‘A truce with the trees’: Rebecca Solnit on the wonders of a 300-year-old violin

for the last 50 years, David Harrington, San Francisco’s founder and artistic director Kronos Quartet, plays what he calls “pretty athletic music” on a 1721 violin. I’ve heard him play all kinds of compositions on it, from the galloping notes of Orange Blossom Special to the minimalism of Terry Riley and even the occasional bit of Bach. Created by Carlo Giuseppe Testore in Milan, the instrument has survived for three centuries, offers music to countless audiences and can be heard on more than 60 Kronos albums.

When I first heard how old the instrument was, I was filled with amazement that a delicate piece of craftsmanship could last for centuries, that something so small and light could do so much, that an 18th century instrument had so much to say on the 21st. It felt like a messenger from the past and an emblem of the possible, a relic and a promise.

This violin is from the past. Before turning the steam engine into a voracious, ubiquitous device, James Watt devours coal and wood, then oil, powers mills, looms, pumps, and then locomotive and steamboat engines. Before we started digging up the earth so frantically to feed those steam engines and then those combustion engines. Before we excavate so much of the carbon that plants had stored so beautifully deep in the earth eons ago. Before the human impact exploded into a destructive force with the power to change the acidity of the oceans and the contents of the atmosphere.

From left to right: David Harrington, Sunny Yang, John Sherba and Hank Dutt of Kronos Quartet.
From left to right: David Harrington, Sunny Yang, John Sherba and Hank Dutt of Kronos Quartet. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

The sheer thrift of an instrument that lasts so long told me that maybe you could have a beautiful culture with material modesty, that the world before all our extraction and burning of fossil fuels could be very elegant, and maybe the world that we need to respond to climate change can feel like one of abundance, not austerity.

But fossil fuels are poisonous, both literally and politically. Giving up on them at a time when renewables have become adequate substitutes for most of what they’ve done means giving up something that has contaminated our world and impoverished our confidence in the future. We tend to see abundance as material things, but perhaps our piles of loot overshadow less tangible things that matter too, such as continuity with the past, confidence in the future, and the cultural wealth that is not just a commodity.

Harrington’s violin is clearly a working instrument: a little battered, with a worn finish, many small dents and a visible crack. The materials themselves are a sort of global collection, all organic, none of the originals with mining, although metal tools would have been crucial to making it. A violin is usually made of spruce on the front, or belly, and maple on the back, sides, and neck. Traditionally, the fingerboard and tailpiece of a violin were made from ebony from South Asia or Africa, but because it is an endangered tree, instrument makers now usually use other woods (outside of China, where ebony is still widely used).

The glue holding the instrument together would be made from boiling animal skins, and the varnish could contain shellac made from a secretion of the lacquer insect in South Asia, or just pine sap and some kind of vegetable oil, often linseed oil from flax. . The strings were once made of sheep gut (not catgut, as popular as the term is), but today they are mostly metal and synthetic materials. Resin made from tree resin allows the bow sound on the strings — without it, Harrington notes, the instrument would be silent. When I was an unpromising child violinist, the clear amber lump of resin was one of my favorite things about the instrument.

Almost all bows are still strung with horsehair. Because mares tend to pee on their tails, the ideal material is the white hair from the tail of a stallion or gelding, usually from Siberia, Mongolia, Canada or Argentina. A few years ago, an archer told Harrington that the climate crisis made it more difficult to produce horsehair’s strong cold climates. For centuries, violin bows were preferably made from pernambuco wood from the Atlantic forests of Brazil, especially from the heartwood, the dense rings of orange-brown wood in the center of the tree. These trees are also endangered and are now avoided by many instrument makers. Bow makers and violin makers have joined conservationists to form the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative to protect and regenerate the species and the forests they grow in.

One arc could bring the Arctic and the tropics together, and if it was inlaid with ivory, abalone, or mother-of-pearl, as many are, it could also contain materials from the ocean or another continent. A violin with ebony, ivory and a pernambuco bow is a remnant of colonialism in which Europe enriched itself with materials from other continents, but it is also an artefact of completely renewable materials.

The Violin of David Harrington by Carlo Giuseppe.
The Violin of David Harrington by Carlo Giuseppe. Photo: Yoni Brook

Usually a fiddle trees. The spruce and maple used to make violins also face the effects of climate change. You can think of the spruce rings on the front of David’s violin as a series of fairly even growth lines – but capricious weather makes for erratic rings, and the spruces used for Italian violins grew in the Dolomites, and the climate there changes. In those mountains is a famous forest known as “the forest of violins” because so many instruments have been made from its wood for so long. As the climate continues to change, this place may no longer be the ideal source of wood for instruments, and increasingly erratic weather worldwide may also mean that consistent wood grain is becoming rarer.

Violin maker and scholar Nancy Benning says the woods used by Stradivari and his colleagues had a climate element: “Decades of colder temperatures in Italy, Switzerland and Germany have resulted in slower growth of the spruces. In particular, the woods are believed to used in Cremonese violins have superior tonal expressiveness and projection, thanks to the density (i.e., the tightness of the growth rings) of the cold-grown spruce.It is the vibrational efficiency of the wood and the effective production of sound that make this rare and highly prized family of violins distinct from others.” Norway spruces in Central Europe are now growing one-third to three-quarters faster than before, according to a report in Nature Climate Change.Anthropocene instruments may be coming with their own sounds, from trees whose voices have changed with the climate.My violin maker friend, Hans Johannson, is rooted in the great tradition, but looks to the future with interest rather than fear: “I’m not afraid that things will change and I don’t think that magic will go away,” he told me a few years ago. is based in Reykjavik and brews his own hide glue and varnishes and makes instruments with hand tools, just as Stradivari and Testore would have done.His instruments are played in orchestras and quartets all over the world, but he has also created experimental instruments and tested new materials .

While computers can help, the craft still relies on both the ear and the hand. Hans notes that “one of the reasons for the difficulty of mass-producing violins is the fact that the wood never has the same properties, even pieces of spruce or maple from the same tree. When the pieces of wood are held and struck with a fist, some pieces are found to vibrate loudly with a long ringing tone, while other pieces sound dull and the note dies quickly.” It is conceivable that the cellos and violins he made will be played as long as the Testore violin Harrington uses has been around; that in the year 2322 someone is playing a Johannson instrument.

Like all plants, all forests, the trees the Testore violin was made of had taken carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and trapped it in their woods and in the earth. The fossil fuel we burn now is an end product of carbon captured by plants centuries ago. The violin is a little carbon sink, a carbon reserve that didn’t go back up into the sky, but stayed here and sang.

I often think of what we do with our frenetic burning of fossil fuels as a kind of war against the trees. That’s how we’re putting the carbon back into the atmosphere that they’ve taken out and we’re continuing to take it out — forests around the world are said to capture about two-fifths of the carbon we put into the atmosphere every year. The other three members of Kronos also play instruments from other eras. John Sherba’s violin was made in New York in 1884, when atmospheric carbon was 293 parts per million, just 16 points higher than in 1721. It was made the year before Carl Benz made Germany’s first petroleum-based car. Sunny Yang’s cello was made in Italy in 1903, when its reading was 296.8 parts per million, the same year the first Model A Ford was sold and the Wright brothers launched the world’s first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. flew. Hank Dutt’s viola was made in Italy in 1913, three years after we crossed the 300 parts per million threshold, the year the Model T became the first truly mass-produced car.

These instruments come from a world in which petroleum-based plastics were just emerging, large tropical forests were largely intact and seasonal cycles had not been disrupted, but also from a world where Africa was largely ruled by European powers and many human rights were scarce. conceived, let alone realized anywhere on Earth. The past tells many stories and always one story, that change is constant, for the better, for the worse.

Not long ago, one night I went to the annual concert of the San Francisco Symphony with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir† The symphony musicians sat in a semicircle that started with violins and violas and ended with cellos and bass gambas, and thanks to the time I spent contemplating David Harrington’s violin, I saw it as a forest of wooden instruments. The gospel singers stood above them, and at one point when I saw dozens of arches moving in unison in the dark, 50 mouths open singing in the chant, it felt like some sort of truce had been struck between our species and the trees.

Perhaps that was the promise David’s violin seemed to hold when I discovered how long it had been playing. At my request, he brought it to my apartment and took it out of the suitcase. I was a little overwhelmed and ready to spread out a clean cloth to lay it on, but he laid it on my table without fuss and let me pick it up. It felt like a bird when I held it: almost weightless, incredibly powerful and extremely delicate. And then I saw Kronos perform one more time, and there it was, in the hands of David, making music as it had done for three centuries, strong enough to go on indefinitely.

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