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New York Out Loud: Made in Brooklyn

The workshop of Brooklyn violin-maker Sam Zygmuntowicz (first on left) Performance Today
6min 44sec : NYOL Radio Feature - A Luthier in Brooklyn

Sam Zygmuntowicz is a luthier, a maker of stringed-instruments, in New York City. Violin soloist Dylana Jenson explains that after over 35 years of performing on a variety of violins, she's confident Zygmuntowicz is the best of the best."Working with Sam," she says, "was a shocking revelation of what a master artist can do for a musician."

Professor Angella Ahn of Montana State University agrees:

"I still pick up my violin every single day, grateful to have this piece of art from the most famous violin maker in the world."

Zygmuntowicz studied violin-making during college. He then moved to New York to focus on his craftsmanship by working under the esteemed luthier Rene Morel. Zygmuntowicz established his own workshop in Brooklyn and now mentors rising luthiers himself.

Wood curing - workshop of Sam Zygmuntowicz Performance Today

If you tie a thread from Zygmuntowicz, to his New York luthier teachers, to their teachers, and their teachers before them- a direct line leads back to Antonio Stradivarius. He lived more than 300 years ago, in Cremona, Italy and is considered the greatest stringed instrument maker of all time. The connection to Stradivarius isn't just a claim to fame, Zygmuntowicz explains that the violins he produces actually reveal little clues of this powerful Italy-to-New York lineage.

"You can actually recognize it in the color palettes we use for retouching. There's a certain style that comes out of this shop. There's certain styles of knife grinding-- the shape, the edge... there's certain things that are quite distinctive, the shape of the sound post, and you can really see where someone's learned through the little quirks and flourishes," he says.

As a kid Sam Zygmuntowicz was interested in sculpture. He spent hours at the library reading about different styles of art. He stumbled on a book about the art of instrument making.

"Instrument making caught my attention because it uses the tactile skills of a sculptor," he explains. "It can use the ear of a musician and hopefully the aesthetic sense of an artis, but also I used a microscope. So there's the analytical aspect to it."

Unlike many luthiers in the business, Zygmuntowicz didn't come from a family of instrument makers. However, the presence of violins was a given in his family.

In the workshop of Sam Zygmuntowicz Performance Today

Zygmuntowicz says, "My parents being European immigrants, of course, gave my older brother's violin lessons, which they dropped when they were brave enough to tell them they didn't want them... by the time they got to me, they never actually gave me violin lessons, but there was a violin in the house."

For Zygmuntowicz there is no better place to master his craft than in New York City. It's a town with a brilliant music scene, some of the most highly respected venues and creative composers, and it is in New York that bold and innovative artists seek out the best instruments for their work. Sam Zygmuntowicz feels a real sense of responsibility to be an usher, of sorts, for the brilliance of his violin clients:

"By living here, it's about being connected to...my people and being there for them and getting their feedback...the heights that [the violin] will be taken to are just mind-blowing. The things that these people can do..."

Although music is most often talked about with a focus on performers and composers, Sam Zygmuntowicz feels the gravitas of his role as a luthier.

"I increasingly see myself as shaping this thing that exists in the air at the moment that the bow touches the string," Zygmuntowicz says. "You know of course I have to carve the wood and do all that stuff but also...there is a very physical and very tangible line from the brain of the player to the brain of the listener. And part of my job is to be the curator of that little stream of energy that's flowing through the whole thing."

This story is part of a special week-long series, New York Out Loud, produced by Jocelyn Frank and edited by Suzanne Schaffer.

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