If I had to choose listening to an average instrument played by a master or vice versa I would choose the former. Of course a masterful musician may simply choose not to play a mediocre instrument. However, a good musician, in my opinion, is capable of quickly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an instrument so they can ultimately make any instrument sing.
One of the abilities many musicians have is to be able to focus on multiple things – all at the same time-such as reading music, listening to what they themselves are playing, listening to the play of one or more musicians around them, sensing the conductor or leader. To read the music and watch a conductor requires peripheral vision. It is great to watch Yannis Rizos play whilst leading MandolinARTE with very subtle movements. I would not be surprised if Yannis is focusing on everything when they are playing.
I guess what I have been trying to say here, is the music can only be as good as the musicians, even though the sound quality can be enhanced by really good instruments with really good strings. Maybe I am stating the obvious, but the love of music has been a powerful driving force in humans for all time- whether it be banging two sticks together, blowing a conch, or stringing a rough instrument with fishing line. Today, many guitars and lutes are still strung with nylon fishing line, but we have endless choices of string quality. I am often amazed at the reasonable sound quality of mass produced instruments and their easily affordable price.
So you may ask, ‘Why have expensive hand-built instruments?”.
My answer is simple, “Hand built instruments are like good coffee. Once a person has drunk a really good espresso there is no going back to that instant ‘shit’. So maybe we instrument makers are a bit like drug dealers. . . just joking…
I could also answer by acknowledging the many makers or luthiers who are constantly exploring, discovering and expanding the ‘sound’ capability of their instruments, so maybe healthy competition to be on that leading edge is also driving us. The better the instrument the greater the demand?
Maybe, but I have other theories.
You see, I find myself getting really interested when I come up against limitations. After a period of discomfort, I notice how a challenge often inspires a flow of creativity, as solutions arise to be explored and tested.
I often muse over the myriads of qualities, besides resilience or cooperation that enabled our human survival . . . .just imagine the innovation and creativity required to survive two ice ages, natural disasters, numerous wars, disease and repeated conflict. Facing big challenges would force the search for solutions. So, maybe, some humans today, have been selected with an inbuilt drive to constantly improve things through creativity and innovation.
I think, for those of us inflicted with this DNA, we need to find a way of focusing this creative drive safely and responsibly. Although luthiers may only use small amounts of rare and precious timbers in each instrument, nearly all instrument-grade timbers are sourced from old growth forests. This is a huge ethical dilemma for most of us. While I have been on an exciting journey designing soundboards that enable instruments to release the extraordinary sound properties of rare and precious woods such as Tasmanian King Billy Pine, I am aware of its scarcity and I always legally source it. The King Billy Pine I use comes from trees aged up to a 1000 years young and that fills me with awe.
Ten years ago, I bought adequate supplies for my use of King Billy Pine from a retired supplier of window frames. His country hardware store closed in the late 70’s. He sourced his King Billy mainly for window frames from Tasmanian timber mills – who primarily sourced their King Billy for water pipes since the 1800’s. Fallen King Billy Pine won’t degrade for centuries. It is extraordinarily stable with changes of humidity, and is relatively safe to work with. King Billy Pine was also used by carpenters who were sensitive or allergic to the other timbers. But, I will never know how my King Billy was originally taken from the ancient forests, so I ponder over the question of it being ethically sourced. Having said this, my timber is always legally sourced and of course I prefer naturally fallen. This is the reason I buy from the few Tasmanian timber mills that are legally permitted to remove King Billy Pines that has naturally fallen outside the World Heritage listed forests.
I hope to see the day when clear felling of old growth forests no longer occurs.
It is a choice to drink good coffee, and a choice to choose brands that are ethically sourced.
It is a choice to use a good instrument, good strings and good designs. I think most luthiers are mindful of our ethical responsibility to the planet and especially to musicians when using these scarce precious timbers.