String Theory: Recap of PCMS’ Project for PIFA

By Erik Petersons on April 15, 2016

Audiences often come to concerts to hear a string quartet or recitalist of great renown, relishing their masterful technique, expressivity and interpretation of the music.  While the focus often remains on the interaction between performer and composer, the third element of this musical trinity that gets overlooked is the instrument. One reason may be that these instruments remain steeped in mystery that has developed over the past few centuries.  And yet, they are the visible medium for music, revealing and embodying its existence.  Instruments then are by nature material culture—the objects that help define and shape who we are.  But how do we understand these “tools of art” that have transcended time and place throughout history?  They flex and change, mature and evolve.  Most of all, they take on a character that requires artists to enter into a dialog with them.

As part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, PCMS presented a two-part survey entitled String Theory: Exploring the Nature, Craft and Soul of String Instruments.  Last Friday, prior to Benjamin Beilman’s violin recital, renowned luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz and McGill University professor Will Straw examined the craft and materials of an instrument that give it expressive character, the unique voice each instrument holds in its design and the impact of tradition, technology and innovation on an instrument’s artistic potential.

Here is the recording of that conversation, though unfortunately, somewhat distorted.

Then, this past Wednesday, before the Takács Quartet took the stage, ethnomusicologist Allen Roda, Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Yumi Kendall and Time for Three violinist Nicolas Kendall discussed the identity of instruments as autonomous and dynamic agents, how artists and instruments shape each other and the role instruments play in the making of music.

Recording, Part II

These two conversations gave the audience a better understanding of the relationship between artists and their instruments—from how a simple block of wood is transformed into an instrument ready not only to accept the forces enacted upon it by the artist, but equally to influence the nature of the music we hear.