Divine Musical Design

On a recent tour of the Royal Academy of Music Museum, the violin was described by Peter Sheppard Skaerved as “the epitome of understatement in working with wood.” A lapsed violinist, I’d never really contemplated the design of my instrument – just its sound. Suddenly, thanks to Peter, the skillfully turned scroll, even the tuning pegs, became worthy of my admiration…

The violin is an object of noble beauty: Anthropomorphic in shape, its various features are named after parts of the body – the neck, the belly, the shoulders… All violins are exquisitely decorated with purfling and marquetry. And even the oldest and most worn of bows are embellished with tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, gold, or protective whale bone.

Another thing I discovered is that stringed instrument makers are called Luthiers. The Luthiers at the Royal Academy of Music are responsible for maintaining the college’s collection and acquiring additional instruments. And what a collection it is. There’s an early example of a ‘grand Amati’, a model adopted as the ideal by later generations of violin makers. The most famous violin maker of all, Antonio Stradivari, who may have worked for Amati, developed new designs. Stradivari was most famous for his ‘golden period’, when the craftsman was in his seventies and at the height of his powers. There are several examples of Stradivarius violins at the museum, including some with the famous golden varnish – the Viotti ex-Bruce violin (1709) and the Maurin violin (1718).

The allure of the seductively shaped mandolin is even greater than that of the violin. I was totally charmed when I purchased one recently at auction.  The strings are tuned to the same notes as the violin, so it’s relatively easy for a violinist to master this instrument.

Curiously, the painful sounding first attempts at playing my much cherished acquisition, made in Napoli in 1890, reminded me of Paganini – who brought aspects of guitar playing to the violin. He apparently kept one nail on the fourth finger of his left hand long, so he could use it to slice through the strings. He broke three, and completed his concerts on just one string.

Another instrument I rather fancy trying out is the air piano.

Since the late 1960s, most experimental musical instruments have incorporated electric or electronic components. However, few classical musicians believe that electronic instruments will ever replace acoustic ones. In 1997, Patrick Ozzard-Low’s Alternative Tuning Projects undertook a pilot feasibility study funded by the Arts Council to establish a Centre in the UK for new acoustic musical instruments. When this project came to and end, Ozzard-Low decided to concentrate on his career as a composer – though in a 2008 book, New Instruments for New Music, he considers an innovative selection of hybrid acoustic-electronic instruments. These include the Virtuoso Violin (1998) – perfomed from a MIDI keyboard or sequencer to produce an acoustic sound without strings, which can be purchased for a highly charged $21,995; guitars with interchangeable fretwork by the likes of Didier Aschour (also in the 1990s) – and the horseshoe shaped Unicorn NanoPiano, (due out in 2013).

Although technology has changed design dramatically since the 1960s, the manufacture of traditional acoustic instruments still goes on in specialist workshops the world over. And there are also dabblers, like Stan Hershonik (below), who enjoy producing cutting edge musical instruments in their spare time, including some that even play themselves. “It’s such a cool hobby,” he says. Just take a look at his designs: pure joy.

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About Author Profile: Susan Muncey

Trend consultant Susan Muncey, is Editor of Visuology Magazine. In 2008, she founded online curiosity shop, ShopCurious.com. She writes on style and trends for several blogs, including Visuology.com, ShopCuriousMag.com and The Dabbler. She previously owned cult West London boutique, Fashion Gallery, one of the first concept stores in the world. Susan graduated in geography from Cambridge University and is also an Associate Member of the CFA Institute. She lives in London with her husband.

11 thoughts on “Divine Musical Design

  1. philipwilk@googlemail.com'
    May 7, 2011 at 08:36

    Fascinating post. I’d not heard of the air piano (and would have guessed that it was a relative of the air guitar), so was interested to see that, like the theremin, it’s played without physical contact between player and instrument. (The theremin, for those who don’t know, is the very early (1920s) electronic instrument, invented by the Russian Leon Theremin, which makes the wailing-screaming noise used in the music used in horror films and, lord help us, Midsomer Murders.)

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 7, 2011 at 10:29

    Your description of the violin Susan reminds me very much of that episode of Frasier when Dr Crane’s agent, whilst attempting a cure, gives a rendition of the benefits of the cigarette that is highly charged eroticism of the finest order, more please although a line in the sand will be described if a recorder is the subject.
    Do we think that the wah- wah and fuzz-wah pedals would be good subjects for a bit of innuendo?

  3. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    May 7, 2011 at 10:37

    Talking about fiddlers avoid the Mail’s main headline though, it’s a classic.

  4. info@shopcurious.com'
    May 7, 2011 at 10:59

    Thanks for the info on the Theremin, Philip – I haven’t seen an air guitar for a good few years. Perhaps the Dabbler Summit will provide the occasion?

    And I purposefully avoided mentioning the ‘f’ holes, Malty… Great article. Shame there’s only one way for musicians to make money these days.

  5. Brit
    May 7, 2011 at 14:35

    Fascinating post, Susan.

    The sound made by that aeolian harp reminds me of the haunting music at the start of the film 28 Days Later, as the protagonist wanders around an empty London (made by a band with the excellent name ‘Godspeed! You Black Emperor’).

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      May 7, 2011 at 17:52

      Aeolian harp, good name for …A pub. A new string quartet rivalling The Kronos. Abramovich’s next boat. The next NATO operation (Syria). The new Greek currency, post Euro. The most likely however..The new Irish currency, post Euro.
      I took me harp to a party, nobody asked me to play.

  6. Brit
    May 7, 2011 at 14:38

    By the way, readers who enjoyed this post might be interested in an early Dabble: Three Unusual Organs.

  7. info@shopcurious.com'
    May 7, 2011 at 14:54

    Thanks for the link, Brit – I was trying to remember where I’d seen that sea organ before…

  8. mcrean@snowpetrel.net'
    May 7, 2011 at 16:43

    I’m with you on the mandolin, very tempting simply to take pleasure in fine craftsmanship whether or not one can play. Some lovely instruments in the local museum including ones by Stradivari and Amati. I don’t know what they put in the varnish but the glow from them is so deep and rich. I’ve tried capturing it with a camera but you can’t, I suspect: you just have to be right there. I didn’t know the term “Luthiers” but it’s a very pleasing one. Thanks for your post.

  9. biffraven-hill@talktalk.net'
    May 8, 2011 at 01:31

    If I ever have a house big enough to have a music room, I would like to have one wall decorated with instruments. It wouldn’t matter whether they could be played or not, they are just such beautiful things. I might also paper another wall with bits of sheet music. Perhaps someone would like to buy me a great big house so that I can carry this out?

  10. info@shopcurious.com'
    May 8, 2011 at 09:03

    Mark, I’m intrigued by the many references to your local museum – perhaps it deserves a post on the Dabbler?

    WH – I was thinking how much I’d like a library. Not sure I’d tear out the pages from books to paper the walls.. Love your blog by the way x

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