After a rousing season of the Proms on the BBC the value of high quality instrument makers becomes apparent. This is particular so of the wood section. As a natural material the quality of the sound is attributable not just to the quality of the manufacturer but also the conditions that the wood grew under and the way it is treated.
High quality instruments such as a Stradivarius violin can cost millions of pounds and musicians who are have the privilege of playing these instruments rarely own them but have them on loan from rich benefactors. The opportunities for the majority of musicians to play such instruments are limited especially for the young.
The successful implementation of biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could in the future give young musicians the opportunity to play on a violin with the sound quality of an expensive – and for most musicians unaffordable – Stradivarius.
The Stradivarius have such a unique sound because of the climatic condition under which the wood grew. Antonio Stradivari made violins during the late 1600′s and early 1700′s. He produced the quality sounds by using a wood that grew during the cold period of 1645 and 1715 – a particularly cold period during the so-called Little Ice Age.
During this cold period the wood grew slowly and evenly. It produce a dense wood with a high modal of elasticity. These properties are what produces the rich tonal qualities found in the violins made by Stradivari. With only about 500 of his violins still remaining they are becoming more valuable and less likely to come into the hands of a musician.
Now though a Swiss research team led by Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze (Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, St. Gallen, Switzerland) has been able to reproduce the tonal qualities of these unique violins by using a fungus treatment to replicate the structure of the wood. Soon modern violins could have the same sound qualities as old masters without the cost.
He discovered two species of fungi (Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes), which decay Norway spruce and sycamore – the two important kinds of wood used for violin making – to such an extent that their tonal quality is improved.
“Normally fungi reduce the density of the wood, but at the same time they unfortunately reduce the speed with which the sound waves travel through the wood,” the researcher explained. “The unique feature of these fungi is that they gradually degrade the cell walls, thus inducing a thinning of the walls. But even in the late stages of the wood decomposition, a stiff scaffold structure remains via which the sound waves can still travel directly.”
Even the modulus of elasticity is not compromised; the wood remains just as resistant to strain as before the fungal treatment – an important criterion for violin making. Before the wood is further processed to a violin, it is treated with ethylene oxide gas. “No fungus can survive that,” Professor Schwarze said. That ensures that fungal growth in the wood of the violin is completely stopped.
The new process has already been tested and with promising results. Working with violin makers Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimers some violins were made of the mycowood. The instruments were then played behind a screen together with an original Stradivarius from 1711. A jury of music lovers and experts were asked to judge the quality of the sounds produced by the violins.
Both the jury of experts and the majority of the audience thought that the mycowood violin that Schwarze had treated with fungi for nine months was the actual Strad. “Of course, such a test is always subjective,” Professor Schwarze said. “There is no clear-cut, scientific method for measuring tonal quality.”
Funding for the research is to last until 2014 and the next stage is to develop a successful, reliable and reproducible production methods. There are plans to make an additional 30 mycowood violins before the project comes to a close.
Schwarze explained what opportunities this project can lead to: “The successful implementation of biotechnological methods for treating soundboard wood could in the future give young musicians the opportunity to play on a violin with the sound quality of an expensive – and for most musicians unaffordable – Stradivarius.”