Music to my ears: Chris Dungey gives cellos their voiceJan 06, 2019 01:17AM ● By Melanie Wiseman
Chris Dungey is just one of handful of high-calibre Anerican string instrument makers dedicated to the cello. He spends over 400 hours creating each instrument with meticulous detail.
Following the completion of the Avalon Theatre’s renovation in 2013, Chris Dungey sat in the audience of its inaugural concert filled with tremendous pride. On stage was internationally renowned cellist Lynn Harrell playing a cello Dungey made.
“It was a big production,” said Dungey, 63.
Dungey is just one of a handful of high-calibre American string instrument makers dedicated to the cello. He’s won numerous awards and follows the history and traditions established hundreds of years ago by great makers such as Montagnana, Goffriller and Stradivarius.
“They made very viable instruments that haven’t been tinkered with much over time,” said Dungey, 62. “I’m trying to replicate what they did—their approach, what they were thinking, why they sculpted it this way or picked the wood they did.”
Dungey spends over 400 hours creating each instrument with meticulous detail. His days are filled with perfecting the critical feature a cellist is looking for—the cello’s “voice.”
“What string players are mimicking in the classically trained approach is the actual human voice—that’s the ultimate instrument,” he said. “We all have our own unique way of speaking and singing. Musicians have an internal, intuitive feeling of what their sound should be.”
Cellos imitate the human voice similar to a tenor or baritone. The voice of Dungey’s cellos is different than other makers, and each one he makes sounds different within a small range.
“I always use maple for the back, sides, neck and scroll of the cello, spruce for the top and ebony for the fingerboard,” he said. “But each piece of wood has its own working properties and characteristics that, once assembled, will dictate what that instrument’s voice will sound like.”
Full circle advantage
Music was at the center of Dungey’s life growing up in Medford, Oregon. He played the trumpet from fifth grade through high school and switched instruments in college, graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in bass performance.
“I was always attracted to the bass,” said Dungey. “It came so natural. I knew it was my instrument.”
Growing up, Dungey said he could always pick out the bass line of every pop song he heard.
A couple trips to a string instrument repair shop in Seattle changed his career course. He liked what he saw, and immediately knew making and repairing instruments was his calling. Dungey was already comfortable working with his hands, having worked in his dad’s workshop and creating leather goods for years.
He attended England’s prestigious Newark School of Violin Making and graduated in 1982.
“After [school], I found my training and background as a player had brought me full circle,” he said. “I have customers who come to me specifically because they know I understand how a cello is supposed to sound, how it’s supposed to be played, and how to put all the parts together to make a top flight, clean sounding instrument.”
Dungey repaired and restored instruments in London, then Los Angeles, while he transitioned to making them on the side. In the 1980s, he made both violas and cellos. Since the early 1990s, he has focused strictly on the cello.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to make cellos specifically for people, some for top-notch professionals,” said Dungey. “I have to pinch myself when I hear them play.”
Dungey’s international customers are equally divided between professional principal cellists, semi-professional advanced conservatory students, and very advanced, keen amateur cellists. His cellos sell for $50,000 to $60,000—which may seem like a lot, but the price tag on a Stradivarius cello starts at $10 million.
“My cellos will be expensive when I’m dead, too,” Dungey said with a chuckle.
So why is this bass player making cellos?
“After I made my first cello, I said, ‘That’s a lot of work and a bass is bigger!’ Bass players don’t want to spend a lot on their instruments,” said Dungey. “I could make violins or violas, but they are just as much work as a cello and sell for less.”
Dungey’s desire to involve his clients in the process of creating their cello is truly unique.
“You’d be surprise at how many professional players have no clue how their instrument is made, adjusted or maintained,” he said. “But not my customers. They say ‘I learn something new every time I talk to you.’”
Dungey moved to Grand Junction in 2012 when his wife accepted a position as a nursing professor at Colorado Mesa University. As long as he can build his “dream shop” wherever they live, Dungey can make his cellos anywhere.
The lower level of his shop contains one room full of wood blocks, some dating back to a spruce tree he cut in Oregon in 1994. The entire shop is humidity controlled at 45 percent for quality consistency and excellence.
Dungey rarely takes time off and said he has no intention of stopping.
“Less than 5 percent of people are doing what they are really passionate about,” he said. “I never get tired of it and don’t look at cello making as a job. Each one is a challenge and always something new.”