Friday, February 10, 2006

Swedes Attempt to Recreate Stradivarius Violins

See this article, Swedes Go High-Tech to Crack Stradivari Code, courtesy of Dappled Things.

Researchers are attempting to recreate Stradivarius violins from scratch. It's a notoriously difficult process, since details such as precise geometry of the parts, the varnish, pre-treatment of the wood, and even the spacing of tree rings in the wood have an influence. The process to make these violins was not secret, but instead is lost; economic turmoil scattered Stradivarius' documents. It is interesting to note that many of these violins have even been subsequently improved by stiffening.

There could be a range of opinions on this:
  • 1. Why bother? We have electric guitars and synthesizers now.

  • 2. Why bother? We have good master violin makers nowadays, and they don't need to duplicate what has been done in the past.

  • 3. Whether or not you like the Stradivarius sound or not is just a matter of personal taste. I have no opinion on the wisdom of reproducing these violins.

  • 4. Stradivarius violins are very expensive. If we could duplicate their sound, then we could make a lot of money selling new ones.

  • 5. Expert musicians prefer these violins, so we ought to reproduce them.

  • 6. These violins produce the "standard" violin sound that concert-goers are used to, so we ought to reproduce them.

  • 7. These violins produce an objectively superior sound, and I can prove it.

Answers #1 would probably come from a teenager or a Marxist, while #2 would come from a Socialist. Why bother with history?
Answer #3 is from the modern Relativist, unwilling to take a stand.
Answer #4 comes from someone who is money-minded.
Answer #5 is the mainstream view, as would be broadcast on CNN. "Experts say..."
Answer #6 could be the mainstream view of serious music-lovers.
Answer #7 may very well be true. Reasoned opinions on the quality of these violins may be influenced by, but are not determined by, answers #4-6.

Western music theory was started by Pythagoras, who determined how the notes in a musical scale are influenced by the length, thickness, and tension of strings in plucked instruments. These notes are interrelated by simple, fixed ratios of small whole numbers. Pythagoras noted that these same fixed ratios are also seen in the cosmos, in the orbits of the planets, and that there may be a universal mathematical law relating music and physics. The fact that the same musical laws were discovered independently in other civilizations gives us a clue that these may actually be universal, as was suspected by Pythagoras.

Each listener subjectively experiences music through his sense of hearing. However, I don't want to stop at this subjectivity: it seems that everyone can think musically. Beethoven became deaf, but still was able to compose music that the non-hearing-impaired could appreciate; Beethoven's condition is impossible to discern in his later music. Even people who never had the sense of hearing can appreciate music in a certain way, by musically sensing the vibrations of a piano, for example: they feel the music, and appreciate it as music, and not just as the sense of touch.

We live in the real world and actual musical instruments have an infinite number of material and formal properties that determine the kind of sound that is produced. Constructing and tuning an instrument is a very high art, but also is dependent on objective science. The fact that these sound-producing machines are called instruments—a word shared with other very expensive, precision technical machines—tells us of the complication and refinement that goes into designing them. You can't just arbitrarily throw together a sound-producing device and expect it to produce good sound, or at least sound that would be appreciated anywhere other than a modern university musicology department. Nearly everyone will reject a poor violin badly played, and for the same reason.

Music theory is a very difficult subject, but we should not let this deter us from the pursuit of thinking about music objectivity, and using right reason when incorporating music into our liturgies and daily lives.

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