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Instrument Making
Technology, art and species protection

The Frankfurt Musikmesse is an important meeting point for instrument makers worldwide
The Frankfurt Musikmesse is an important meeting point for instrument makers worldwide | Photo: Petra Wenzel © Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH

Some bank on software, others on local woods. The current range of instrument making in Germany is great, but so too is the international competition.

By Andreas Kolb

What the piano was to the middle-class household of the nineteenth century, the laptop and mobile terminal are to the middle-class of today. They bring the latest sounds from opera houses, concert halls, jazz clubs, the big stadiums and clubs into our living rooms. If, however, you infer from this that the piano and other “hand-made musical instruments” have had their day, you would be quite off the mark.

Music making is trendy

According to a recent study of the South-Western Association for Research into Media Pedagogy, one in four young people between the ages of 12 and 19 makes music regularly, and on traditional instruments. This means that playing music ranks fourth amongst teenagers, after meeting with friends, engaging in sports and family outings as the most popular non-medial leisure activity, well ahead of attending sports events and parties. The total volume of the German music instruments and music equipment market has therefore been moving for years, with small fluctuations, in the range of almost 900 million euros turnover per annum. The largest share of sales within the category of musical instruments is still accounted for by guitar, bass & co., with sales of 145 million euros. In second place come keyboard instruments, followed by microphones, headphones and sound systems. Drums are only in fifth place, followed by wind and string instruments.

While in recent years there has been a slight decline in all these segments, with the exception of sound systems, the only noteworthy increase has been in computer software. In spite of Silicon Valley and innovation pressure from the Far East, Germany still has a lot to say as a home of music. Whether music by R&B icon Beyoncé, Depeche Mode or Hollywood soundtracks by Hans Zimmer, they all have something in common. They are all produced with the same instrument, made in Berlin: Ableton Live. This software is installed on millions of laptops all over the world; users apply it produce pop, rock, dubstep, neo-classical and everything else. Laptop orchestras and ensembles also perform app-controlled music live.
 

Digitalization of analogue instruments

The trend to digitalization has reached even “conventional” instruments. This doesn’t mean sound reinforcement in the narrower sense, for today concert grands, brass, woodwind and string instruments have already all been digitally extended. It is rather triggering the laptop with the instrument via microphone and pickup, and perhaps also bringing moving pictures into play, that creates the great meta-instruments of our day. Here old meets new, live playing meets equipment. There are successful examples of this galore; most recently, this year, Francesca Verunelli’s duet for flute and piano, Man Sitting at the Piano, premiered at the Donaueschingen Music Festival. The flautist Michael Schmid of the Ictus Ensemble acoustically activates the piano with his instrument and his tones trigger entire piano cascades, in the complete absence of another human performer.

The acoustic player piano is in vogue and undergoing a renaissance such as could not have been imagined since the swan song of the punched-tape pianola. The flagship model is without a doubt Steinway’s equipment and software Spirio, a high-resolution self-playing system with which world-class pianists can make guest appearances in your living room. A special software for measuring hammer speed and the pedal positions of the damping and shifting pedal are able to render interpretations by Jakob Karlzon, Olga Scheps, Yuja Wang and Lang Lang and other Steinway performers so authentically that you think they are actually playing themselves. Thanks to the re-performance technology called “Zenph”, a kind of musical “resurrection technology”, selected interpretations by great historical virtuosos such as Glenn Gould, Sergej Rachmaninov and Art Tatum can be listened to via the mechanical instrument. Needless to say, you can also stroke the keys of this super-instrument yourself.

New technologies, new materials

Yamaha‘s Transacoustic technology, which transforms the soundboard of a grand piano into a loudspeaker, also banks on a digitally extended instrument. German piano manufacturers can keep up with this innovation only to some extent. But what almost everyone has on offer is the silent piano, whose hammers no longer strike strings but rather sensors, so that you can make music long into the night. Nor does innovation stop at instruments whose development was thought to be at an end. Music Minus One with LP or CD is old news. With keyboards or digitally upgraded pianos, you can now be accompanied by an orchestra or your own recordings. There are also electronically controlled pedal technology for wheelchair users and carbon fibre soundboards for extreme climates on ships or in the desert.

Here keywords such as synthetic resins, carbon fibres and other, new materials come into play. In April 2017, for example, the French violinist and developer Laurent Bernadac demonstrated for the first time his 3D Varius violin at the Frankfurt Music Fair. Using 3D printing technology, Bernadac can print in a single day and for the price of a small car an e-carbon violin that meets professional demands. The material carbon, also called “pseudo metal”, is now used in brass instruments. And sounds surprisingly good.
 

Species protection and instrument making

Carbon technology, which comes from the car industry and long ago began its triumphal march through instrument making, has become significant because of quite a different issue: since April 2014, the American government has been strictly applying the Washington Convention of the Protection of CITES (1973) to musicians. Orchestras from all over Europe have already felt this new rigour on their American tours. Is your fingerboard made of Madagascar ebony, or your tuning peg of protected Rio rosewood? Is there anywhere an end button made of ivory? Or a violin bow with inlays of whalebone? In 2014 there were several sensational cases – one, for instance, when a guest performance of the Munich Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in New York could take place only thanks to the valiant intervention of the German embassy. At the border the orchestra had not been able to produce the clearance certificates required for each and every instrument or the travelling exhibition certificates demanded for collective transport of instruments in containers. The cellist of the Bavarian Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra, Zoé Karlikow, had to wait two years to get back the bow that was confiscated at the beginning of the orchestra’s American tour in 2014. Carbon bows can help here. This is not to say, however, that they are ecological; once discarded, they remain hazardous waste.

The full implementation of the CITES agreement causes not only travel problems but also problems in buying, selling and producing instruments. Woodwind instruments like the bassoon and oboe are made from grenadilla wood, a protected rosewood species, boxwood and ebony. Also sometimes exotic hardwood species like rosewood and Dalbergia retusa wood. Fingerboards of particularly high-quality guitars can even be made of Dalbergia nigra, a material covered by the highest protection level 1.

New ways

The CITES restrictions therefore will demand some re-thinking. Thus Lothar Clauder of the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, together with the Tübingen guitar maker Reinhardt, now manufactures instruments made of local woods, which can compete with the exotic products. They have also refined various heating and drying processes that have ensured the durability of façade and decking wood. The Burghaus guitar maker Frank Krocker has for his part done almost completely without the body of the instrument for two years. His Frame Works guitars are now played by top musicians all over the world.

Curiosity and innovation are in demand. Instrument making in Germany is undergoing structural change. Most German manufacturers have been able to hold their own with competition from low-wage countries. This is in part because they are qualitatively speaking still the best in the world, and in part because new production methods and supply of individual parts from abroad have mitigated price pressure.

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