Friday, July 17, 2015

Luthier acoustics

A student of mine has become an intimate personal friend. Enrico Schiaffella resides in Rome, Italy, and has become noted as a fine classical builder in his own right. He wrote to me to recount his discomfort at being interviewed on TV, with questions that assumed that he knew just how guitars worked and how they sounded like they do. He wrote: "...but he is not the only who talks about scientific aspect of sound. I cannot bear it: I mean, the luthier is just an artisan—kind of a specialized  carpenter. He is no PhD in physics. How should he know about acoustics? I would not know what to say. These people are just crazy. They make a lot of talking about nothing." I responded,

I thought this was just a stupid American weakness. Your message is proof that it is a universal weakness.

People look at a string. It is silent. They look at a guitar. It is silent. But when the string is moving, beautiful sound is created. It must be magic. It must be science. The builder must know precisely how to make the inert material sing. He must be steeped in great, ancient wisdom. He must be a shaman. Or at least an apprentice shaman. 

So with this illusion, they are excited to ask you to explain the magic. You don't want to deflate their expectations. That would be rude. Besides, if you admit that you are working at the edges of true knowledge, they will think, "wrong guy. Impostor. I should be interviewing a real shaman. Later for you."

But the truth will set you free. You simply refuse to play the game. When someone asks you to answer a "loaded" question like "have you stopped beating your wife?" You can't answer just yes or no, because in either case you are admitting to being a wife-beater. You can only answer. "How did you come to the conclusion that I am beating my wife?" THEN you can respond to that.  

The guitar-making version of a loaded question is , ""Do you build with a thin back so that the whole guitar vibrates, or are you married the modern school where the back is very thick because you don't want it to vibrate? In this case, the soundboard is mainly responsible for the sound generation"

The only answer is "I build the back to the same thickness of the traditional models that I admire." and then, "I am only married to the school of Hernandez y Aguado." and then "where did you hear that the soundboard is mainly responsible for sound generation?" They might then answer, "well I heard it from great guitar builder so-and-so, who affirms that this is true." 

Your response would then be, "did you ask him how he came to that conclusion? I would like to know how he found that out! Did he study acoustics? Did he do double-blind experiments? I hope he didn't just make it up!"  

You may be fearful of being seen as an ignoramus because you aren't sure why your guitars sound so good. But instead, I would look forward to this opportunity to deflate and perhaps end this bullshit-propagating process. All in a polite, non-threatening or insulting way, of course. 

Don't answer his questions directly at first: question the questioner's assumptions. The assumptions that he is trying to make you validate. You simply don't validate the assumptions.  You can reveal that the emperor has no clothes--that there is no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The posture of being fascinated by the many mysteries of sound production is not an unattractive stance. You can say that it is these mysteries that keep you fascinated and energized to pursue this ancient craft. But for someone in your position--as a scientist--working in a realm of mystery, you remain skeptical of the many scientific claims made by non-scientists. You tend to trust empirically-derived conclusions, such as: 

  • That soundboard timbers cut in a certain way give a more satisfying response than if they are cut in a different way.
  • That an extremely wide array of soundbox wood choices give satisfying results, not just rosewood.
  • That the closer you can come to the choices and techniques of the great masters of the past, the better the chances that your guitar will sound like the models that we all have come to love and admire.
  • That guitar acoustics is in such a state of infancy, that it can only shine very little light on how the guitar works. But a basic knowledge of acoustics helps dispel the many made-up popular explanations of how it works, such as "the soundbox amplifies the string sound." and, "the back is a sound reflector" or "the soundboard generates all the sound of the guitar." 
  • Until guitar acoustics matures, your only reasonable recourse is to simply look for the answers in the work of the great masters. The closer you can get to their solutions and decisions, the more masterful your guitars will result.  

Does that help?

Abrazos, mi hermano...


Friday, May 8, 2015

Can re-stringing hurt your guitar?

Dear Bill,
I am having what's turning out to be a rather heated debate with a few of my friends on the topic of re-stringing an acoustic guitar. They are saying that you should NEVER take off all the strings at once, but rather change them one at a time. They think that removing all the strings at once is somehow detrimental to the guitar. Having built a few steel-strings from your book, I say "hogwash". Take off all the strings if you want. It won't hurt a thing.

A note from you on this topic would settle it once and for all. 

A "heated debate" about how removing all the strings are "somehow" detrimental to the guitar, huh? Anybody advance any...evidence on their side? I did'nt think so. It must have been battling Beliefs.

The Belief most likely originated from rather good advice for players of all TAILPIECE instruments (violins, cellos, arch-top guitars): if you take all the strings off, the bridge falls off! —and in many instances, the soundpost falls, too. This useful tip apparently jumped at one point from one instrument world to another, starting as sound advice on violins and arch-tops and becoming dopey advice on guitars. The skewed information subsequently got handed down uncritically from teacher to student over the years and thus became generally enshrined as a Belief. By the way there are dozens of similar religiously-held myths among players/teachers/makers—like, never cut the strings. "It damages them" I heard. I should try to list them all some time.

I also love watching proponents "reverse engineering" a justification for a myth! That is, they start with a myth, and then create an elaborate set of highly logical and credible reasons why it must be true. A quintessentially human trait. 

Musical fascism

60 Minutes on CBS interviewed Andres Segovia during the 1980s. During the interview he was asked, why he played the guitar. His answer: "I play the guitar to save it from the Flamenco players."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Artisanal Sublime

     I was recently privileged to be asked to be a reader for a manuscript for an upcoming book by the Yale anthropologist Kathryn Dudley. The 2-inch thick manuscript covered in marvelous detail almost every aspect of the artisanal guitar making scene of the past fifty years. Previously, she had interviewed me--and as well a host of other prominent North American artisanal guitar makers and personalities in adjunct fields--and my comments and the comments of the others, and her analysis, formed the basis of the work. Dudley approaches the guitar makers' universe with the clear eye of an anthropologist, with insights on the social factors that knit this unique world of buyers, makers and suppliers.
     I was flattered to find that Dudley began the manuscript with my story and then pursued as a recurrent theme throughout the work the metaphor that I had used to describe the original source of and continuing fascination for the craft. It was my account of the power and magic found in the old Pinocchio story, i.e., the humble Gepetto artisan witnessing with surprise the sudden animation of the artifact he had just fashioned from dead wood, springing off his work table and acquiring a life of its own. Pretty heady stuff--but I think many amateurs that find themselves driven to pursue the mysteries, agonies and glory of artisanal guitarmaking, can likely identify something of that story in themselves. Ms. Dudley asked me for comments after reading her manuscript, which I will share with my readers below:

I'm returning your manuscript with appreciative thanks for your thoroughness. It is really was a great revelation to me, as I will discuss further below. You were able to fill in all the blanks in a field that I've been living in for over 40 years! It is indeed an amazingly encyclopedic overview of the luthier's world in the United States. I'm flattered you included me--nay featured me, by placing me first-- along with all the principal figures in the American "artisal" guitar universe, from Linda Manzer and James Olsen to Golab Gidwani and Dan Erlewine. I couldn't put it down, it was so satisfying and insightful. A true delight. A serious masterwork!

It was also quite a revelation to me: It seems that I'm the only nationally-recognized, professional luthier in the United States not making $20,000+ for each guitar! Now that I can clearly see the full landscape of my own field, I feel something like a odd bird—in contrast to many of my colleagues. I seem to be different from most of the accomplished makers described in the manuscript, in that the market I want to serve is almost entirely composed hard-working session musicians and serious up-and-comings. I price my instruments at what I need to support myself in a modest lifestyle, to support the costs of my studio and materials and to support the careers and art of the working artists that I esteem so highly. If that works out to $4-5000.00 per instrument, I feel it rather grasping to charge $25,000, essentially for a 20 inch wooden box with somebody else's strings and tuning machines attached to it. I suppose that makes me an odd bird in this aviary.

You've made me aware of the careers of handful of self-made builders who have leveraged their career success on the purchase of one or several of their guitars by some superstar guitarist or other. This good fortune of happenstance now permits them to command $20,000-$30,000 for all their subsequent instruments. Now, they can't make them fast enough at that price¡ Well, far for me to begrudge the financial success of others. But I feel that it is legitimate to point out the distance between us: between what I think drives them and what I know drives me. I serve my craft. I don't expect it to enrich me. I'm privileged that it does afford me a living stable enough to continue doing it, free from financial anxiety, yes. But striving to a level that makes my work largely inaccesible to the working artists which I serve, no.

Becoming a jet-setting guitar-craft superstar, the darling of wealthy collectors and acquisitive dilettantes, or pursued by the agents of celebrity musicians—may be the aim of some artisans, but it was never my driving ambition. The pursuit of my craft is my religion, not a ticket to fame and fortune. My aim always was always simply to make working tools that facilitate artistic expression, not producing sexually-tinged objects of desire, aimed at attracting the acquisitive urges of people who like extraordinarily expensive, shiny fetish objects. 

You've made me realize, for a starter, I simply am not pursuing the same market as any of them. I'm satisfied with my choices and the freedom and flexibility that this market affords me. I choose to make tools for every-day working musicians, and I make my instruments to be accessible to them. I identify with the struggles and the earnest commitment of these artists. I appreciate that they haven't yet been driven into excess and eccentricity by wild fortune and fame.

I'm often told that I'm crazy not to just jack up my prices, and how that, in itself, will attract high-rolling customers, like flies to honey. I have no doubt that, perversely, jacking up my prices in this curious upside-down artisanal guitar world will indeed encourage sales. But my refusal to do so comes from my recoiling from the prospect of my then having to suck up to wealthy, acquisitive, entitled dilettantes who view the guitar as a "work of art" that they are so clever to invest in, and feel proud of the discernment that their purchase displays among their equals. 

What was eye-opening was that virtually every luthier on that list of makers commanding astronomical fees was previously struggling, making guitars for years and years--and starving. Many were about to give up and throw in the towel. It's a story repeated over and over: then, virtually without exception, fate runs them into some celebrity superstar that wanders into their shop, buys one of their guitars (or whose agent buys one of their guitars)--and soon after, the value and commercial appeal of their work skyrockets--not because the technical quality of their guitars suddenly improved 500%, but because of its fetishistic transformation, as if their work now was elevated in esteem simply by the fame--and by shaky extension, the implied discernment--of their patrons. But that's the American Story, isn't it?

So it appears that one of your conclusions is that for that astronomically-priced market, the guitar is not a simple commodity, but a fetish object. Success in that market is not directly proportional to the amount of some specific kind of special "sound" or technical excellence that these guitars possess or fails to possess--Just to the fame of the luthier's past clients. To enter that world, you must be touched by Grace to prosper. Those celebrity luthiers are really selling guitar-shaped sculpture to collectors. All the more power to them, they deserve each other. The rest of us are selling tools to inspire working artists.

Another remark: yours is a great encyclopedic work that should nonetheless be titled the AMERICAN artisanal guitar, following as it does the distinctive world of mainstream guitar making, starting from about the early 1960s. There's a lot of tantalyzing history missing, for example, of the New York City guitar artisan scene during the 20s, 30s, 40s and even 50s, which consisted essentially of highly skilled Mexican, Puerto Rican, Greek, Italian and Armenian tradesmen toiling away under the radar in hole-in-the-wall shops in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Just from my Hispanic background I can point to my wishing to know more about of Freddie Mejias, the Mexican luthier; Juan Orozco or the Puerto Ricans Tito Baez, Yomi Matos (who recently got a lifetime fellowship recognition from the National Endowment of the Arts), and Nate Tirado. Perhaps the greatest living luthier Manuel Velazquez is given woefully short shrift. Also un-noted is the owner of Casa Ronda on Lexington Ave. Efrain Ronda, who was building artful guitars and cuatros during the mid 30s--and who's shop was the social gathering spot for all the great Hispanic artists of the day, including Andres Segovia. True, William Del Pilar's prominence in the city when my first teacher Michael Gurian was just a kid sniffing around various shops—is mentioned, but not explored. Maybe that is the stuff of another book. Maybe I should write it. That's a good way to learn, isn't it?  


Culture wars

     Over the years, I often received mail and phone calls with compliments or questions from readers of my book, Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology, which has been in print since 1985. One day in 1992, I took a call from a reader, John Sotomayor, who was a staff photographer for the New York Times.
     Sotomayor was gathering information on makers of the Puerto Rican cuatro--the Island's "national instrument" -- in the United States, for an article he had proposed to his editor. He saw a cuatro template illustrated among others in the template section of my guitar making book. He called to inquire about my cuatro making.
     Sotomayor was an aspiring amateur instrument-maker himself. He practiced several other hobbies besides: carving duck decoys, researching genealogy, antique stenciling.  Also, and for many years before becoming a professional photographer, he was a professional "segunda guitarra" (second guitar) in several New York bolero groups. He had recorded with trio Los Duques for the Ansonia label in 1957, and had become rather well known within the great city's Latino guitar scene for his great skill as an accompanist. He also established the New Jersey Classic Guitar Society.
     His inquiry about cuatros and cuatro-making reflected a passion to learn about all things Puerto Rican. Indeed, it is a fever many Puerto Ricans succumb to after living for decades in the United States. John Soto, the guitarist and New York Times photojournalist was in the process of becoming once again Juan Sotomayor, the cuatrista and cuatro researcher. It was an affliction that had also bitten me several years earlier.
     Like Juan, I too, had come around to "becoming Puerto Rican" again. I was born in San Juan forty-five years earlier, raised in Rio Piedras, the son of a father who was native of Rincón, P.R.; and a mother born and raised in an Eastern European Jewish family in Boston. After high school on the Island, I came to the United States to go to college and ended up in New England constructing my eventual career in guitar making. I visited my Puerto Rican family on the Island periodically as I did my American family in Massachusetts. My white skin and English language skills allowed me to blend seamlessly into American society, a stealth-Puerto Rican with a latent, late-onset cultural schizophrenia.
     The time finally arrived, and I became restive. Like Juan, I found myself unable to repress a compelling urge to search for my other lost half. The form it took in my case was a burning curiosity about my own native land’s “guitar,” the small ten-string cuatro. During a return to the Island I took the opportunity to visit established makers such as Cristóbal Santiago in Carolina and Manuel Rodriguez Feneque in Rincon. I learned the traditional enterizo method of instrument making: the hollowing and carving of a thick-walled soundbox and neck from a single, thick slab of hardwood.
     The ancient enterizo instrument-making technique stands in contrast to the (only somewhat less) ancient way guitars and violins are made. Violins and guitars are assembled out of dozens of small blocks, grafts, braces and thinly sawn, heat-bent wooden plates into a light and delicate soundbox, into which a separate, carved neck is joined. The two techniques were once appropriate to the particular social environments of each. On the one hand, the enterizo technique fit into exigencies of folkloric rural craftsman—with their reliance on rudimentary tools and resources on the one hand—and de piezas [built up from many parts] reflected the highly evolved and refined standards of the European craft guilds on the other hand. The early jíbaros saw the Spaniards coming off their galleons: the conquistadores and clerics with their airy, elegant vihuelas and the lowly sailors with their diminutive seventeenth-century soprano guitars, called guitarillos. The mixed-breed jíbaro natives returned to the hills to carve out their own versions of the instruments they saw in the blanquito Spaniard’s hands, using the same home-made knives and hatchets that they always used to fashion all their kitchen and farm utensils. A family of native stringed instruments was born, and a subsequent treasury of musical traditions sprang from them.
     I took my scribbles and diagrams back to my New England guitar shop and there I made several cuatros—one which I sold to a New York Puerto Rican stand-up comic (whose name I’ve since forgotten), who like the vaudevillian Henny Youngman and his violin, strummed his cuatro between punch lines. Hence the appearance of a cuatro template—originally traced from Don Cristobal Santiago’s—in my guitar-making book. And hence that fateful phone call from John Sotomayor.
Juan was dismayed at how little, after an assiduous search, he was able to find in the standard bibliographic sources. One established music encyclopedia had even gotten the cuatro’s tuning wrong! Even the Library of Congress came up empty of any published materials on the national instrument of Puerto Rico. Juan found only two short academic research papers in the University of Puerto Rico that dealt with jíbaro stringed instruments.
     Giving up his bibliographic search, he then interviewed several established Puerto Rican instrument makers and cuatristas in New York and New Jersey. Alas, they could reveal little more about the tradition than the craft techniques they had devised, essentially on their own. They ventured some of popular myths about the origins of the tradition. Most assumed that the cuatro arrived from Spain with four strings, that it caught on in the island, where someone then doubled them to eight, and then someone (some said Heriberto Torres, the greatest cuatrista of the first quarter of the twentieth century) added the fifth course to make it into the ten stringed instrument it is today. But as far as what their antecedents were, the great makers or players of the past; or how the traditions had evolved, and from what or where they had evolved, or how the instrument had found its way into the heart of the Puerto Rican soul…John came up empty-handed. I could not help Sotomayor, either. Like the others, I too, only knew the builder’s sequence and had nothing to add but my faded memories of the slightly nasal, sizzling sound of the cuatro that characterized Christmas to me as a child in Puerto Rico. We both pondered the empty glass before us. We then resolved to ally ourselves in an effort to search deeper into the cuatro's history. The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project was born.
     When we got back together, and when we revealed what scant news we had for each other, we realized that the institutions usually charged with documenting culture had just not been very interested in the jíbaro music tradition, let alone the culture’s defining stringed instrument. Up to at least fifteen or twenty years ago, the field of ethnomusicology was primarily interested in the aboriginal and African music in the Americas and other countries. Somehow, the music of the mixed-race rural jíbaro folk fell into the realm of “popular music” and hence, was seemingly unworthy of serious attention. That has since changed, of course, and the subject is now well established as a legitimate field of study. But to this day, not a single researcher, or institution has devoted itself solely to the study of the origins of jíbaro instrument-making traditions.
     One of the great centers of the study of popular music is at the University of Austin, with Gerard Behague at the helm. Yet a survey of articles in its journal, Popular Music, displays scant attention to the Puerto Rican jíbaros and their music. And so we found it to be in Puerto Rico, where all the prominent musicologists who weren’t studying European music appeared far more interested in the Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and plena, for which a rich literature and much documentation had evolved. But interest in a comprehensive search for the corpus of jíbaro musical traditions has never materialized. What could be found on the origins and music of the cuatro and its Island cousins was truly scant and fragmentary. A remarkable state of affairs!
     One exception was a rather short-lived effort by the Puerto Rican government itself. In the mid-nineteen fifties the first elected governor of the U.S.'s island colony (and erstwhile bohemian poet) Luis Muñoz Marín charged anthropologist Ricardo Alegría to gather together, among other things, the remnants of jibaro lore, and to promote native arts and culture in an effort to “humanize” Operation Bootstrap—Muñoz´ master plan to industrialize the island. In turn, Ricardo Alegría charged Francisco López Cruz (guitar accompanist to the legendary composer, Rafael Hernandez, in his Cuarteto Victoria), to gather all that he knew and could find on jibaro music, and to write a definitive method for cuatro players. Lopez Cruz, who had recently returned from Spain with a doctorate in musicology, compiled knowledge of the different folk and “popular” genres of Puerto Rican music into a seminal but slim volume, La Música Folklórica de Puerto Rico, now long since out of print.
     Alegría founded the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture as a quasi-independent government agency to promote the native arts and crafts. The formative years of the Instituto de Cultura was characterized by great vigor and commitment under Alegría’s command: under Alegría, the Instituto gathered together the works of the great writers and poets, inventoried all the great monuments and cultural treasures on the island. He sent Walter Murray Chiesa (currently being honored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC) to scour the remote hills to find and catalog folk crafts, with the aid of his inventories established competitions for instrument makers, players and traditional singers. Francisco Lopez Cruz went on to champion the rescue of native instruments that had virtually disappeared over the years, encouraging makers to start building again the diminutive tiple and the large bordonúa. A cuatro and bordonúa orchestra was formed under his name, which survives him to this day.
     But the focus, commitment and energy of the Instituto waned soon after the passing of Lopez Cruz and the retirement of Alegria. The Instituto became an entrenched bureaucracy and a political football. Indeed, under the previous Republican administration, an effort was made to subsume the Instituto under the wing of the Department of Tourism: the new function of the cultural patrimony was to entertain the tourists. We were soon to discover that on the Island people fight over culture. What the jíbaros accomplished, or didn’t accomplish—or whether it had any value--has been the subject of intermittent quarreling over the decades. Puerto Rico’s colonial history has rendered the subject of a unique and seminal Puerto Rican culture--with music as its centerpiece--a controversial matter with troubling political overtones.
     Given the fragile support that academia and government had historically given to what we saw as seminal and defining cultural manifestations, and given that the musical and musical craft traditions of Puerto Rico has barely survived--not in books and documents--but in the evanescent memories of ever fewer and fewer Puerto Ricans, we felt an urgent mission had been thrust upon us. Sotomayor had skills in research and photography; I had proven skills in technical writing and instrument making. Upon acquiring a third member, Wilfredo Echevarria--a prize-winning independent video documentary producer and media expert, and then a fourth, Myrna Perez, director of the Francisco Lopez Cruz Foundation, orchestra conductor and musical educator, we dedicated ourselves to this task of cultural preservation. Our informal motto became, "if you want something done well, well, do it yourself!" We were amateurs, of course, but amateurs in the original sense of the word: “lovers.” We were amateurs in the tradition of the naturalists of days past, those amateur scientists who wanted to make a lasting contribution to science.
     But no good deed goes unpunished. The Island’s culture warriors did not readily embrace our new, research-based hypotheses of the development of our iconic stringed instruments. When we partnered with the Casa Paoli in Ponce to sponsor a cuatro-making competition (according to the form we had discovered the instruments had taken in the nineteenth century), our event was threatened by pickets and a local shock-jock on the radio, demanding to know, ¿Qué se cree esa gente que viene desde allá para tratar de cambiarle el cántico al coquí? [Who do those people from over there think they are, coming over here to change how the coquí sings?]  The coquí is the iconic chirping tree toad that Puerto Ricans treasure as a culture icon.
     Our new hypothesis differed from the common narrative. They didn’t want to, indeed, didn’t need to examine our evidence. The accepted narrative was that the cuatro started with four strings, later it was doubled to eight, and then someone (the names of several apocryphal players emerged to take the credit) added two more to make ten. We had new evidence that indeed, there were at times four string cuatros, eight string cuatros and ten-string cuatros all coexisting in different parts of the island. They all were shaped and strung differently. But they were all different instruments, not a single instrument that changed incrementally.  The earliest form was created by the first jibaros with four strings made of twisted rawhide--and later, gut--strings and with a peculiar keyhole shape. This cuatro antiguo was modernized at the turn of the 20th century by a change of shape and a change of its stringing to eight metal strings, an thus become the cuatro de ocho cuerdas. Then, at mid-century, that branch all but shriveled and disappeared. 
     By then a completely novel form was already established, its stringing rooted in 19th-century (not ancient, as the antiguo) Spanish instrument-making. A ten-string cuatro appeared first appeared on the Island's northern coast in the late 19th century, inspired in its stringing and tuning by the contemporary Spanish instruments of the time. It was a new instrument when it appeared, it was not an evolution of the cuatro antiguo. 
     Puerto Rican radio started on the northern coast of the island, and on the occasion of the station's inauguration, Ladislao Martínez played the modern 10-string, violin-shaped cuatro that had caught on in his region. Everybody who heard it, loved it. It eclipsed the earlier form in its sound and versatility. That factor, and Ladí's awesome mastery of the instrument, insured it's universal acceptance and spelled the end for the ancient four string cuatro.
     We responded to the protesters accusing us of interloping in Ponce--ready to picket our competition--by inviting them inside, and giving them an opportunity to speak on our podium. I told the crowd that during our research we had learned that “culture is not a thing, it’s a process.” Later, a protester walked up to me, his pointing finger raised in anger, stressing that “yes, culture is a process. ¡Pero la cultura es ÚNICA!” [It is only one way.] That is, the beloved cuatro is singular, unique: don't come here telling us it isn't.
     Maybe this is why over the years, so few academics did much cultural field research in Puerto Rico. Culture was more than an emotional subject, it was a battlefield. The accepted narrative was hallowed. As I was told after the event, “it’s no wonder you guys did your project over there. It wouldn’t have been possible over here.”
     Today, however--and fifteen years later--I'm glad to report that our persistence and the obvious quality of our work turned many minds around. We have become widely accepted as "authorities" on the subject and appreciation is shown for our website all around the Island. Our Project is the subject of “homenajes” during festivals and events. Our persistence and lack of agenda apparently won over many quarrelsome hearts. 
     Puerto Ricans now everywhere are displaying a thirst of ownership for these delicate cultural manifestations--their own--and the cuatro is experiencing something of a Golden Age today. Virtually every town now boasts of an amateur cuatro orchestra and a yearly culture festival. Young cuatro-playing prodigies arise in seemingly every region of the Island, and even in the barrios of the frigid Northeast. Now politicians are currying favor with the masses by placing more resources and talent at the helm of the Instituto. A major Island TV network included a cuatro in its logo. Politicians in the U.S. show up looking for Hispanic voters at annual cuatro festivals in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. Every one is looking for a cuatro to learn to play En mi Viejo San Juan on: lawyers, bureaucrats, college kids, and housewives alike. Smiling when you hear a cuatro seems to be firmly coded into the Puerto Rican DNA, along with Taínos and pasteles.
     But it makes you wonder, will this Golden Age fade as quickly as others did during the last century? This periodic cycle of cultural resurgence and oblivion goes hand in hand with our inbred talent for sporadically loving and then disdaining our jíbaro roots. The old saying goes, “I’m a proud jíbaro...(but don’t you dare call me a jíbaro)!

     Our colonial-era schizophrenia persists through the ages: “Aren’t we great? No, we’re not. Aren’t we great? No we’re not.” But we've presented to the present-day jíbaros the enormous forgotten treasury of poetry, music and musical craft that their forebears left for us. Time will tell what its eventual impact will be, whether it will be preserved, or once again, left to fade and languish.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Quantum guitarmaking

Tim White has been my close friend and guitar acoustics mentor for many, many years. He has a deep, deep understanding of what he terms "the secret life of the guitar." So much so, that we've embarked on a project to make his take on guitar acoustics accessible to a wide audience. Here's an example of some of Tim's musings about the guitar's "secret life.":

I would see a journey into the guitar starting with some of the basic physical attributes of sound and psycho-acoustics by everyday example, then off on a hike to the frequency mountain tops.  First we wander into the valley of the lowest frequency range, below what we can hear - "infra-sound" used blue whales and elephants for long-distance communications, hardly more than the winds really.  Then walk further up the valley of low audible frequencies where we begin to encounter the directionless sounds of the low-end of the guitar and the human (male) voice range.  Coincidence?  How we are almost deaf to these low frequencies. How they encode body mass information.  How the rum-jug "air" resonance works.  Then the path begins to slope up a bit.

About an octave above the low range of the guitar, just about where the typical female voice begins, complexity creeps in.  The guitar's face and back flutter across their entire surfaces, in a phase relationship which manages to squeeze the enclosed air in each cycle.  The wavelength here is still pretty big - roughly 5 feet, so must be created by a point source mechanism.  The beam resonances haven't kicked in quite yet.  The slope gets a little steeper, and we find ourselves in the foothills of the mid-frequency range.

The third octave of the guitar spectrum starts getting really interesting and complex.  The beam resonances of the guitar appear.  The face is seen to rock fore and aft, and side to side. The asymmetry of X-bracing becomes apparent as the nodal line of the face rocking rotates from the longitudinal orientation common to symmetric bracing patterns, the rotation putting the sound hole in the anti-node in the former to produce the highest point source sound, while remaining on the nodal line in the latter, and remaining silent.  We have to work now.  

The path upward begins to branch into numerous clefts in the frequency mountainscape.  Every guitar follows a different path.  As we go up the next two octaves higher, the wavelength halves, then halves again to a fraction of a guitar's size. We have climbed out of the relative simplicity of the point source world, and no level of human ingenuity can master this landscape.  The complexity begins to overwhelm our rational senses, and a kind of darkness begins to descend - our analytical mental eye is blinded by the complexity, and we must develop our other senses and ways of understanding to continue the path upward.  Eventually we will have to let go and simply dream the rest of our way to the summit, but not yet.  

Now we pass into the 6th octave of the guitar's spectrum, and a remarkable transformation takes place. Where we found ourselves in darkness, the world suddenly becomes illuminated with ideas and knowledge -   We have reached the range of human voice formants where we convey meaning and words from one mind to another. To see the voice formants illuminated in their own light, we need only whisper, where the low-frequency information is gone, and men sound the same as women.   Our mind is so finely tuned to extract voice meaning from sounds in this frequency range that we can not hear the separate frequencies making up the formants, where at any given moment during speech the three resonant chambers of the human voice tract, by changing their size and wall stiffness, form what is essentially a continuously morphing musical chord.  Rational thoughts are conveyed, ideas, knowledge, and memories are passed around and stored. Stories are told.  To hear the world without voice formants, simply try humming and try to speak while you are humming. By whispering you heard the voice formants alone, while by humming you reverse the filter, and find your vocabulary suddenly limited to growls and body language, a very primitive stage in our evolution as humans.  We have reached a vast frequency plateau where in fact we spend the bulk of our mental time and effort.  Our physical behavior is substantially guided in response to the meaning in the speech we are exposed to.  This is the glue of humanity.

The 7th octave leaves voice formants behind, and strangely re-enters the world of subliminal perception.  We do not hear voices here, but rather deeper meaning such as pain, fear, anger and joy.  This frequency range, with a wavelength of an inch or two, requires a lot of energy to produce.  In the human voice it is created by the inner faces of the vocal chords being pressed very tightly together, fluttering along their length in shorter and shorter wavelengths in a manner that only applying great air pressure from the lungs can create.  Combine a short blast of this with your mouth open like a megaphone, and we call it a shout. Press harder, add yet higher frequencies, and we hear an angry shout.  Here we can hear when a crying child is not just whining, which only uses the voice formant frequencies, but is really sick or in pain.  

At the beginning of the journey we learned that low sounds travel the furthest.  As we approach the highest frequency range, the distance we can hear these frequencies is greatly reduced.  At normal levels, they convey intimacy by requiring close proximity to be heard - literally pillow talk.

When we buy guitar wood, we focus our attention on the soundboard, which is the planar source of all of the higher frequencies.  The less internal vibrational damping a piece of wood has, the better it will be able to convey tones of the 7th octave, where love, hate, ecstasy and pain leave their mark on the sounds we make.  Such wood, with new strings and percussive playing creating the full suite of low and high frequencies, allows the highest emotional content to be conveyed to the listeners.  

Here we finally stand on the tonal summit of our frequency journey, and with luck and an open heart we imagine shapes in the starscape now visible to our souls.  We do not see this, or even hear it.  We feel these forms shifting and changing as we feel the universe expanding away in all directions.

Yes, playing guitar is good for you!