Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Stradivarius Obsession

This morning I have been reading (via Gizmodo) the news that someone has discovered a method for treating wood with fungus in order to make violins good enough to rival the famous Stradivarius models. Apparently one of the reasons for the legendary tone of the Stradivarius violins is that the wood they are made from is particularly dense and also highly elastic, properties that are ideal for encouraging resonance in a violin but also very hard to recreate. Treating certain types of timber with two specific species of fungus alters the wood to make it closer to that ideal, and therefore excellent for violin making - so good, in fact, that 'in a blind test a panel of experts was unable to distinguish the fake Stradivarius from the real thing.'

This is hardly the first such story to emerge from the woodwork, I'm sure it won't be the last, and I'm also sure I'm not alone in treating these reports with a a rather large dose of scepticism. For much of the media, the word 'Stradivarius' seems to have a special quality and attraction. I think this is because it is such a recognisable name, even for many people with almost no interest in classical music, and therefore radiates potential for a slightly unusual, quirky story on a subject (classical music) that most people find a bit boring.

Whatever the reason, I suspect similar stories will keep appearing. Which is a shame, because it's all a bit ridiculous, and not really that interesting once you realise how pointless the whole thing is.

I'm no expert on violins, but the fact that so many people hold Stradivarius violins in such high regard is enough to make me believe they have some special qualities. On the other hand, just as with many other musical figures (Josquin, Mozart, Beethoven), the reality has clearly been distorted by mystique and legend. Stradivarius violins may be exceptional, but there have no doubt been many other outstanding models created since then, of which this new version made from fungus treated wood is just the latest. The idea of comparing them in a blind 'taste' test is pointless for so many reasons - surely there must be better things to talk about in the musical world, especially regarding the intersection with technology, than these clearly ridiculous 'experiments'? What about how technology is helping disabled people make music (as at the Paralympics)? What about the future of musical notation and input with touch sensitive devices? This Stradivarius research and the subsequent articles are a vaguely interesting diversion for a few minutes, but nothing more, and it is such a shame that these are the aspects of classical music that get written about. Let's try and move on from our Stradivarius obsession shall we? They're good, yes, but they're not going to make me play like Joshua Bell, and not having one isn't going to make Joshua Bell sound like me.

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