Fiddling around with tradition Violins and violas made by a Winnipeg company's 3D printer to play beautiful music at Ottawa concert this fall
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/07/2018 (1648 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Brave worlds collide when the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence Harry Stafylakis premières his first concerto, Singularity, this fall. The work will open the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season at our nation’s capital’s Canadian Aviation and Space Museum on Nov. 4.
However the Montreal-born artist isn’t writing for the usual fiddles hewn from ancient Italian woods. Instead the musicians will be wielding hot-off-the-press instruments created at Winnipeg’s Industrial Technology Centre’s 3D printer located near the University of Manitoba.
Ottawa-based luthier Charline Dequincey, assisted by digital designer Laurent Lacombe, designed, assembled and finished four ghostly white violins, which are made from synthetic polymers and plastics, and four violas (two tuned to emulate cellos) for the Ottawa Symphony’s opener.
The radical concept is enough to bend anyone’s bow.
“The 3D printer creates fully-formed objects using whatever materials are available,” says the New York-based Stafylakis, who came to Winnipeg in June to kitchen-test the prototypes with members of the Ottawa orchestra. “We’re co-opting this technology and exploring how it can be applied to a centuries-old tradition.”
3D printers are being used to create all sorts of devices in the 21st century. The medical and aerospace industries have used them to create their own prototypes of equipment since 3D printing was devised in the 1980s.
More luthiers are using alternate materials to create string instruments. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, has added a carbon-fibre cello, which wasn’t created with a 3D printer, to his musical arsenal. He often uses at outdoor concerts to protect his priceless wooden cellos, one of which is more than 300 years old, from the elements.
“We always wondered, what would an instrument be like that you print? How would it sound? Would it lose its soul? Who knows? If we never try, we will never know.”–Alain Trudel
The upcoming concert by Canada’s largest orchestra is a part of its ongoing 3D StringTheory project, which explores how today’s technologies can expand musical boundaries.
Ottawa Symphony music director Alain Trudel will lead the program, which ranges from J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue to Frank Zappa’s Naval Aviation in Art, with the entire project funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and overseen by manager Angela Schleihauf.
“I’ve been always been fascinated by the 3D technology,” says Trudel in an Ottawa Symphony video. “We always wondered, what would an instrument be like that you print? How would it sound? Would it lose its soul? Who knows?
“If we never try, we will never know.”
Stafylakis’ Singularity will be scored for the eight 3D-printed instruments as a smaller “concertante” group positioned at the front of the stage, including OSO concertmaster Mary-Elizabeth Brown, and backed by the 100-piece orchestra. The group will be using traditional bows.
The 3D-printed instruments are non-amplified and sound much like their older, wooden cousins, although are decidedly quieter, which Stafylakis says he is still adjusting to in terms of balancing the group with the other musicians.
It took anywhere between 30 and 150 hours to create the instruments. Their final cost is still being determined as the manufacturing process evolves.
The semi-narrative piece is inspired by science fiction — another Stafylakis passion — and explores the rise of artificial intelligence and is rooted in ideas of “synthetic meeting the analogue.”
“I’m thinking of it as an instrumental science fiction oratorio,” he states with a chuckle. “As always with my music, there’s some straddling the line between romantic, cinematic accessible and more aggressive… that strikes a balance and oscillates back and forth before finally finding a meeting ground,” he says of the 25-minute work.
Notably, another Winnipegger will also be included on the Ottawa Symphony bill. Jared Kozub, who designed a titanium ocarina (a handheld wind instrument) is one of three finalists for the project’s “National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge.”
The competition showcases ergonomic-friendly instruments designed by young innovators to solve inherent performance issues that can lead to injury.
Stafylakis is no stranger to bold experimentation. Long before he began composing works for the genteel orchestral genre, the musician was grinding it out in heavy-metal bands as a teenager growing up in Montreal.
He became one of the early adopters of extended-range electric guitars, featuring seven and eight strings, when they first came out, noting that the art of instrument-making has evolved for millennia since cave people first rattled sticks.
“To me, it’s natural that instruments and the way we write for them can evolve,” he says.
Stafylakis also admits that “metal” has infiltrated his composing these days, including his recent Holocene Extinction that the WSO premièred in January. “The idioms of metal, including its rhythms, grooves and big, loud aggressive sounds are integral components of my music,” the composer says.
And will local audiences ever get to hear the 3D fruits of Stafylakis’s compositional labours in the city where the fiddles first drew breath? The artist hints there is a possibility, imagining they would be an ideal fit for a future Winnipeg New Music Festival, which he also curates.
All this might raise the question, why re-invent the wheel, er, violin, when pre-existing string instruments are already ripe for the plucking.
Stafylakis points out one advantage might be to make mass-produced instruments more easily available for those unable to access traditional violins. He cites Brown, the OSO concertmaster, who teaches students on five continents via Skype.
3D printing could getting fiddles into her students’ young hands in remote places such as the Arctic Circle far faster and less expensively.
“To me, it’s natural that instruments and the way we write for them can evolve.”–Harry Stafylakis
Naturally, one person most keenly interested in this burgeoning field is Myron Semegen, manager of advanced technologies for the Industrial Technology Centre of Winnipeg, who was initially contacted about coming onboard for the project in 2016.
His excitement about his industry’s limitless potential for the arts world is palpable, calling this latest venture, fascinating.
“It’s been as eye-opening for me from the technological perspective, as I’m sure it is for them from the musical perspective,” Semegen, who sat in with the Ottawa Symphony musicians and Stafylakis last month. And does he envision growing this field in future — with his company notably the first in Canada to be building polycarbonate fiddles?
“It really comes back to the musicians, and how interested are they in adopting some of these technologies to help them convey their art. But it’s absolutely possible to develop this further,” Semegen states.
“We are the ones who are fortunate enough to be able to provide answers to the unknown, and there is a whole spectrum of possibility here.”