in the future. It is a very long process, during which Rolland needs to determine what a musician is looking for. Then, he must find a way for the magic to happen: the metamorphosis of a simple wooden stick into the extension of one’s emotion and musical intention.
This year, cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s wife asked Benoit Rolland to make a bow for her husband’s 60th birthday. At first, Yo-Yo Ma was very skeptical, because he already played a 19th-century bow made by the most revered maker in history. But Rolland’s wonderful comprehension of what would fit the world-know musician produced such a perfect bow, that Yo-Yo Ma adopted it!. He now only uses Rolland’s bow, and it is the one he played at Queen Elizabeth’s 90th Birthday Celebration!
Bow making, an industrial revolution and a futuristic object!
Benoit Rolland also has a taste for research and design. Through a quest that lasted 30 years, he revolutionized the bow making process and invented the 21rst century’s bow.
In the 1990s, he began working on a carbon fiber bow of concert quality, at a time when carbon was only used to produce cheap but low-quality bows which no great musician would play. But Rolland knew that the pernambouc, the only wood that can be used for bow making, was becoming scarce, since it only grows in a specific region of Brazil. It was time to figure out how to produce a more sustainable bow, before no more pernambouc could be found. At the same time, he wanted to produce less expensive bows for young promising musicians, who very often cannot afford wooden bows, which prices can vary from $4 000 to $12 000. He therefore spent years looking for the perfect method to create a good carbon bow, having to understand how to create an objet from nothing, by adding carbon fibers, while traditional wooden bows were made by removing some material from a piece of wood.
But Rolland’s search didn’t stop there. Inspired by his lifelong passion for racing sailboats, he had the brilliant idea to introduce an inner mechanism to the bow, consisting of a mobile Kevlar fiber, and allowing the musician to adjust at will the camber of the bow. This revolutionary innovation has one simple effect: it increases so much the playability of the bow, that it feels like several bows in a single one! “Spiccato”, the carbon bow, was declined in three types, and won the First International Prize Musicora in 1994. Benoit Rolland is now working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technologie (MIT) on these new materials and keeps looking for more improvements.
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- Yehudi Menuhin playing a Spiccato bow.
His last innovation is a change of the bow’s shape itself to better suit the musician’s movement. With the classical bow, the hair ribbon is parallel to the wooden stick. When musicians angle the bow while playing, following the natural movement of their hand, they can only use part of the bow hair. This is why Benoit Rolland had the idea to create a new frog called Galliane, which can adapt to any bow, and which slightly slants the hair, allowing musicians to use the full length of their bow.
As violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter explained at Tanglewood in 2012: “It has a wonderful sound quality. The bow seems to have an extremely deep and profound contact to the strings which generates a fuller and healthier sound, and incredible overtones.”
Rolland also works on his bow’s design, being inspired by his work as a photographer. For example, one of his latest frog (the ebony part that joins the wooden stick with the bow hair) has a geometrical shape, evoking the icebergs Benoit Rolland saw when he traveled to Greenland.
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- Left: An iceberg photographed by Benoit Rolland. Right: the Galliane frog.