Highly resonant wood could be commercially produced for Stradivarius-quality "fungus violins"
By Ben Coxworth
December 9, 2011
Earlier this week, we brought you the story of a radiologist and two violin-makers, who used computed tomography (CT) imaging to create a copy of a 1704 Stradivarius violin. The instrument that they produced was almost an exact replica of the original, as far as the shape, thickness and volume of its wooden parts was concerned. As one of our readers pointed out, however, much of the tonal quality of Stradivari's instruments was likely due to the microstructure and resonance characteristics of the wood of which they were made, caused by the growing conditions at the time. Well, it turns out that someone is working on reproducing that aspect of the violins, too.
Francis Schwarze, a scientist from Switzerland's Empa research institute, teamed up with a Swiss violin-maker to create what are being referred to as "fungus violins" - admittedly, perhaps not as catchy a name as "Stradivarius." Schwarze treated spruce wood with Physisporinus vitreus, a white-rot fungus that destroyed certain structures in the wood. Two violins made from that wood were then played at a conference in 2009, alongside a genuine Stradivarius. In a blind listening test, both a panel of experts and the audience reportedly stated that they preferred the sound of the fungus violins to that of the historical instrument.
While the preparation of the wood for those two violins was a lengthy process, Empa is now trying to standardize and streamline the wood treatment technology, so that the modified resonance wood could be produced on a scale approaching mass production. Among other things, the research team is looking into the extent of fungal activity within the wood, how sound travels throughout that altered wood, and the ways in which the sound is perceived by luthiers (makers of stringed instruments), musicians and listeners.
The three-year project began in September, and is being led by tonal wood expert Iris Brémaud. Empa's next-generation fungus violins will be built under the supervision of Swiss instrument-maker Michael Baumgartner.