Wednesday, June 23, 2010

It takes a great violinist to make a great violin

What makes a great violin? This question has intrigued players, modern violin makers, and acousticians for a long time, but it's still not clear, according to a piece in Science (subscription required for the full story).
Ilya Kaler, a renowned soloist, gazes admiringly at the 269-year-old violin. He has just played four other great old Italian instruments in an invitation-only recital in the cramped quarters of Bein and Fushi Inc., violin dealers whose shop looks out over Chicago's famous Michigan Avenue. Now Kaler holds the star of the 7 April event, a fiddle named the Vieuxtemps after a previous owner and crafted by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, also known as Guarneri del Gesù, who, along with Antonio Stradivari, is widely considered the best violinmaker ever to have lived.
The acoustics of the best old Italian violins, the Strads, the Guarneris, the Guadagnini, have been studied extensively, and tantalizing hints (e.g., here and here and here) have been found as to why they are so superior to most other instruments, but it's still not possible to say what makes a Strad a Strad.
...can subtle density variations or spectral features explain the supposedly superior qualities of Strads and Guarneris or distinguish between them? Cambridge's Woodhouse [James Woodhouse, an acoustics engineer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who has studied the violin for 35 years] has doubts. Acoustically speaking, researchers can now say why a violin sounds like a violin and not a guitar, he says, but they struggle to make finer distinctions. "If you chose any particular feature, you can probably find two million-dollar violins that differ from each other in that one feature as much as the million-dollar ones differ from a good $10,000 modern one," Woodhouse says.

What does this have to do with genetics or evolution or development? Complexity. The acousticians who are studying great violins have discovered complexity.

...the fact that so far tests have identified no obvious difference between great and good violins may actually be telling researchers something. Most studies have been made on violins in pristine isolation, typically suspended by rubber bands from a mount. Of course, when played, a fiddle lies clamped beneath a violinist's jaw, its neck cradled in the musician's hand, its strings worked by the bow. The instrument's defining qualities may show through only in that interaction.
"I can tell you that the violinist is the big deal," Bissinger [a physicist at East Carolina  University in Greenville, North Carolina, who has studied the violin since 1969] says. "A great violinist can make even a bad violin sound good." Zygmuntowicz [a violin maker from New York City] agrees but warns that researchers may struggle to get reliable data on the working violin. "The situations that a violin operates in are really contaminated circumstances for testing," he says. "Science has shied away from that interaction because it doesn't make good papers yet."
To hear Kaler tell it, the violin-violinist interaction is subtle. Asked what distinguishes the Vieuxtemps, he cites its resonance and ease of response. Then he adds, "If a violin responds too easily, it limits the possibility of a performer to produce many colors or to put his or her own imprint on the instrumentbecause the instrument anticipates your desires too much." So a violin must resist just enough to make the violinist work for what he wants, he says.


Ilya Kaler.


Texbrit said...

Bissinger is right: a good musician makes a bad instrument sound great. And to what extent is a Strad lauded just because it's a Strad? Would the person who just this week paid £34m for a Picasso be disappointed if he now found out it was painted by some guy named Joe Jones?

Ken Weiss said...

This is clearly the case. Even if Strads are, as a group, far above average. Some apparently are no longer even playable. But this is about human culture, where appearance is importance for people wanting to feel important or make you think they're important by showing you how much wealth and/or good taste they have....

Anne Buchanan said...

And, many old violins have been altered so much since their making -- the neck lengthened, or numerous repairs and replacement of parts -- that it's hard to evaluate what about the sound is due to the old and what's due to the new.

It's the Ship of Theseus paradox, one version being: "This is my grandfather's axe: my father fitted it with a new stock, and I have fitted it with a new head."
—Robert Graves, The Golden Fleece