Music and Technology

Violin Envy

Last week, I stood just inches away from a Stradivarius and a Guarneri del Gesu. Liane actually touched the Strad. There I was, holding a microphone over the piano top they were resting on, my hands quivering a bit in fear that I'd drop the mic on one of these precious instruments. Click on the video and you'll see which violin is which.

(By the way, that's Fan-Chia Tao, director of the Acoustics Workshop standing next to Sam. He very kindly spoke to us for our piece, but unfortunately we didn't have the airtime to include him in the final piece. He also helped out reporter Sadie Babits as she collected audio for a sound postcard from the Violin Society of America convention in Portland, Oregon.)

In fact, when people become star-struck like this over antique instruments, it's just the kind of attitude that contributes to what violinmaker Sam Zygmuntowicz calls the "Strad ceiling." There are violinmakers today who can make instruments that can nearly match the fine tone of a Strad or Guarneri, but to a certain extent the mythology surrounding instruments built by 18th-century masters discourages high-powered performers from buying new violins.

Violinmaker Sam Zygmuntowicz doesn't have a CT scanner in his studio (he says that radiologists with time on their hands offered to put the violins through their machine), but with the help of Dr. George Bissinger at the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop, he uses some high-tech analysis of old instruments to help him in the design of new ones. So, maybe, with the help of this kind of technology and fine craftsmanship, the "Strad ceiling" will one day be broken.

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