Cremona Violins: A Physicist’s Quest for the Secrets of Stradivari ,
Judging a piano’s sound is straightforward, even if the instrument is being “played” by a cat walking along the keyboard. But doing the same for a violin requires more than a cat. You must find a very good violinist who can play a poor violin and still bring tears to your eyes; paradoxically, a very good violinist makes it difficult for the listener to judge the violin itself. The violinist knows the instrument is poor because it takes a lot of mental energy to get a good sound, which is why a professional musician strives to obtain the highest-quality violin, one that helps, rather than hinders, the production of the desired tone.
The famed luthier Antonio Stradivari and the other violin makers of his hometown of Cremona, Italy, turned out a remarkable number of outstanding violins from roughly 1500 to 1750. Can modern luthiers produce instruments that match or exceed the quality of the ones made by the Old Italians? That question is debatable, partly because of the aforementioned paradox, and partly because Cremona violins draw the interest of collectors who are willing to spend millions of dollars for them—the monetary value of those heirlooms likely boosts their perceived musical quality.
For Kameshwar Wali, however, the answer is certain. In Cremona Violins: A Physicist’s Quest for the Secrets of Stradivari, he attempts to argue Stradivari’s superiority, but the evidence he brings is anecdotal, lacking in physics, and formulated in undefined terminology: “The general consensus is that [modern violins] do not come close to reproducing the distinct voices, carrying power and responsiveness of the instruments of the old masters” (p. x, italics mine). What Wali does deliver on is an introduction to the work of William F. “Jack” Fry, the physicist in the book’s title.
Fry spent most of his career as a high-energy particle physicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. However, half a century or so ago he became interested in what makes a good violin good. The theories and models he developed are quite elaborate, but as far as I know, he never published anything on the subject in a refereed scientific journal, nor has his work awakened much interest among professional violin makers. In fact, I think many people find it difficult to reconcile Fry’s ideas on violin acoustics with his respectable career as a physicist at a major university.
However, talking coherent physics is not a prerequisite for being a good violin maker, since the proof of a violin is in the playing. Fry knows that, and so he sought out violinist Rosemary Harbison; a session with her is one of the items on a DVD that accompanies Cremona Violins. Fry and Harbison start out by testing a mediocre violin: Harbison plays a few passages and tries to describe what is wrong with the instrument. Fry interprets according to his model and, using a tool that he developed, proceeds to remove microscopic amounts of wood from inside the top plate. Harbison plays again, noting improvement and commenting on what remains to be modified. The cycle repeats until finally she says, “You’re done! It’s now an excellent violin.”
Impressive as that demonstration may be to a novice, my own observation is that during the entire session little changed, except Harbison’s playing. For example, she complains at first of the scratchiness of the sound; the next time around she places her bow farther from the bridge and lightens her initial bow pressure. So what may seem like a proof of Fry’s ideas looks to me more like an exercise in mutual hypnosis.
The session does offer lessons about the very essence of science: A scientist need not be the supplier of the data (in this case, it is the violinist; in others, an inanimate device) but rather the evaluator and interpreter of that data. In judging a report like Harbison’s, a competent referee might look for evidence that she was not acquainted with other violinists’ opinions of the instrument, but had been informed that others were, or would be, consulted, and that she was not exposed to the presence (let alone the conversation) of any person who may have worked on that violin. Without such precautions, I would not accept her testimony as scientific data.
Cremona Violins is poorly written and edited. Apart from the first two chapters, which are journalistic and historical in nature, the book is all about Fry, whom the author accepts totally at face value. As such, it forms an interesting documentation of one of science’s notable aberrations.