Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Our lost Strad

My grandfather, my mother said, was quite skilled with the violin. After working in his clinic--he was a dentist--he'd spend afternoons serenading the sunset with his instrument. It was his way of unwinding, I suppose, after an entire day of looking into people's mouths, possibly the most germ-infested part of the human body. (My mother surmised once that her inordinate fear of dentists came about because her father was one.)

I never met my grandfather. The Japanese arrested him during the war--aiding and abetting the guerrillas--and he was never seen again. My mother was four. Her father's violin playing was one of the few memories he has of him. She told me about his violins, how he had a collection of them, but he had one that was really special, she said. It had a name. A foreign sounding name. "Was it an Amati?," I asked. No. Different, she said; it's quite a long name. "A Stradivarius?" Yes, I think that was what it was, she said. Holy crap!, I thought. "Where is it? Is it in Pili?" No, she said, Mama sold it.

Mama, my grandmother, God bless her, didnt know much about these things. She lost her father when she was very young, and he left her with an inheritance that she was not capable of managing. She never went to high school; she didnt need to. At that time, women of her upbringing were just waiting to be married off to the other members of the gentry. She had servants at her beck and call and the fields were bringing in enough money for her to live like that. She married my grandfather when she was 16 or thereabouts. The fields were entrusted to the management of an encargado, (who happened to be former Senator Raul Roco's dad, if you must know). When my grandfather died, Mama didnt know enough about making a living so she sold stuff to maintain the lifestyle. And some of the stuff she sold were the violins, including the alleged Stradivarius.

Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) had a sort of magical way with sound and the means to produce them. He produced violins of unsurpassed tone and depth because of his uncanny way with the woods with which he crafted his instruments. He carves the woods just so, shaving here, whittling there, in full kinesthetic awareness of how tactile sensations in spruce and maple affected the sound he was after. Another violin maker, Guarneri, allegedly could make a violin that sounded a better than a Strad, but he lacked consistency. So buying a Guarneri is a hit-or-miss proposition, whereas in buying a Strad, you are assured of high quality. Many have tried to duplicate the quality of a Strad but failed.

Now a team of acoustic scientists from Sweden are using modern technology to try to duplicate the magic of the Strad. Using computer models, they'll try to build a Stradivarius facsimile by creating a violin in a computer and tinker with it, the electronic equivalent of Antonio shaving and whittling the wood he works with. They reshape the electronic violin, tinker with the 'wood' and 'varnish', here a little, there a little, until they come up with the right sound, and then build the violin. Sounds plausible. What is a violin if it isnt just a collection of shapes and materials with measurable acoustic properties? With the use of computers, the process of tinkering with the materials could be done in no time.

Building it would be the tricky part since wood has very individual properties and no two pieces are alike, so good luck to the Swede geeks in trying to find just the right piece of wood to capture the sound theyre after. But this shouldnt be too difficult if they decide to look beyond wood and choose specially engineered synthetic materials.

Now let's say they succeed. Let's say they create a duplicate of Stradivari's Lady Tennant or his Dolphin. Would it also fetch the same value as an original Strad? It sounds the same, plays the same, so why shouldnt it? We all know the answer to that. The violin-from-the-lab doesnt have the same spirit, the same mystique, the same history as any of Antonio's originals. They dont have the X-factor of a genius's blood and sweat, working with only his hands and ears, built into any of the instruments. Once the Swedes succeed in creating their violin, they can create dozens--hundreds--of duplicates, whereas each of Antonio's violins is unique. There is no violin like it. I doubt any machine can replace the human genius because no machine can produce magic. They can produce precisely measured properties of data, but they can never produce the mystical, spiritual, intangibles that the human genius can. The ordinary mortal, steeped as he is in the machine age will not be able to tell the difference. But that's because he has sunk to the level of the sub-human, merely a cog in the machine, with bills to pay, deadlines to meet, appointments to make. Unfree. The human will be able to tell the difference. Only the human has faculties that are adequate enough to recognize the mystical in something. That's why the Strads are so highly valued. Not only because the Strads are rare, but because humans are rare.

As for our Stradivarius, the one Mama sold all those years ago, who knows? Truth be told, maybe it wasnt even a Strad. My mother is notorious for forgetting names. Maybe it was a Giuseppe Guarneri. Maybe not even that. But when I tell this story, I always say that it was an Antonius Stradivarius. Nothing like it in the world.

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