Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Right Tool for the Right Job

I don't quite understand why an ensemble that specializes in using techniques associated with non-acoustic playing would even be interested in using the Stradivarius instruments in the Whittall Collection. I think that Dan Visconti misses the mark when he makes a stab at making an analogy to new computer technology:
Just as when trying out a new MIDI keyboard controller or trackball, there's a period of learning and eventual calibration when confronting any new technology—by which I mean, technology that is new to us. Whether that technology is a rare one-off made of wood and varnish or one of Steve Jobs' mass-produced microchip wonders, the essential challenge is unchanged. Perhaps if we had more chances to see the technological wonders of yesteryear strut their stuff, we might come to develop a renewed awareness of our own role among the multitude of devices and innovations that we enjoy but rarely pause to appreciate.
Stradivarius was not creating a new technology. He and his other great contemporary makers made instruments that had the properties of the ideal human voice. Each stringed instrument is unique, in the way that each voice is unique. Stradivarius' goal was to continue (and perfect) a great local tradition of craftsmanship, and each of his instruments is perfect and unique in its own way. A great tool can only be great in the hands of a person who understands how to use it, and playing a Stradivarius through electronic equipment might not really be any better than playing a $1,000 student instrument through electronic equipment.

I remember years ago I was playing flute duets with Robert Dick, the Dean of extended flute techniques. When he tried my flute (a typical ritual), he played a few whistle tones and a couple of multiphonics on it, and then he handed it back to me saying, "Nice flute."

It wasn't a particularly nice instrument, by the way. They make 'em much better now.

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