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New tunings for stringed instruments -

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Andrew Filmer: Recently I’ve been asking myself, “Why am I doing a PhD?” And while I thoroughly enjoy the process of discovering new things, what I find particularly interesting is finding out all the things I have been taking for granted.

In music, nothing fits that description better than the tuning of stringed instruments. Violins and violas and cellos have standard tunings and unlike guitarists, we players of bowed stringed instruments rarely challenge ourselves to try something different.

It wasn’t always this way. Three centuries ago we had an innovative composer named Heinrich Biber who thought that if you could find the perfect, most harmonious tuning of a violin, you could compose music that would inspire spirituality in one’s listeners. He even tried to do this visually in crossing the violin strings in a metaphor of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Music: Ressurection Sonata by Heinrich Biber

Two centuries later composer Camille Saint-Saens tried something completely different: he put together a dissonant, clashing tuning in order to conjure up the image of a devil fiddler who comes in the middle of the night and steals your children.

Music: Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens

I take this lost art, and bring it into the 21st century. I experiment with tunings, take it into a lab, record samples, and consult a specialist in acoustics to find out what’s happening at different frequencies, and how new sound colours are produced. I’ve interviewed one of the world’s foremost innovators of instrument design David Rivinus, to find out more about how air moves inside an instrument. The adventure is to see how the knowledge gained from the science of sound can help provide sparks of creativity in the arts.

Once successful new tunings are discovered, I analyse recordings and historical documentation, including the manuscripts of Bach and Mozart. Not only articles, but new scholarly editions of music are produced, and then brought to the stage in performances. I have taken these new performances to the United Kingdom, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand. I am also working with New Zealand composer Karlo Margetić in order to produce a new tuning in his upcoming work.

Why is this research important? In one word: creativity. For composers, it provides extended avenues of creativity in discovering new sound effects in new works. And it details new ways in which performers and composers can collaborate. For performers, who dedicate years to playing one instrument, it’s about giving them new knowledge about how that instrument works, and what new options may be available right at their fingertips. Finally, for the listener, it’s about providing new colours of sound on the concert stage.

One of the highlights of my research has been on a work of Johann Sebastian Bach. Around three hundred years ago, he composed the Brandenburg Concertos - the music is timeless, but unfortunately the same can’t exactly be said for the instruments he used. A major complication over the greater part of a century has been how to substitute for instruments that are no longer in commonly available.

This has been a problem in Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto, where there are fewer players than we would like, of the ancient viola da gamba. I calibrated the tuning of a common instrument, using scientific knowledge of resonant frequencies. It has helped adequately fill the role of a historical instrument, providing a practical solution in preserving Bach’s musical ideas. And in a classic example of selling coals to Newcastle, I took my retuned viola to last year’s International Viola Congress in Bach’s native Germany. Here is a sample from the new edition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.

Music: Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

The significance of the research on a personal level is simple. If in the future I am ever stuck for a research idea, I can take the same approach as I am taking with my tuning project and that is to question something we all take for granted. Thank you.