Tuesday, January 3, 2012

All the rest is sound and fury

Yesterday I read, with delicious pleasure, a transcription of an NPR news report of a recent double-blind listening test--with "seasoned" musicians as the listeners--of two genuine Strad violins, a genuine Guarnerius violin, and three well- and recently-made modern violins. The researcher was an acoustics physicist from France's National Center for Scientific Research. "Everybody wore dark goggles so they couldn't see which violin was which." "No one knew which instrument was which until after the test. That rules out the kind of bias that might creep in when a musician judges an instrument he or she knows is 300 years old and maybe played by someone like Fritz Kreisler." The link is here.

"…of the 17 players who were asked to choose which were old Italians...seven said they couldn't, seven got it wrong, and only three got it right." Most significantly, "When [one] asked the players which violins they'd like to take home, almost two-thirds chose a violin that turned out to be new. She's found the same in tests with other musical instruments. "I haven't found any consistency whatsoever," she says. "Never. People don't agree. They just like different things."

"In fact, the only statistically obvious trend in the choices was that one of the Stradivarius violins was the least favorite, and one of the modern instruments was slightly favored."

I wonder how the last person who paid $3.5 million for a Strad at auction feels about that. Or, for that matter, $200,000 for a prewar D-45. Must shake them up a bit, no?

The test proved to me that the overheated claims I've been hearing over the last 40 years about the source of Strad's "special sound" being mineralized wood buried in swamps for centuries, the "aging" process, or magic varnish recipes that disappeared forever, are total bull-scheisse. The emperor has no clothes.

The inscrutable mythical primacy of scarce Brazilian rosewood and German Spruce is the guitar-world equivalent of this sentimental, often self-serving, fakery. I can add the speculations about crystallizing resins in 100-year spruce to the steaming pile of fake mumbo jumbo. I suspected all this from the beginning. To quote my mentor in guitar acoustics, Tim White, "if you build it to play in tune and play easily, you'll find someone who'll fall in love with it." But that in itself is asking a lot: What really counts is the the individual maker's acquired intuition, commitment and care.

All the rest is sound and fury, signifying nothing.