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The Craftsman (an aside)

September 23, 2009

Off on vacation tomorrow for a few days, away from computers, maybe even away from my phone – won’t know till I get there if I’ll even have a signal.  Really, really looking forward to getting away from the static of life and pushing the reset button.

Wanted to post a note on this article about a “new” Stradivarius violin, created after the wood was treated with a fungus prevalent in European wood during the “Little Ice Age,” the time in which Stradivarius created his pieces. 

September 1st 2009 was a day of reckoning for Empa scientist Francis Schwarze and the Swiss violin maker Michael Rhonheimer. The violin they had created using wood treated with a specially selected fungus was to take part in a blind test against an instrument made in 1711 by the master violin maker of Cremona himself, Antonio Stradivarius. In the test, the British star violinist Matthew Trusler played five different instruments behind a curtain, so that the audience did not know which was being played. One of the violins Trusler played was his own strad, worth two million dollars. The other four were all made by Rhonheimer – two with fungally-treated wood, the other two with untreated wood. A jury of experts, together with the conference participants, judged the tone quality of the violins. Of the more than 180 attendees, an overwhelming number – 90 persons – felt the tone of the fungally treated violin "Opus 58" to be the best. Trusler’s stradivarius reached second place with 39 votes, but amazingly enough 113 members of the audience thought that "Opus 58" was actually the strad! "Opus 58" is made from wood which had been treated with fungus for the longest time, nine months…

Violins made by the Italian master Antonio Giacomo Stradivarius are regarded as being of unparalleled quality even today, with enthusiasts being prepared to pay millions for a single example. Stradivarius himself knew nothing of fungi which attack wood, but he received inadvertent help from the “Little Ice Age” which occurred from 1645 to 1715. During this period Central Europe suffered long winters and cool summers which caused trees to grow slowly and uniformly – ideal conditions in fact for producing wood with excellent acoustic qualities.

I think it’s interesting because it raises questions about the nature of genius.  There is absolutely no doubt that craft is critical – preparation, care in the work, expertise – and yet in some cases, there’s a “Newton’s Apple” quality at work, an element of unpredictability and luck, “being at the right place at the right time” when the Monolith mystically appears to touch your brain and kick-start a creative revolution.  In Sennett’s book, the tragedy is that Stradivarius’s sons and successors were unable to duplicate his method – but it’s possible that his method had help from nature that only now can be artificially induced.  Maybe many geniuses were “just” excellent craftsmen who got lucky.

Then again, it could be that the mystery is still intact:  It’s interesting to follow the links on the article’s sidebar, going back a few years, as scientists state definitively that they’re “solved” the Stradivarius riddle, confidently stating that an “advanced mathematical optimization method” that duplicates the exact shape and size of each piece will do the job, or that wood density is the secret, or that the chemicals used on the instrument merely need to be analyzed and duplicated.  Now it’s all just about introducing a fungus into the wood…

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