Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Musical Offering Frontiers in Lutherie Edition

I played a good Stradivari violin once, just for a few minutes. I’m a lousy violinist, but it was an amazing experience.  On the same occasion, I played a good Guarneri “del Gesu,” and it was equally amazing.  Now, every other violin is just not so good. 

This is one of the great problems of the violin-building world.  There are maybe a thousand or so of these exceptional old violins out there.  Their number can only decrease; they are getting more and more expensive (one recently sold for north of $18 million; the New York Times had to correct its initial report that it had sold for $18 billion).  There are some excellent modern makers out there, making some excellent violins for a fraction of that price, but if they are honest, they’ll concede that they are still chasing the old Cremonese makers.  Meanwhile, anyone owning one of these treasures gets increasingly nervous whenever they enter a taxi or relinquish their instruments to the TSA. 

Modern luthiers have tried all manner of tricks to match the old masters.  Some claim to divine mathematical and geometrical formulae from the shapes of the old violins.  Some “tune” their fiddles by watching the patterned dance of iron filings as they blast the wood with amplified sound.  Some find markings in the wood of these old fiddles and from these scratches extrapolate whole systems of woodworking. Several Cremonese fiddles have been so thoroughly studied, by CT scans, X-rays, UV imaging, density mapping, frequency mapping, dynamic FLIR, HPLC analysis—as to become open books. 

Then there are the dilettantes, techies with their particular tools.  Every year, like clockwork, one solves the “Secret of Stradivari.” It’s propolis in the varnish!  It’s wood soaked in the river Po! It’s fungus! It’s pollen in the varnish!  It’s wood from trees grown during the “little ice age”! Strangely, these discoveries have done nothing to change the status quo: Strads are still Strads, and everything else is still everything else. 

I write this as an introduction to an enlightening and confounding conversation I had, which I attempt to document here.  The Real Doctor and I attended a performance by the Miskatonic Pro(-Am) Musica.  The program was conventional, and the performance was what might be expected from a mixture of professionals and enthusiastic amateurs.  One of those amateurs is Dr. D. Avril Poisson, a biologist of some note.  Dr. Poisson’s fiddle was extremely unusual, and as the Real Doctor and I are students of lutherie, we sought her out after the performance, and she graciously talked with us (she apparently is aware of my having provided her with some favorable publicity). 

In its form, Dr. Poisson’s fiddle was classic—the front had deep arching and a well-formed recurve, very much in the earlier Cremonese style; the outline, scroll, and f-holes also were suggestive of the Brescian school.  The most obvious thing about the fiddle, though, was its color.  Except for the strings, pegs, and bridge, it was a pale, semi-translucent milky hue, made of some well-polished plastic shot through with fine blue streaks.

“You may not believe it,” Dr. Poisson said, “but this is”—she emphasized the word to prevent any argument—“a 1709 Rogeri, the ‘Miskatonic.’”  She played on it a bit (with a wooden bow), and it sounded fantastic. 

I would no more ask a performer if I could borrow their fiddle for a moment than I would ask to borrow their spouse for a romantic tryst—but she insisted that both the Real Doctor and I play it, and we both found it to be an amazing instrument.  I’ve never played a Rogeri before, and maybe I didn’t then, but I did play an instrument that was fully the equal of the great old fiddles I’d sampled. 

While both the Real Doctor and I were dumbfoundedly playing her fiddle, Dr. Poisson was smiling like—well, the best reference I can think of is the Man in Black during the swordfight in The Princess Bride.  She opened up a double case, revealing another milky, blue-streaked fiddle.  “This is also the 1709 Rogeri,” she said, and urged us both to play it.  The feeling was uncanny.  It was like meeting a person so remarkable that they must be unique in all the world—then being introduced to their identical (and identically remarkable) twin.  “There are three more 1709 Rogeris back at Miskatonic that play exactly like these, and we’re making one every three weeks.”

Neither the Real Doctor nor I said much that was coherent, just a string of fragmentary questions, while Dr. Poisson beamed.  “This is actually the debut concert for this fiddle, which is odd given that it’s 1709.  It hasn’t been officially revealed, but I suppose now that you’ve seen it you’ll blog about it, and I want to make sure the story is straight.  First, you’ve got to give most of the credit to Dr. Barry O. Lodge of the Materials Science department at Miskatonic University.  I am, if you will, second to last author, and there are a dozen or more engineering students in front of me.”

“You know the Betts Project?” she asked.  (This is an effort by a well-known group of luthiers to use the latest technology to make a perfect replica of the Library of Congress’ 1704 “Betts” Stradivarius.  High-precision CT scans of the instrument are used to make a stereolithographic computer image of the violin, and this is fed into a CNC wood carving machine, producing a precise replica down to fractions of tenths of millimeters.  “That’s just cargo-cult lutherie—they think that if they replicate the form, they’ll replicate the magic, just like some stone-age Polynesians making detailed replicas of landing strips and hoping some airplanes full of goodies will arrive.  If they don’t capture that magic, it’s because they’ve failed to copy the form precisely enough.  Well, those cargo-cultists at Oberlin have made an agreeable violin, but it’s not the Betts.”

“See, they’ve got the shape as close as can be, but they don’t have the exact same piece of wood, with the exact same grain and imperfections and density and hardness variations, and they’re using some modern varnish that has its own differences in hardness and whatnot.  It’s the way the sound energy travels through the wood that makes the Betts what it is.  I’ve no doubt that the masters of Cremona were sensitive—maybe on some subconscious level, maybe as the result of years of experience with wood—to those subtleties, and this stupid Betts Project just ignores it.  I mean, they try to match the wood’s appearance, but really, they just have a Betts-shaped box, and it’s not like it’s any more affordable for a promising young student.

“So, Barry O. Lodge was working on extending the abilities of 3D printing, and he’d found that the community had basically run into the same wall as the Betts people—extraordinarily high fidelity replication of shape, complete ignorance of micro-scale variation in mechanical properties.  It’s funny, the Betts people got there reductively, by milling away wood, the 3DP people got there additively, by cementing together microscopic particles of resin.  Anyway, he has discovered a way to accurately measure mechanical properties like hardness, density, sound velocity, and so on at a 10th of a millimeter scale.  Scanning takes forever, and the files are huge, but you really have the soul of the thing.

“If the soul is in the mechanical properties, I suppose,” interjected the Real Doctor, “but…”

Dr. Poisson pointed at the “Rogeri” in the Real Doctor’s hands. “That is an instrument,” she said, “a tool for making art.  Its soul is its unique voice, its ability to produce music, at which it has few equals.” 

I was examining the other “Rogeri.”  The purfling was a faint line of light grey around the edges.  Inside, there was a slight elevation where the label would be, as if a slip of parchment had been embalmed in resin.  The visual effect left me feeling very uneasy.  Wood was once alive, and bears time’s traces on a growing tree; the parchment in a fiddle is signed by the hand of the maker.  The visual impact of this instrument, which sounded so lovely and lively, gave me the creeps—a dead thing, mummified in plastic.  I handed it back to Dr. Poisson with some relief.  “So, from file to fiddle?” I asked.

“3D printing taken to a new level.  It’s all wrapped up in engineering and patents.  I don’t understand most of it, and what I might understand, I’m not allowed to know for legal reasons.  The chemistry is appealing, doping the resin with aligned, tuned nanotubes and other super-secret stuff to give it exactly the right mechanical properties on a micrometer-by-micrometer scale.  The resin is proprietary, but it’s the reason for the sickly color, and some of the dopants are blue, so that’s why the streakiness.  I really don’t love the visuals, but we can’t fix it yet.  The printer has replicated the mechanical properties of the varnish exactly, and adding any tint will screw up everything.  So I play with my eyes closed, and I’m playing the Rogeri.”  Which she did for us, again, and it still sounded wonderful—but I had to close my eyes. 

When she had stopped, I asked,  “Dr. Lodge wasn’t working on all this for lutherie, was he?”

“Goodness no,” she answered   "He’s an engineer, so he was doing this because it seemed hard but possible.  He presented a summary of this work at a symposium, and was looking for ideas.  He was thinking of tools and ornithopter drones, but I suggested fiddles would be a real test.”

The Real Doctor had been studying the “Rogeri” with her usual intensity, and didn’t break her gaze on the instrument when she asked, “The soundpost—is it of one piece with the instrument?  And, how does it sound side by side with the real Rogeri?”

Dr. Poisson smiled, and corrected the Real Doctor.  “This is the real Rogeri, and so is that one there.  It’s one piece, everything printed in one go but the fittings.

“Of course, the Rogeri wasn’t the first thing Barry and I tried.  We wanted to prove the concept on a more modest scale, so we chose a couple of modest student-level instruments—ones that had noticeable character, though not always good.  I played on them, day in and day out, for a couple of months.  The sacrifices we make for science!  I didn’t like them, but I could recognize each of them easily, even in a crowd.  Barry scanned and printed them, and we had the luthier string them up, and they were perfect clones—every annoying flaw and shortcoming, and even the few nice things, had been replicated.  Can you imagine what a boon it will be, when every student of the violin can play a really good fiddle—this, or the “Vieuxtemps” or the “Viotti” or their like—instead of fighting against some atrocious Chinese factory box?”

“Yeah, we’re facing the same thing right now with our nephews,” answered the Real Doctor.  She was starting to look a little worried, and looked at the “Rogeri” as if it might bite her.  “But how does this” she said, giving the grey-blue fiddle back to Dr. Poisson “sound side-by-side with the real Rogeri?”

Dr. Poisson’s dislike of the emphasis on “real” was visible, but, with a shrug, she put her fiddle back in the double case next to its twin.  “Well,” she said, “you can try for yourself.  We still haven’t told the regents of the university, who own the original.  I told them with perfect honesty that I am traveling with the ‘Miskatonic’ Rogeri.”  She rummaged through a travel case, and pulled out a Mason jar, three-quarters full of very fine, wood-brown dust, and offered it to the Real Doctor along with a bow.  “The scanning process is pretty hard on the original, but to me and Barry, that seems a fair price.”

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