In the 18th century a few Italian violinmakers crafted instruments so striking in tone that the surviving ones are highly prized—and today worth millions. Modern luthiers still quest for whatever alchemy would recreate that magic from the same basic assembly of wood and strings. Now they are trying what a physician might in order to grasp what can't be observed through ordinary means.
Outliers: Plumbing musical enigmas with modern technology
Last month researchers convened at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago to send four violins through a 64-slice CT scanner. They included a 1741 masterpiece by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu called Vieuxtemps, valued at $18 million, and one known as Cathedral made in 1707 by Antoni Stradivari.
Violinmaker Terry Borman, whose shop is in Fayetteville, Ark., is among lovers of the instrument who are applying hard science to their art. It's a process he says his musician clients don't care to know much about it, but say, “Whatever you're doing, keep doing it.”
Several years ago while perusing the journal Investigative Radiology, Borman stumbled upon the work of Dutch researcher Berend Stoel, who specializes in emphysema and published an article dealing with the conversion of visual data to quantitative data to measure density. The two collaborated on a study comparing the wood densities of 18th century and modern violins. Previously, Borman says, the standard method for quantifying the wood density would be to remove the top plate, wrap it in a bag, and dunk it in a bucket of water to measure the displacement.
At the invitation of Chicago violin dealer Bein & Fushi, the pair now are collaborating with violinmaker and researcher Joseph Curtin of Ann Arbor, Mich., and a team of scientists to combine their density mapping with cutting-edge measurement of the acoustical and dynamic properties of the instruments.
The result, Borman says, could be a mathematical equation that reveals how the characteristics relate to one another to produce that elusive sound. If you're in Chicago and would like to hear it, Ilya Kaler will play the violins in recital April 7 at the Fine Arts Building.
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