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What is it about classical music and the fear of technological progress?

By John Terauds on October 26, 2012

An old double bass is painstakingly repaired instead of replaced.

A convergence of two events brought home for me the ambivalence with which the classical music world approaches technological progress.

I had lunch with remarkable young Montenegran Milos Karadaglic, the new rock star of classical guitarists. He uses a modern Australian-made guitar (by Greg Smallman) that looks traditional on the outside but is made with a different sort of structure that includes carbon-fibre reinforcements to allow for a thinner, more flexible soundboard.

The result is a much deeper, broader dynamic range that helps Milos’s music project better in a large concert hall.

I’ve also been listening to a reissued album by Michele Campanella playing music of Franz Liszt on Richard Wagner’s 1876 Steinway grand piano, located at Villa Wahnfried, in Bayreuth.

Richard Wagner’s 1876 Steinway piano (Malcolm Miller photo).

This instrument was made a decade before Steinway came out with the concert grand piano design that still graces the majority of the world’s concert venues.

Wagner’s piano has been rebuilt, restrung and massaged to within an inch of its richly carved case, and has survived countless psychological as well as physical dramas within the walls of its home (including Allied bombs hitting the house near the end of World War II).

An American soldier at Wahnfried in 1945.

For most of us, the story informs and affects our response to an instrument like this one. But the fact is, it sounds dry and even slightly out of tune when compared to the clear, bright and broad dynamics that a good modern concert grand is capable of projecting.

The piano sound Wagner and Liszt and Brahms heard in their heads while writing music and in concert afterwards was much more constrained than what we hear today. Interpreters know this, but have no qualms about making the most of the music on a more modern instrument.

At the same time, though, progress on the design of pianos stopped a century ago. The basic setup of brass and woodwind instruments also changed very little during the 20th century.

The most coveted violins, violas and cellos were made 300 years ago.

This despite the fact that we have technology that allows a doctor to slip a camera into a patient’s aorta and can project 3-D images practically right on to our retinas.

Computer-aided design could help researchers optimize the thickness, curve and density of soundboard wood in ways that would have knocked Antonio Stradivari or Theodore Steinway out cold.

One can get piano actions made of composite materials, but the basic system of levers and pivots and felt-tipped hammers remains rooted in the 19th century. Is there really no more efficient way to translate a finger’s touch into a hammer’s blow?

We can make plastics in any softness and density, yet pianists and piano makers still insist on hammers made of compressed felt, which wears away and changes density and, in some cases, gets eaten by moths.

Yes, there are tinkerers and perfectionists — Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepeñas is a notable case in point, contributing to design improvements to his instrument — but the real innovators have been so focused on electroacoustic and digital sound for the last three generations that traditional instruments have been left behind.

Is it because these instruments, just like so much of the music we listen to, is actually a safe haven from the technological change that keeps upending the way we live and communicate?

I worry that, in hallowing tradition, we might be depriving ourselves of the sort of ear-opening wonder that audiences experience now when hearing Milos and his cutting-edge guitar, or when hearing the music of Liszt played on a modern piano.

After all, we live in a much noisier world than when the classical canon was written.

In this little video, the great John Williams meets with Greg Smallman. Funnily enough, Williams tells us that violins and cellos are perfect, but the guitar still needs improvement:

http://youtu.be/e-RTN-WhNRE

What do you think?

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Here is Campanella playing Liszt’s Sancta Dorotea on the composer’s 1859 Bechstein grand, followed by R.Wagner -Venezia on the Wahnfried Steinway, followed by Alvaro Ordoñez performing Venezia on a modern Hamburg-made Steinway in Bogotá:

John Terauds

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