Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Musical Offering Violins Violence edition

I have written here before about how wonderful Stradivari violins are, and how they have a hold on the popular imagination.  One thing that’s not well-publicized about them, and that I had no clue about until I was more thoroughly introduced to the world of lutherie, is that the “Stradivarius” instruments performed on today are quite different from what left Antonio’s shop back in the early 1700’s. 

The difference between the Stradivarius that left the maker’s hands three hundred years ago and the instrument played today is akin to the difference between a Model A Ford, fresh from the Dearborn assembly line, and a tangerine-orange-sparkle chopped and modded Deuce Coupe hot rod.  Some of the modifications to the violins are simply a matter of maintenance—cleats to repair cracks, or patches to make up for distortion from the sound post.  

However, most of the modifications affect the performance of the instruments.  Bass bars have been replaced—part of normal maintenance, but the replacements are generally much beefier than the original slivers of spruce.  The tailgut attachments would be unfamiliar to Antonio.  Fingerboards have been replaced by something narrower, longer, and lighter.  All necks are modern replacements: Cremonese necks were actually (*gasp*) nailed to the body of the violin, while new necks are mortised into place.  Also, the neck angle is quite different from what Stradivari installed.  In addition to such structural issues, almost all surviving fiddles have been polished and revarnished an unknown number of times. 

All this modification leads to instruments perfect for a modern style of playing, but they are not what their author intended.  There is a movement towards playing baroque music—the music of Stradivarius’ time—on instruments that have either been left in their original state, or newly made to baroque spec.  However, it’s hard to find great original instruments.  If an instrument was good, then its owners generally paid to have it kept up-to-date.  Those instruments left untouched were, frankly, not touched a whole lot to begin with.  Nonetheless, the original instruments movement has its dedicated, sometimes fanatical adherents.

This leads to an intriguing story.  I have to be circumspect in relating this, since it is something that is being actively kept out of the news by the request of the concerned parties.  I found out about it through a person I am at liberty to describe only as a well-connected-friend-of-a-luthier in the Eastern Hemisphere.  However, as a story of musical intrigue and deceit, it ranks with the recorded legacy of Joyce Hatto, and I think it ought to be public.  Such is life in the internet age; keeping secrets is impossible and trying is futile. 

One of the 20th century’s greatest violinists was Erika Morini.  A child prodigy, she had a shining career performing around the world until her retirement in the 1970’s, after which her star rapidly faded.  Since her 20’s, she played on a 1727 Strad, known as the “Davidoff.”  She kept the fiddle after her retirement, almost until her death in 1995.  At some time during her terminal illness, when she was on her sickbed, the Davidoff, along with much of her musical and artistic memorabilia, was stolen.  The case has never been cracked, and the Davidoff-Morini Strad, worth over $3.5 million, vanished. 

Until, maybe, now.  About a year ago, a nondescript box from a nonexistent address in Madagascar arrived at the Chei Mi Museum in Taiwan.  It contained a violin.  The body and scroll and label appear, by every test, to be those of the Davidoff-Morini.  Comparisons of the mystery instrument with the best available photographs match, scar for scar, tree-ring for tree-ring.  However, the fiddle has been modified from when it was last seen almost twenty years ago.  A proper Baroque fingerboard has been fitted, underneath gut strings and a lower bridge.  The neck has (with extraordinary workmanship) been replaced by one fitted in the ancient method.  In perhaps the most shocking and visible bit of work, the instrument has been completely revarnished, with no regard to preserving the few scraps of original finish—it was varnished as if it were a new instrument.  It is clear that incredible effort and skill had been used in restoring the Davidoff-Morini to its 1727 condition. 

No individual has taken responsibility for this bizarre un-theft and anti-vandalism, although there was a note accompanying the violin.  The note was a manifesto, in French, signed by the executive committee of the “Stradivari Liberation Front.”  My contact sent me some camera-phone pictures, but between my poor French and poor lighting I can only approximate the manifesto's contents.  It avers that the instrument is the Davidoff-Morini.  It goes on to cite the “atrocities committed by Vuillaume and his legion of ...[unclear]… race for louder and higher and brighter noise,” and the history of insults to “the master of all of us luthiers.” Apparently the goal of the SLF is to “acquire, by legal means or otherwise,” great classic instruments and “rescue them from abasement and slavery and restore them to their rightful [unclear: ?condition?].”  The note apparently urges the Chei Mi, as “responsible guardians of the heritage of the world” to treasure the violin and present it before the public, playing the music it was meant to play, played in the style it was meant to be played.

Needless to say, this has caused a deal of consternation, though it has been kept very hush-hush.  The instrument has not been displayed, nor played in public (my contact insists that it sounds incredible).  The insurers—and it’s not clear how they found out about the instrument—dryly maintain that it is the Davidoff-Morini, and since they paid the claim when it was stolen, they are the owners.  The Chei Mi has not acknowledged the incident, officially or unofficially, although I’m told they intend to keep the instrument as "a violin of uncertain provenance, attributed to Stradivari, acquired by anonymous gift."

What brings this to a head—where the story gets so good that my contact couldn’t keep silent any more—is the arrival of another nondescript box from a nonexistent address (this time in Suriname) at the Chei Mi Museum.  It contained, by every test, the 1734 “Ames” Stradivari, perfectly restored to “authentic” condition.  The “Ames” was stolen in 1981, and its last known owner, Roman Totenberg, died last year.  The violin came with another note from the Stradivari Liberation Front, hinting at more to come and naming some names, but only if the instruments were played in public as the SLF intended.  This could get interesting. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wednesday Wordage Parasitic edition

I think my goal for the next couple of years will be to master the skills of robotics, electronics, programming, and engineering.  I will then use those skills to make small aerial drones, equipped with compact chromatographs and spectrometers that will be able to analyze the air they fly through.  They will be able to detect trace amounts of a staggeringly wide variety of airborne chemicals, ranging from gases to aerosols to particulates, identify them all and trace them to their point of origin.  These autonomous robots would act like a swarm of noses, and would be tremendously useful in a number of applications.  I would call them "nose bots."

And, all the effort would be worth it if I could obliterate from my mind what "nose bots" really are--we may have them in our flock of sheep, so I had to do some reading about them.  Eeeeew.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breakfast with Boocoo and Sneggy

Breakfast with Boocoo and Sneggy: a caprine caper.

Dramatis Personae:

Human . . . . . . . A human

Boocoo . . . . . . . A goat kid

Sneggy . . . . . . . . A goat kid

Scene: barn, exterior.  After noises of struggle, enter two goat kids, on leads, pulling human.  The goat kids surge towards two bowls of grain mix, while the human ties their leads to a hitching post--making sure that there is no way that one goat can get to the other's grain.

Boocoo:  Food!  FoodfoodfoodfoodfoooooodFOOD! (very loud munching noises)

Sneggy:  Food!  FoodfoodfoodfoodfoooooodFOOD!  Hey!  This is food, mostly.  (Looks at human, then nibbles at food)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises)

Sneggy:  (nibbling noises)  Hey, was that a sheep I heard?  (looks around; stares, at length, into the distance)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises)

Sneggy:  (Still staring)  Pretty sure that was a sheep...

Human:  Sneggy!  Focus!  Eat!  (jiggles bowl of grain)

Sneggy:  Hey!  There's food here.  (Looks at human, then nibbles at food)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises)

Sneggy:  (nibbling noises) Wait--I think I heard a log truck...yes, yes...definitely a log truck.  You know that they have log trucks going by on the road there?  (stares, at length, at the road)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises)

Human:  Sneggy!  Focus!  Eat!  (jiggles bowl of grain)

Sneggy:  Hey!  There's food here.  Did you know there's food here?  (Looks at human, then nibbles at food)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises)

Sneggy:  (nibbling noises)  Hey!   Did you you know that there are dried peas in this grain mix?  And alfalfa pellets?  did you know that I don't really like them?  (stares at human, aggrieved; starts to wander around, tangling leash on hitching post.)

Boocoo:  (very loud munching noises; these stop, as there is no more grain.  loud whuffling noises, as goat tries to vacuum up bits of grain dust)

Human:  (jiggling Sneggy's grain bowl) Sneggy!  Focus!  Eat!  Look--lots of barley, corn, oilseed, calf manna--lots of good stuff!

Sneggy:  Wow!  There's food here!  Where did that come from?!  (Looks at human, then nibbles at food)

Boocoo:  (straining at lead, trying to reach Sneggy's bowl)

Sneggy:  (nibbling noises; pauses)  You know, there's a really nice view of those hills from here.  I could just stand here and stare, and stare, and stare, and stare, and...are those cows over there? Cows are kind of neat.  They're like giant goats, really.  Cows eat grass, you know.  There's grass here.  I wonder how grass looks to a cow.  I wonder how grass looks to a crow.  I heard a crow once.  I heard a raven, too.  Crows are different from ravens.  Ravens and crows and cows.  It's weird that crows and cows are so different, but only differ in spelling by one letter.  If things made sense, I think ravens should be called cows.  But then ravens would have to eat grass...(verbal wandering is paralleled by wandering around on lead; at this point, walks through food bowl, catches side, flinging contents over entire porch.)

Sneggy:  Ooooo!  That was food!  Where did that come from?!  Somebody should clean it up. 

Boocoo:  Ooooo!  Food!  FoodfoodfoodfoodfoooooodFOOD! (very loud munching noises) 

Human:  ******!!!!!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Musical Offhand Remark

We are finally getting our house painted.  I wanted to do this, in order to economise, but I have been kept too busy to spend the month it would take for me to do the job.  So, once again there are contractors on site, and once again I am learning what is going on this instant in pop music.  I don't enjoy the music, but I'm generally not in the house and I like for the folks working here to be happy.  So, one one of them took a break from filling in the cracks between boards to ask me if I minded his blasting some Led Zeppelin, I told him, "no, you look like a guy who wants to rock out with his caulk out."  He seemed amused.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Friday Flora Old Growth edition

I haven't posted much about the work on the house of late, largely because there hasn't been any work on the house of late.  However, we are getting the house painted, and as part of the preparation, I had to repair some of the siding.  The siding on the "old" part of the house is, we think, original, 1936.  The siding on the addition, which I installed, is standard stuff from one of the local mills, probably only a few years old and grown in a monoculture factory forest.  It's revealing to look at a slice of each.  Do click on the picture, the wood is quite beautiful:
One can state neutral facts about each: the old growth is fantastic wood.  The boards are ten feet long and completely clear, and there's over 20 rings going across that board.  They've lasted nigh on eighty years, and while the wood is somewhat brittle (see the chip on the lower left) and has been home to carpenter ants (the holes on the right), it continues to hold up wonderfully well.  It seems to have only had one coat of paint, ever.  The new wood, with its widely spaced rings, just looks cheap in comparison--it's cupped, and to get ten feet of board, the mill splices together a bunch of segments of two to six feet.  The soft part of the bands breaks out easily, and I had a difficult time getting a thin slice--see the jagged bottom edge, and the giant chunk on the right.

However, this is timber country, and around here, it's impossible to be neutral about these two pieces of wood.  The economy of this area pretty much grew on that old growth wood, and now that harvesting has been curtailed, the economy has been contracting for a couple of decades.  No really satisfactory replacement for the timber industry has been found.  There are lots of towns--counties even--with futures that look grim on this account.  Just up the road from us is Glide, a small town.  No stop lights, but it's got a P.O., an old elementary school, a newer high school, a bunch of churches, etc.  In the center of town, there's a mothballed lumber mill, still with weathered stacks of logs and lumber that haven't been bothered by human hands in years.  There were a handful of cafes and shops and the like, but most have closed; sometimes the town looks like its dying from the inside out.  I wouldn't bet that the town will have half of its current population in fifty years.* 

Almost every resident of Glide would see the story of their town in those two pieces of wood.  Certainly, every contractor who's worked here has seen a similar story when they see the wood this house is built with.  A couple have given me lengthy arguments about why it's environmentally irresponsible not to harvest old growth timber: Old-growth forests are stagnant, equilibrated.  There was this one watershed where clear-cutting actually increased the number of trout in the streams.  If we're concerned about global warming, then we should want clear-cutting since new forests capture much more carbon than old-growth.  (The next day the same guy went on a rant about how global warming is bunk, certainly not anthropogenic, and if does exist, it's most likely due to H-bomb tests and sunspots.) The timber industry has even put out a Bizarro-world version of the Lorax, called "Truax", which blurts out most of the same, along with the salient point that nobody really cares if a few species you've never seen go extinct. 

Before I lived here, it was much easier to say that there was no merit to the arguments supporting harvest of old-growth forest.  I'm still opposed to it, but the cost is in my face; I'm saying that the old growth has greater value than the town of Glide.  If I have my way, these towns will have a radically different (and worse) future, and previously open roads to prosperity are closed. 

I still see myself, at least in part, as a teacher, with a set of skills that I've worked hard to develop.  However, today, the power of money is pushing standardized testing and MOOCs, and pushing me to obsolescence.  So, I can definitely sympathise with Glide.  Me, the lumberjack, Glide, the northern spotted owl, Detroit--we are all trying to figure out how to cope with uncomfortably reduced livelihoods and futures where we may be obsolete. 

*Timber is most of the story, but not all; the venality of 19th-century robber barons and railroad swindlers actually plays some role--look into the history of the Oregon and California Railway for more info.