Benoit Rolland, who has been making bows for stringed instruments for 41 years, describes his craft in this video released by the MacArthur Foundation.
In an interview with the Globe's James H. Burnett III, Rolland's wife says he often spends 12 hours in his Watertown studio. Rolland is one of four local recipients of the genius grants.
Here is an excerpt of Burnett's post:
Of this year’s local recipients, however, it is Rolland and his rare craft that may be the most unusual.
His grandmother was a famous concert pianist in France. And by the time he turned 7, she had him playing the instrument. By 9, he was a violin student at the Versailles conservatory. And by 16, he was a graduate of the Conservatoire de Paris. But the more he played, the more fascinated he became with the stick and horsehair that generated the sounds. He soon gave up the notion of a career as a musician and committed himself to making bows.
“It is an ancient craft worldwide, but especially treasured in France,” Rolland said. “And I have no better explanation than that I simply love the bow. It is necessary. So important. Much like the instruments they serve, I see the bows as living entities, not unlike muscles in the body.
“You move them differently, they produce different sounds. You shape them differently and mold them differently and the results vary.
If his explanation seems steeped in emotion, it is.
In 1982 Rolland moved for several years to Île-de-Bréhat, a tiny French island best known for being a dark sky community -- so free of light pollution that residents can practice naked-eye astronomy -- and for its silence.
“There are no automobiles on Bréhat - to this day,” Rolland says. “And I went there, because it is difficult to create in noise and chaos. Beauty comes from quiet. So does music.”
As pleasant as Bréhat may have been, Rolland’s time on the island was also a sacrifice. “I made 12 prototypes of a bow while on the island, and I missed seeing my daughters grow up for a period of their lives. I believe though that they understand that music is a gift to us and that I was trying to make that gift more accessible to more people.”
Christine Arveil, Rolland’s wife, says it isn’t uncommon for him to spend up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week in his home studio in Watertown. There Rolland fashions the Brazilian Pernambuco wood that comprises the handles of violin, viola, and cello bows. He painstakingly threads the taut horse hair ribbon that is drawn across an instrument’s strings and lovingly shapes the metal “frog” that allows musicians to alter the pitch and tone of their playing by sliding it along the strings.
He doesn’t own a television, because it would be a distraction. He relaxes by playing violin, writing music, and sailing. He only occasionally he has time to read a book for relaxation and not research.
“I know it seems like a cliche,” Arveil says. “But he loves the bows and dotes on each one as a child he’s preparing for adoption — but only after having gotten to know the adoptive parent.”
Among Rolland’s 1,300-plus “adoptive” clients are 26-year-old cellist Maximillian Hornung, and Boston Symphony Orchestra violist Michael Zaretsky.
For all the care he puts into bow making, Rolland’s affinity for science and preservation may have brought him to the attention of the MacArthur selection committee.
In the early 1990s, concerned that the Pernambuco tree, from which bows have been made for centuries, was facing extinction, Rolland did the unthinkable: created a bow of composite material.
It struck Rolland, an avid sailor, that if seaworthy boats can be constructed of carbon fiber, so could bows. Carbon fiber bows are also less expensive (Rolland once crafted one that cost $15,000), making it possible for good bows to go to promising young musicians.
Still, Rolland says his composite bow research “raised eyebrows” until he completed a few prototypes and was able to show what they could do.
“It always comes back to the instrument and to the bow and the sounds they make when brought together,” he says. “So when I was able to show how my carbon fiber bows also produced great sounds they were embraced by the few who got to play them.”
A dispute with his manufacturer prevented Rolland from mass-producing his composite material bow, but French violinist and jazz composer Jean-Luc Ponty called it the “21st-century bow.”
He also retained ownership of the carbon fiber bow’s most notable feature -- an inner tension mechanism that allows musicians to modify the camber or angle of their bows at will, even while they’re on stage playing, allowing them to dramatically alter their sounds while playing.
“That invention alone is a point of great pride for me,” Rolland said. “I will treasure it not to celebrate myself, but because I really believe it was the factor that convinced many traditionalist, stringed-instrument players that it is okay to break away from a tradition in the interest of preservation and still make amazing music. I really believe that creation could help win over this entire artistic community one day.”
For now, during his tenure as a MacArthur Fellow, Rolland has other plans.
“More inventions. I have six more I’m working on that I believe will improve and enhance the bow and the experience of the musician who embraces it,” he said. “And I will try to relax, as well.”