Saving The Stradivarius Sound

An entire city went quiet so the world’s most iconic violin could be immortalized

By Chuck Squatriglia from PoPular Science Updated: Sep 26, 2022 17:48:39 IST
Saving The Stradivarius Sound Instruments by Antonio Stradivari and other great craftsmen at the Museo del Violino. Photo: Isabella de Maddalena/The New York Times/Redux

Antonio De Lorenzi takes a seat on stage in the concert hall of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Italy, and carefully tucks a Stradivarius under his chin. The violin,crafted in 1727 and called Vesuvio, gleams in the soft light of the auditorium. Through an earpiece, the soloist hears a metronomic beat as a voice says, “Go.”

De Lorenzi draws his bow across the lowest string and plays G for half a beat. He pauses, then follows with A-flat. Then A. He moves up the scale, never changing his pace as he works through all four strings. Once he finishes, he repeats the exercise,this time sounding each tone just a bit faster.

This is no ordinary concert. Outside, police have cordoned off the street to traffic. Inside, workers have shut down the heater despite the winter chill, dimmed the lights, and unscrewed buzzing bulbs. As each note reverberates, an audience of 32 microphones dotted throughout the auditorium silently listens.

De Lorenzi’s performance in January 2019 is part of a campaign to preserve the Stradivarius sound. Although many of the approximately 1,100 stringed masterpieces that Antonio Stradivari and his sons hand-crafted in this city have endured for three centuries, they are still mortal.Almost half have been lost to accidents or the wear that comes with age.Of the 650 or so that survive, some have grown too fragile to play.

Stradivari remains the defining figure in violin-making, a name on a par with Chanel or Ferrari. He fashioned instruments for kings and cardinals, and his creations bring their distinctive voice to the repertoires of modern soloists like Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Musicians,luthiers (stringed-instrument makers)and scientists have tried for centuries to figure out what gives a Strad its beautiful sound, yet no one has ever replicated it.

And so the goal is to create a digital archive that will survive long after the last Stradivarius falls silent, allowing composers and artists to continue making music with them.

De Lorenzi proceeds, working through scales at varying tempos,intensities and volumes with the precision and passion he’d bring to a Dvorák symphony or Verdi opera. In a soundproofed room tucked beneath the auditorium’s seats, audio engineer Thomas Koritke, whose company will create a virtual version of the instrument, listens through speakers as his computer records it all. He will do this every day for five weeks, meticulously documenting thousands of variations of the sounds Vesuvio and three other masterworks of its era can produce.

“These instruments have been played for 300 years,” says Fausto Cacciatori, a curator at the Museo del Violino. “We are committed to making them play for another 300.”

The Museo del Violino, which opened in 2013 to celebrate the work of Stradivari and others, sits in the heart of Cremona. The ancient city, about 75 kilometers from Milan,began as a Roman colony in 218 BC and developed a rich, cosmopolitan culture under Spanish, French, Austrian and Italian rule. By the 17th century, the city was home to a thriving community of instrument-makers.

It was Stradivari, born around 1644,who combined three key innovations that helped accelerate the violin’s transition from the chamber rooms of the Baroque period to the concert halls of the Classical. He designed his offerings slighter larger than those of his contemporaries; he created fuller arching for the top plate, called the belly, and the back; and he modified the thickness of both the top and back plates.

These changes provided a powerful sound and projection. “He perfectly understood the new requirements of the violinists of the time,” Cacciatori says.

The material used to craft any stringed instrument contributes to its sound. Violin-makers have long considered spruce ideal for the belly; its grain has the strength to endure the tension of taut strings,yet provides enough flexibility to vibrate freely. For the body and neck,luthiers favour maple for its ideal mix of strength, resonance and aesthetics.

Retired biochemist Joseph Nagyvary, who also builds violins,has spent four decades seeking Stradivari’s secrets. He believesCremonese luthiers used borate and salts of copper, iron and chromium to prevent woodworm infestations, and that some of these materials stiffened the wood and improved its resonance.He also suspects that Stradivari took the added step of smoking the timber in his chimney. Beyond killing pests, the practice would have reduced moisture, giving his instruments superior tone. “You can not have a Stradivari sound unless your wood is preserved and restructured by chemical manipulations,”Nagyvary says. Research at NationalTaiwan University in 2017 bolstered this idea.

All this speculation stems from the fact that Stradivari didn’t share his methods. He left no notes, no diaries,nothing to reveal definitively how he built his instruments. Science can provide clues, but few believe we'll ever completely solve the mystery.We are left only with the sound.

The idea for Koritke’s endeavor started around 2015 with a sound engineer named Leonardo Tedeschi. The former DJ was working on a project using a software program from Koritke’s company, e-instruments, that replicates an 11-piece string ensemble. Tedeschi found it so impressive that he wanted to create a similar tool for Stradivarius violins. He pitched the idea to Koritke, who immediately saw an opportunity to preserve an irreplaceable masterpiece.

The Museo del Violino’s auditorium,designed to reverberate perfectly the sound of stringed instruments, was an ideal venue. “When I saw the concert hall, I thought, This is something really extraordinary,” Koritke recalls.Yet he worried about ambient noise, proceeding only after city officials promised to mitigate the interference.

Koritke planned to record a lone Stradivarius violin, but after discussing the project with museum staff,chose a string quartet. In addition to Vesuvio, the combo included a violin created by Giuseppe Guarneri named Prince Doria, a viola by Andrea Amati known as Stauffer, and a Stradivaricello also called Stauffer.

His team spent three years planning the undertaking, writing out the thousands of articulations of every sound the instruments can produce.“This was quite a challenge,” he says.“Most of the musicians had never done that kind of an exercise.”

Koritke’s crew spent a day setting up all the recording equipment and another three arranging the array of microphones. During each phase, the musicians would run through scales and arpeggios at varying volumes and tempos, performing dozens of intonations of every note. They repeated the routines for hours at a time, using different bowing techniques or by plucking the strings, playing thousands of transitions with exacting precision.

“Sometimes the musicians would stop at a certain note because they weren’t happy, but we thought it was OK,” Koritke says. “They would say,‘No, I don’t like this part; let’s do it again.’”

Outside noise frequently disrupted the process. Although city authorities closed streets near the concert hall as well as a nearby parking lot,bicycle tires rolling on cobblestones,barking dogs and clinking glasses in the museum cafe all interrupted the sessions. That prompted the mayor to urge Cremona’s 70,000 residents to keep quiet in the area, though there wasn’t much anyone could do about the peal of church bells or the drone of airplanes overhead.

In the end, Koritke captured about one million individual audio files.His team culled the trove to create virtual versions of the instruments that anyone can add to recording programs like Pro Tools. That meant choosing the most musical and precise instance of every tone, a process that took over a year.

Tedeschi is eager to see what musicians create with the digitized string quartet. He sees the software, now available for purchase, introducing the instruments to new audiences through entirely new styles, including DJs doing “crazy stuff” with a Stradivarius violin. “You can use it in a lot of genres,” he says.

The question is, will anyone realize it’s a Strad?

The premise of Koritke’s Stradivarius project rests on the idea that nothing sings as finely as the original. Joseph Curtin isn’t sure that's true. He took up the violin at age 10 and started making them about a decade later, in 1978. Like many luthiers, he developed an abiding fascination with Stradivari and his peers, and hoped to replicate the tone of their masterpieces. Curtin began pondering theories to explain their superiority until a physicist friend suggested he first prove that Strads truly do eclipse all others. “That’s when I realized there was no scientific evidence suggesting the old Italian instruments sounded better than modern ones,” he says.

That prompted Curtin and three other researchers to conduct studies from 2010 to 2013. Professional soloists wearing dark goggles played a variety of violins including Strads and new instruments: Just over half preferred the sound of the modern models, and could not identify the Stradswith better than coin-toss accuracy.

That, of course, does not diminish the quality of Stradivari’s masterpieces, or his contributions to the art of making violins. “I don't have one whit less reverence for his work,” Curtin says. “I am just challenging the assumption that they are necessarily better-sounding than modern instruments.”

All of this might be beside the point.The Strads’ unique voice and historical importance alone make them worthy of preservation. Around the world,institutions and archivists conserve paintings, sculptures and documents like the Magna Carta. Those behind the recording project say sound de-serves similar consideration.

Koritke envisions museums allowing patrons to use a tool like the Stradivarius software to hear what these masterpieces sound like. He believes that the pipe organs of Europe’s great cathedrals and other famous instruments are likewise worthy of saving. “When you look at museums all over the world, digitizing their content is standard,” Koritke says. “ Why not do that for instruments?”

Popular Science (10 january 2020), copyright © 2020 Popular Science


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