Thursday, October 29, 2020

Environmentalism and Violin-making

By Andy Fein Luthier, at Fein Violins & Mikaela Marget

Environmental Sustainability in Violin Making 

Spruce, Maple, Basswood, Ebony, Pernambuco, Tetul, Rosewood, and Boxwood. What are these? All of these are types of wood that are used in your stringed instrument or bow. They are wood from trees that grew for decades or centuries before they were cut down to make your viola, viola, cello, or bow. After being cut down and milled, they are carefully stored to air dry for decades more. 
Like trees? Like the environmental benefits of trees? You know stuff like oxygen to breathe, carbon storing to slow climate change, soil to stabilize and nurture, shade to sit under, fruit and nuts to eat, birds and animals that live in the forest, and sap to make into syrup. If you do, be a good steward and know that your instrument comes from the health of forests.

Mata Atlantica, Brazil
A. Fein & Atelier Cremone Seraph Cello

What do we value when it comes to our instruments? Of course, we love the way they sound and feel when we practice (sometimes!!). We are stirred by performances of great musicians or by our child's first Suzuki concert. Even the way instruments look is so important to us, from the color of the varnish to the shape of the instrument itself. Rarely, though, do we musicians think about where these instruments come from or what they are made out of. When we pick up a cello, for example, we don't think "ah, what a fine collection of spruce, maple, and ebony" (well, luthiers might). Instead, we just think of it as a cello! But what goes into making an instrument, how have we impacted the natural world to produce these treasured objects, and is this something we should care about? 


Fein Bows, made of pernambuco
One of the most relevant sustainability conversations in the violin making world is about the highly endangered Pernambuco wood. Stringed instrument bows are primarily made from this wood, sourced solely from the Mata Atlantica in Brazil. We wrote a blog post about the colonial history of Pernambuco (which you should check out when you are done here) but suffice it to say that colonial commercialization of pernambuco nearly decimated this natural resource. Today, the Pernambuco wood we use for bow-making is increasingly rare.  Although there are other materials (carbon fiber, for example) that bows can be made from, pernambuco remains the most sought after by professional and amateur musicians alike. Luckily, there are people working to preserve it!
A Pernambuco Tree 

IPCI, the International Pernambuco Conservatory Initiative is a collective of musicians, instrument makers, and conservationists who are actively working to preserve pernambuco. They are trying to reshape the way the industry looks at this precious resource by "supporting research, replanting programs, educational outreach and other conservation measures." Although bow-makers are not solely responsible for the destruction of pernambuco (that was mostly due to the dye industry), they do necessarily use and deplete these resources to continue their craft. 

"Flawless Looking" Wood

If you are at the grocery store and see a misshapen apple next to a perfectly shaped one, you might automatically grab the better looking one. The misshapen apple may taste great, but we have convinced ourselves that it is less desirable than the perfect-looking one. It's the same with the wood sourced for musical instruments (although less delicious). Sometimes, wood that is perfectly fine acoustically will be thrown out in the selection process simply because there are visual blemishes. 

To combat this practice, the bridge makers at Despiau-chevalet have introduced a new initiative called Despiau Planet. They argue that we have to rethink our definition of "good wood" by not getting rid of these wonky-looking pieces of Maple. The trees of Bosnia-Herzegovina that give us our bridges are hundreds of years old, why would we waste some of that material just because it isn't "perfect"? 

They want to incorporate respect for the forest into their practice and an acknowledgement that the resources we use to create musical instruments are depleting. Like IPCI, they recognize that there isn't any way within the current system to completely stop the harvesting of these maple trees, but companies can still make the process more eco-friendly.  


Our current old string collection 

When you get a new set of strings, what do you do with the old, grimy ones? If you usually just throw them out, I have a better solution for you! D'addario strings has a recycling program. According to their website, over 1.5 million lbs of used strings end up in landfills every year, but they are trying to do something about it. Through their PlayBack program, D'addario has already recycled over 5 million strings

D'addario, Despiau, ICPI, and other organizations who are taking responsibility for their environmental impact are taking steps in the right direction, but is this really the best we can do for the environment? Plus, in a world with finite resources, are there really ways to have a sustainable forestry practice? 

Sustainable Practices

The Paneveggio (in the Val di Fiemme) in northern Italy has been a sustainable source of violin-making spruce for generations. Aaron Allen, a musicologist from the University of N. Carolina Greensboro, has written about this area and the history of sustainable practices used there. He notes "Its unique location and practices... allowed it to avoid exploitation and to manage its forests sustainably". So, what makes their forest management different than the ones used to harvest Pernambuco in the Mata Atlantica or Maple in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Cut Trees in the Paneveggio

The topography of the surrounding mountains, for one, made this wood difficult to access (and therefore expensive to produce). In addition, the Paneveggio has local stewards of the land. Since the year 1111, documentation "provided the eleven villages of the Val di Fiemme with direct common ownership of their forestry...". These local communities still harvested the wood but they had direct control over the economic and natural decisions tied to the forest. This power allowed them to use their knowledge of the region to best care for the trees. 

Cima Di Colbricon Mountain in the Paneveggio

This forest is also thought to have been where great Cremonese makers (Amati, Stradivarius, etc) sourced some of their wood. Dr. Allen argues that there is a direct connection between their craft and the materials they used, so the forest itself has extra cultural value (which adds an incentive for people to preserve these forests). 

Sustainability is a complicated topic-- we have to consider human culture, nature, politics, and economics when deciding how best to treat our environments. By looking at the history of the Paneveggio, the Mata Atlantica, and the forests of Bosnia-Herzegovina, we see different forestry practices related to our instruments. IPCI is investing in research and replanting, Despiau-Chavelet is making a commitment to better value existent resources, and the Paneveggio has a historically sustainable model based on local ownership. All of these commitments to better, more sustainable practices impact our world in a positive way! 

What does this mean for me?

So, what can you do to be more eco-conscious with your instrument? The number one thing is keep your instrument in good shape!! If you treat your instrument well, there will be no need to source more materials to make another instrument. Getting your instrument repaired by a reputable luthier (*ahem*) so that further repairs aren't needed is also a sustainable practice. 

You can change your mindset. Simply acknowledging that all the wood in your instrument came from living things can actually go a long way. If you are a teacher or parent, you can talk to your kids about how to respect and acknowledge the work and resources that went into making their instrument. The more we can connect our man-made objects to the Earth, the better we will want to treat them (and the Earth)! All around, what we should value when it comes to our instruments isn't just the sound or the pretty varnish, but also how long the tree grew for us and how far the wood traveled in order to crate our instrument.

Are we tree huggers here at Fein Violins? You betcha! In the spirit of recognizing the forest's contribution to our craft, and to honor of our readers (hey, that's you!) we have contributed 50 trees to the Wallowa-Whitman forest. We also try to do our part by using UPS Carbon offset when shipping instruments out to you. Also, our shop electricity comes from Xcel Energy's Windsource Program.

Big thanks to Dr. Aaron Allen of UNC Greensboro for sharing his essays with us. The bulk of the information and inspiration in this post comes from his works: Aesthetics and Sustainability, Sounding Sustainable, and Fatto di Fiemme' : Stradivari's violins and the musical trees of the Paneveggio. 

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