By Dan Visconti
Just prior to the holiday break I headed to the Library of Congress for the annual "Stradivarius concert", in which several specimens of the Whittall Stradivari collection are taken from their climate-controlled cases and for a short time again permitted to sing out like all stringed instruments should. Though part of a permanent exhibit, the Stradivari instruments still benefit from occasional playing, so giving a young string ensemble a chance to do the honors in public strikes me as one of the best things that could be done with instruments normally sealed away in mute repose.
The ensemble in question—Sybarite5, a string quintet based in New York that specializes in non-classical genres and unconventional playing techniques—gave a program heavily infused with the presence of electronic sound production and processing, even as they performed on instruments whose construction predates the human discovery of electricity by a couple hundred years. The ensemble performed one of my own pieces (one that conjures up the unique sound of an electric guitarist's Wah pedal), and this was followed by arrangements of Led Zeppelin and Radiohead songs. As you might imagine, this program definitely introduced the Strads to some new playing techniques; in Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box, for example, the performers drummed on their instruments' open strings with metal spoons to produce a sound that Stradivari might not have imagined but that helped forge a necessary connection between these relics of European classical history and the timbral possibilities of the present day. What a rare treat, to hear the sounds of amplified guitars and electronic glitches reimagined on some of our oldest surviving masterpieces of music technology!
Listening to these selections (as well as my own music) performed on some Strads would have been a novel and satisfying experience in itself, but for me the real interest came from hearing how these revered instruments would react to some of the extended techniques derived from rock and bluegrass playing, many of which are decisively crunchy or percussive in nature. According to the ensemble, the Strads don't immediately reveal their greatness when played like any other instrument; it is only when the performer ceases to play "normally" and lets up a bit that the Strads begin to shine—simple gestures and shadings become amplified, so that the performer must carefully underplay in order to draw out the Strad's signature rich tone.
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.