time to change the way we view music and the arts

Does This CAT Scan Make Me Look Vintage? (and sound like it too?)

For as long as there has ever been a popular item to give away or sell to the masses, there have been honest competitors and shameless imitators cranking out knock-off items faster than the authorities can arrest them. Items high in value and trend simultaneously often suffer this fate.

Anyone remember Beanie Babies?
What about that surge of Coach bags a few years back?

Thing about these kinds of products is that while consumers would most likely prefer the authentic brand name item, for all intents and purposes, unless you’re about the authenticity and nothing else, a very well crafted fake can still serve its intended purpose. In the cases above, a child can still play with a bear whose tag doesn’t have exact company measurements and a woman can still carry things around in her bag and look sharply coordinated without much notice given to the slightly off center zipper line. That’s why people could often settle with imitations. Of course, as I just said, if you’re about the authenticity, whether for bragging rights or for collectors purposes, then passing off isn’t what you’re looking for and it won’t suffice I’m sure.

What if brand name authenticity and intended purpose went hand in hand? What if you couldn’t have one without the other? Such example could well be served through classic instruments –violins in particular, when they have been sitting for hundreds of years and developing a unique sound all their own only attainable through the passage of time combining with master craftsmanship. Stradivarius violins are a topic not new to this blog, as they’ve come up before as part of a rather shocking story involving nudity and diamonds (no, this isn’t a joke.)

That aside, now that I’ve said one can’t exist without the other, what if I demolished that and then said you could put “time in a bottle” so to speak, and have the unique sound without the brand name? If you were a dedicated violin player, would you want a quality matching substitute?

BBC Technology news has reported on the apparent recreation of an Antonio Stradivari violin borrowed from the U.S. Library of Congress that underwent a significant number of CAT scans to analyze the instrument down to the very “shifts in the wood.” Cit. [1] and these unique characteristics were then included in the construction of a whole ‘new’ violin, made to look and sound like its 300+ year old counterpart.

While this very futuristic process sounds amazing by itself, the question that intrigues me isn’t whether these copies will hit shelves anytime soon but how the possibility of that happening could affect the perception of quality and historical ‘value,’ going forward. The practical reasoning and main benefit outlined in this endeavor is that an instrument of superior sound quality could be made more financially available to “every string player graduating from any great conservatory,” as grouped together by Juilliard School Dean, Ara Guzelimian. Guzelimian emphasizes the dilemma graduating performers face of “obtain[ing] a violin that is at the level that you need to have a really first rate career.” Any aspiring student who has ever gotten excited over their first trip to the music shop for a semi-professional instrument upgrade can understand where Guzeliman is coming from with her point. Having an expensive instrument isn’t just about flashing a high price tag. Names are certainly involved with instrument construction, but not as the point of sale itself. The skill behind the name is what matters, as this doesn’t always and forever ring true for other brand filled industries. Stradivari couldn’t just tell a room full of strong skilled luthiers to do the best they could to copy him and slap his name on the end product. These works were noted as being crafted by apprentices because that’s how unique crafting was/is to a luthier. It’s like handwriting. Can be copied well, but it doesn’t make you the actual person.

In today’s market, these finely aged, well preserved pieces are treasured by collectors for their history and by players for their sound and prestige. For the latter, it can be somewhat amusing to see how a slight change in explanation can make a very cyclical argument of which perpetuates which. The sound of a Strad is what makes their name prestigious, but the prestigious level of the person’s skill is what makes the sound….hmm.

To walk into a room and say this is what you play, means you hold a thing of timeless quality that only serves to enhance a player’s performance skill. The value comes from both the sheer age and violin’s sound potential. What will become of that idea if quality can come from a machine’s calculations? Having a map that can essentially ghost a person as Stradivari in construction would change the whole relative rarity of his work. The utopian idea that more great players should have access to these things of professional beauty is gallant but is it sensible? Not all performers turn out equally, so not all would be able to use a Stradivari or other master crafted violin to its full potential. Then again, perhaps this line of thinking is only the result of per-disposed conditions brought on by known music history and legacy. I know I would want a Strad and it makes me excited like a kid in a candy store because it’s a Strad, but it’s not the name but what the name represents that makes it an ideal. So if that ideal can come but without the name, why shouldn’t conservatory greats be entitled to see where they can take the sound? Aside from physically cheating the hands of time, such a change might just be another shift away from an accessory of elitist thinking that a six-figure instrument inherently carries. Right now, Expensive=good quality, which goes to the top players. If those with less money but just as much talent hit the classical circuit with an instrument that could handle their skill, the places where we look for ‘the best’ could expand to places we never thought before now.

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