Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Fragility of Musical Instruments

Via Norman Lebrecht we hear about a violinist's shocking discovery when she opened her case one day:

The tailpiece just came apart. Well, it is a fairly old instrument, a Stradivarius dating from 1689. Hmm, J. S. Bach was just four years old when this was built. I have had the exact same experience with my guitar, a 1983 Robert Holroyd:

You have no idea of the shock and horror that you feel when you open your case and find your instrument, companion of untold hours of practice and performance, suddenly come apart! Luckily, these things can be fixed and my guitar, and, presumably Ragin's violin, was made good as new.

Musicians and their instruments have a nearly-symbiotic relationship in which your body and the instrument almost become one. There is a science-fiction short story by John Varley, "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" that captures a bit of this feeling. It is not just the most accomplished professionals who feel this--music students often do as well. I was talking with a small group of students once when one of them, who was sitting down with her guitar face-up on her lap, dropped her tuning fork (which is a rather heavy, though small, metal object which can seriously harm an instrument) on the soundboard of her guitar. All of us reacted with horror, as if we were witness to a car crash. You have to be very careful with the tops of guitars, they bruise easily!

I will spare you the horror story of the lutenist whose pegbox fell afoul of an elevator door and was snapped off. You can image how nasty that was:

The problem with string instruments is that the strings exert a considerable force on the structure. A classical guitar, tuned up to pitch, puts about 125 lbs of torque on the bridge. 24 hours a day. Year after year. Over time this distorts the plane of the soundboard and the bridge may even come off at some point. Very few of the lutes from the 16th and 17th centuries have survived to the present because they are very fragile instruments.

Instruments have to be constantly maintained. In the case of my guitar, due to the dry climate where I live, I keep a humidifier inside the guitar at all times. Strings have to be replaced after sixty or so hours of use. The whole instrument (frets, varnish, tuning pegs, etc.) has to be restored every twenty years. Wind instruments need careful maintaining too. Flutes and other instruments with keys that close soundholes have to have those keys carefully adjusted and the pads, which close the soundhole, replaced on a regular basis. Things like the double reeds for oboes and bassoons that are the origin of the sound, are carefully manufactured, by hand, by the players, who carve them individually for their particular technique.

I won't even get into the intricacies of re-hairing a violin bow:

Actually, a lot of this is what attracted me to music in the first place. It is the very concreteness of the instrument and what you have to do to play it, both with your body and the instrument, that keeps you connected with the physical universe. Philosophy just seemed too abstract. Music is often called the most abstract of the fine arts: it is evanescent, evaporating into nothing as soon as the sound stops. But to the people who play the music, it is pretty concrete: sound vibrations coming from vibrating strings and soundboards, columns of air and drumheads, produced by fingers, nails, lips, hands, bows and drumsticks.

Musical instruments are fragile structures, with delicate balances and maintaining precise tensions and stresses. This is why it is so upsetting for musicians to have their instruments put into the cargo hold of an airplane, stacked under suitcases, even inspected by officers who know nothing of their fragility. And the worst indignity: confiscated for some obscure bureaucratic reason.

Whew, time to listen to one of those instruments. This is the very fine lutenist Paul O'Dette playing lute music of early 16th century Venice:


Anonymous said...

I am sorry about your guitar, but glad to hear it was fixed. At least these mishaps are "natural." But what about Krystian Zimerman, whose Steinway was entirely destroyed at JFK by TSA officials? Apparently, the glue smelled suspicious! Surely a wise decision, since it's very well known that jihadi terrorists always travel with their grand pianos...

Rickard Dahl said...

There is a lot of madness going on with laws for transporting instruments or even owning certain types of instruments (as you have mentioned in earlier posts). For instance ivory key pianos can't really be transported to other countries and might not even be transportable to other states (in the US) in the future. See:

It's not like it will save elephants if ivory key pianos will get destroyed. The lawmakers have some very twisted logic (if it can be called logic at all).

Musicians seem very attached to their instruments indeed. During the Costa Concordia tradegy, a violinist died because he went back to get his violin. He chose to risk his life over a violin and ultimately lost both his violin and his life.

@Anonymous, wow, that's some crazy stuff. Looks like the TSA have their priorities in the completely wrong place.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had heard mention of a problem with a piano at customs, but I didn't realize it was Krystian Zimerman. I just tried to track the story down on the web and found it in this interview:

I guess it didn't make the papers at the time. I am going to be traveling to the US in the near future and my sister asked if I will be bringing my guitar. I just laughed and said, no, in the current state of affairs, I couldn't imaging traveling to the US with my fragile, irreplaceable instrument. When you travel by air, you are at the mercy of untold legions of officers and bureaucrats who, apparently, play by a rulebook that is far from clear, and are unaccountable.