A 21st Century Violin

Is there pressure to rethink the violin for the 21st Century, and how will our culture and craft respond to it? After all, we tinker with most things. Why not the violin. Benjamin Hebbert gives it at least another 500 years the way it is now.

Violin makers are some of the most inventive people I know, so it’s odd that they keep going back to a design that was familiar to the 16th century. The earliest violin that we know of is the 1564 Andrea Amati made for King Charles IX that is now in the Ashmolean Museum. I say earliest with the added statement that amongst the old undated violins that exist in the world, there are none that seem to be substantially older. We think, for a number of reasons, that it all started off thereabouts in the workshop of Andrea Amati in Cremona. But through my career I have often come across people who have felt challenged by the seeming need for musical instrument makers to keep making the same design. Even those who claim to be original in what they produce only change the design in fairly trivial ways that would easily be missed by an intelligent layman. Let’s face it, all violins really do look the same. We don’t even like changing the colour of them.

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The 1564 Andrea Amati violin made for King Charles IX of France.

Take a closer look at a violin, and you’ll begin to see the ingress of technology. A 350 year old Stradivari may have a mylar-kevlar tailgut, a carbon fibre tailpiece, titanium used for the metal parts of the chinrest, whilst the strings are made out of an amazing array of modern metals and synthetic fibres. Those are the hints that things are afoot, and that there is a constant technological spirit of invention. There may be other things that are invisible, either in a new instrument or an old one that also create a better sound, but the substantial parts of the violin are sacred and it is only the ephemeral aspects that are subject to change – rather like changing the tires, the breaks and the upholstery in a car isn’t changing the car itself. Inside the luthier’s workshop you will find an incredible symbiosis of modern technology and ancient tools. When we discover a violin of particular merit, we use space-age lasers and top-of-the-range medical scanning to understand them. Many of the techniques you would expect to see in a state-of-the-art dental laboratory can be found amongst the people who painstakingly restore ancient instruments, but none of these tools and techniques will ever replace a perfectly good traditional repair, unless it can be bettered. More often than not, they can’t.

With all this in mind, the violin resembles what philosophers call a “Platonic object”. In essence an extension of Plato’s solids, which are the simplest forms of shape (three dimensional shapes in which all sides are the same). In a broader philosophical model this begins to describe such things as chairs, tables, wheels, balls, anything where the shape is so simple that one cannot substantially redesign it to be better. Despite the dumbfounding complexity of the violin, and against all reason, 500 years of sustained use with minimal evolution suggests that it belongs within this concept of design.

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Johannes Kepler’s model of the Solar System as Platonic Solids from Mysterium Cosmographicum, 1596

So what keeps the violin the way it is? In my opinion, I think it has something to do with the vocal nature of the instrument. Clarinets, trumpets, bassoons, all other manner of instruments create a menagerie of sound effects that have their own importance, but because the violin mirrors the human voice, both in it’s basic sound and in the way that the bow is able to create complex undulating tonal properties, it is subconsciously set apart from other instruments, and there is little interest in adapting it’s sound away from the vocalise ideal. It relates to our primeval senses in a particular way that is absent in other kinds of instruments. Hence the string quartet as a whole developed with it’s strikingly different tessitura that reflect the soprano, alto, treble and bass encountered within a human nature.

This perhaps explains why the 1950s research of Carleen Hutchins resulting in the violin octet of matched instruments, failed to find a sustained following amongst the all important market of audiences, composers and musicians. Every instrument had essentially the same voice from soprano violin to double bass. To some extent the instruments had issues because they relied upon musicians willing to learn to play different sizes of instruments in different keys, and in turn the chicken-before-the-egg situation of musicians having the motivation to learn to play instruments for which there was little repertoire, and composers in turn writing for instruments that few could play. Regardless of the potential of the instruments it needed to have that magic input, otherwise the inventions of the violin maker simply were an irrelevance. But it also related to other things. Did we really want to listen to a tonally matched set of instruments? Wasn’t it the perceived imperfections of the modern day string quartet that had unconsciously tapped into our sentient nature, and had made it unknowingly compelling? The remaining advocates for the project are mostly luthiers fascinated with the acoustical challenge, and the museums that have mothballed sets of the instrument in South Dakota, New York and Edinburgh.

There is some evidence to support this in our difficulty in hearing mono-tonal instruments. A single rank of matched pipes in an organ becomes literally monotonous, which is why most organs have several ranks of pipes with different character, and are able to blend them. Recorder and viol consorts work on an idea of the purity of voice, and it is fair to say that this kind of music lost its mainstream appeal centuries ago. The history of how the flute replaced the recorder is one of changing the bore profiles and replacing the fipple for a side-blown embrouchure because of the way that the latter allows the tone to be manipulated, much like the bow across a violin and much like how the violin eventually took the place of the viol. Even the violin’s own shape hard-wires the concept of imperfection. Many stringed instruments, harps, keyboard instruments, are asymmetric because identical strings of different pitches are different in length. That should be self-explanatory that the shorter the string length, the higher the pitch. On one hand, having strings of equal length makes the violin (or guitar, or lute) more versatile to play, but equally it means that the strings are of different size and tension, forcing the differing qualities of sound from the G to the E string. Even once that is understood, what idiot would make a violin symmetrical when it is obvious that an asymetric body could be designed to better work with the acoustic nature of the violin. Nineteenth-century makers observed this phenomenon and came out with some remarkable responses, but these have the effect of flattening the sound, and once again risk making the violin monotonous by comparison to the bel-canto that we encounter daily within the human voice. The visual symmetry of the violin in reality makes the instrument fundamentally unbalanced.

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This is what happens when you try to build an instrument around equal tension and thickness of strings. An early stab at making a theorbo from around 1580-1590 (Kunsthitoriches Museum, Vienna, SAM 55).

On a good violin, a musician can create an infinite variation of tone – enough to satisfy most requirements of most composers. As violin makers we also know that 90% of the violin’s tone is the basic sound of a string being vibrated with a bow, which is why even something like a Yamaha Silent Electric violin is fundamentally recognisable as a violin sound, both on and off, and even a cheap and horrible violin has the basic character that we find in a Stradivari (and yet can still objectively sound ghastly). That immediately asks a basic question of why, when the spectrum of quality is already self evident, should we start to think about a radical redesign of the instrument.

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Violino Harpa Forma Maxima, Thomas Zach, Vienna 1874. Musée de la Musique, Paris, E.668.

Back at college in the 1990s (at what once was the London College of Furniture) the furniture makers seemed naturally bemused at what we got up to in the violin workshop. They could see that there were better ways of making violins than having this silly corners on them, which only risked being broken off, and likewise the soundholes could be rationalised into something that was more suited to manufacturing. Actually, we’ve experimented with cornerless violins since the sixteenth century, though Stradivari and Chanot in the 19th century, but behind that fiddly design flaw, the blocks inside act as braces that make the whole vibrating system more rigid. It seems to be a good thing, and there are structural engineering reasons to leave them there to stop the arched front from spreading which would be obvious to an architect even if a furniture designer couldn’t quite see the point of them. Yes, OK, the corners are fussy, but getting rid of them completely is not the design answer either. As for sound holes, guitar makers undertook that kind of rationalisation. If you want to go there, by all means do, but one of the advantages of the violin sound hole is that it is able to sit on unpredictable arching contours without looking too odd. The process of guitar making starts with more predictable and softer arching (if there is any to speak of at all). In the end, I’m not sure this is an improvement except in terms of manufacturing consistency, which is something that doesn’t particularly interest a craftsman of unique and individual instruments.

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The iconic sound hole of a Gibson mandolin seems to owe something to the earliest violins in existence, but whilst it defines Gibson’s style, the highly rationalised concept is not a direction that offers any interest for violin makers. 

So fast forward to the day I ended up teaching at West Dean and my period under the management of a totally insane principal. He was a furniture designer by training, and in a college dedicated to the arts, his crowning achievement was to invent a glass-topped board room table, at least 20 years after the genre had become a cliché. Whilst our workshop focussed on viola da gamba to the point that violins seemed to be a modernist afterthought, he was determined that the 21st-century violin would make its stand there and then, and would be our legacy to the musical world. Let me say that whilst my predecessor had given him the cold-shoulder, I was up to the challenge and set about creating the proposal for a research project that could enable us to achieve this.

Do I believe it can be done? Well, the answer there is an absolute yes – philosophically at least. But it would require a comprehensive scientific review of the 20th century, the skills of Stradivari and the equipment and expertise to formulate the necessary design concepts. We would have to link up with engineering, acoustical and materials science research groups across the world, and find a way to collaborate with a particular university to enable research council funding in its millions. Once we got to that stage, it would just be the simple task of ensuring that our students were up to the same standard as Stradivari by the end of their two years at college. … yup. This was the man who upon hearing that the leader of a very distinguished British quartet didn’t actually own the violin he played upon, offered to resolve the issue by getting the students to make a copy of the Stradivari he played so that the college could give to him to ensure he would have a violin of his own. In a dystopian way, I’m quite grateful to the nutter because it allowed me the imperative to challenge a concept that was already a recurring theme within instrument making. Even if the philosophical direction was to reinforce a belief in a 500-year-old concept, I think one can do it with greater integrity if one has thought deeply about how to approach improving it. Nevertheless, it goes without saying, we didn’t get along. I think, on reflection, the sheer arrogance of the dystopian hell that formed from the MONAD studio’s distended bicycle helmet with strings is probably the kind of thing he envisaged. It is impossible to take this seriously as a design principle as there is nothing remotely relevant to acoustics (or to being an inert electric instrument) within the design, nor has it any ergonomic value. It is as if the designers deliberately excluded every relevant aspect of music and making from their design principles. The comments on this YouTube video, if you can bear to listen to it, say it all.

Ultimately however, much of the nature of the violin is hard-wired into the past. It is the foundation stone upon which composers were able to work with musicians of increasing skill. Throughout time, composers worked on the shoulders of others, finding more and more complex means to express musical thought that was determined by the increased virtuosity of musicians rather than the novelty of their instrument. Ideas like the viola d’amore appeared and died out simply because a violinist with an advanced technique could do cleverer things than someone encumbered by ranks of extra strings, and the novelty was accordingly short-lived. Ultimately that does not mean that novelties or variations can’t exist, and to demonstrate that it’s worth dwelling on the guitar since the 1950s. Here, complex popular music of the likes of Pink Floyd relies on the layering of textures provided by different guitars, just as a pipe organ relies on the ranks of pipes to give it varying character. Just the very notion of the Gibson Les Paul taking a parallel trajectory to the Fender Stratocaster speaks of the desire for more nuance than a single guitar is able to give. The miracle of the violin is that it has a great deal more colour within it’s palette, but that can be countered by how generally the same violins sound regardless of quality, and how music has developed with that particular expectation of sound at it’s foundations. David Gilmour’s plug for the sale of his collection is a brilliant entry into a world that violinists seldom have familiarity with. There is certainly space for thinking like a guitarist, and listening to a guitarist’s view makes it all the more clearer that new designs can add to a musician’s range, but there is no place within this kind of discussion to think about one form replacing another.

Recently I have been surprised at my positive response to Luca Alessandrini’s work on violins made with spider silk and other non-standard resins, which goes against my expectations that I should be curmudgeonly and negative about the whole thing. Hearing them performed, my conclusions are that the much denser materials allows the instruments to resonate at much higher frequencies. Working with Peter Sheppard-Skaerved at the Royal Academy of Music, we’ve observed that an entire range of harmonics opens up that is difficult if not impossible to play even on the very best violins. It is like giving the violin the same acoustic potential that the cello has – think those glorious bars (76 to 87) of Schostakovich’s D-minor cello sonata. I think that there is the potential for a new kind of instrument in there, and I see potential. But I don’t see these at all as a substitute for the violin, but as a specialist piece of kit for a violinist who already plays the violin. This conversation relates to one that I had with Daniel Pioro about the etherial sounds required for Jonny Greenwood’s concepts in the score for Phantom Thread. In the end we settled for the loan of a violin-sized viola d’amore, tuned with the top strings as a violin (an Uldrichus Eberle from 1744) for that passage work, but I can’t help thinking that Alessandrini’s violins would have had the potential to radically influenced that kind of music, and in the development of extended techniques. It, or developments that spring from it, have a distinctive place in the arsenal available to a composer, and that should fundamentally interest us. To listen to Peter’s informal experimentation with the new instrument, I can certainly hear characteristic sounds that would be particular to a whole range of genre in film music that cannot be made on a violin.

Another project that I am really excited about is that of Paul Davies, a violin maker in Australia whose “Spur violins” fall into the semi-acoustic range. They use a transducer in the soundpost, with the body design intended to tune out the inherent problems of feedback that this causes. Although it is amplified, the acoustic noise coming from it means that you are far more aware of its violinistic characteristics even when the volume is turned right up. Here is Peter in my studio giving the instrument a whirl, and Paul is on the amplifier manipulating the input. Pushing the gain right up makes the sound post microphonic, and the whale-song coming from bowing the tailpiece is one of the things I was unlikely to have thought possible. Again, I love the possibilities that this lends to someone with a violinist’s technique, but that is a fundamentally different statement in every respect from what we think we can do. It allows a violinist a greater kind of flexibility, and makes legitimate offerings for composers trying to go beyond the strictures that have built up in the last 50 years. In sum, it’s a question of how to use the highly trained virtuosity of the violinist in ways that go beyond the limits of the violin itself. Elsewhere, if you put the settings to normal you get a lovely ordinary violin sound. Not the sort that would make me put my traditional violin aside, not even one that I could bring to an orchestra, but giving it the stability and reliability that makes violin playing more versatile to a whole range of genres. These things are great, I unambiguously endorse them, and as soon as they are in regular production I hope to be selling them in the UK.

Ultimately when we explore ideas of what the violin is, they are predicated by virtuosity and the ease with which an instrumentalist can operate the given instrument. Hence, some violinists will become very nervous about small differences in size of only a millimetre or so. For composers, the overriding (though not exclusive) interest is in testing this technique to the fullest, including extending the technique, and this is more satsifying for musicians, composers and the audience than a radically different looking or sounding instrument in the main, especially if it’s design incursions make it different – let alone less good – than the instrument that the musician is most familiar with. It seems a corrupt circle with a lack of imagination, but ultimately it seems to be fuelled by the innate bias of approval that we give to instruments that sound most like the sounds we are instinctively hard wired to respond to in our earliest stages of human development. Charles Beare was once asked about improving on Stradivari’s design, to which he answered along the lines that when you have reached Stradivari’s level, perhaps you can think about improving it.

But equally, why play Mozart or Bach on an instrument that is fundamentally detached from what they had in their minds? We had that with PDQ Bach, and even Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and for all I extol about the latter, the genre ultimately had little market appeal and became entirely an object of its own time. We haven’t seen an emergent counter culture that has sustained celebration of this kind of performance, and that can’t be blamed on the malignant conservatism of the classical music market. Paul Oakenfold’s remix of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings sits in its own particular place and it would be absurd to suggest that one substitutes the other. I think there is room for diversification, and we may achieve enormous appeal from that. After all, just as Glenn Gould has something to say about Bach, the rebellious side of me wonders if Dr.Voissy has just as much to say about Beethoven, but for some of my readers that may be a statement too far. All that said, there is every chance that being a violinist will become more interesting in the years ahead as new genres demand diversification, but for my money, I reckon that the violin as we know it has at least another 500 years ahead with the current design serving the majority of musicians.

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