Piano Manufacturing Declines in Europe

The head of Blüthner pianos says that the number of pianos manufactured in Germany has declined significantly since the 1990s, according to the firm’s chief Christian Blüthner-Haessler. As Norman Lebrecht reports, the current number of pianos being made in Germany is around 11,000. If this number was 40,000 twenty years ago, it sounds like as much as a 75% decline over the last two decades.

And are other mass-produced instruments also being made in higher numbers in China, as with pianos and violins?

Pleyel to Close in 2014

I learned this weekend that the French pianomaker Pleyel, famed as the favorite piano of Chopin and many Impressionist composers, plans to close its doors at the end of this year, after about two centuries. In her story for NPR, Eleanor Beardsley reports:

Pleyel was founded in 1807 by Ignaz Pleyel, a composer and music publisher who studied with Franz Joseph Haydn.

The company became a leader in acoustic innovation, making instruments for music greats such as Frederic Chopin, who only played Pleyel pianos in France.

The instruments graced European royal residences and Paris salons. Like other piano makers, Pleyel was hurt by two world wars and the economic crisis that began in 1929. In the last 60 years, Pleyel changed ownership repeatedly; in the last four years, production plunged to about one piano a month.

In The Heat Of The Foundry, Steinway Piano ‘Hearts’ Are Made
Canac blames Pleyel’s demise on the financiers who most recently bought the company. He says there wasn’t even a musician at the top anymore.

Life on Four (Short) Strings

Jake Shimabukuro, worldwide ukulele virtuoso and phenom, is the subject of a new documentary by L.A.-based filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura, titled Life on Four Strings: Jake Shimabukuro. Jake describes himself as primarily a Hawaiian traditional musician, but his style incorporates all sorts of influences from jazz to rock to flamenco to Japanese classical music. The documentary was screened last night by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and I really enjoyed it. The film begins with shots of ukulele construction, and also features interviews with Fred Kamaka, a maker of Kamaka Ukuleles.

The documentary will air on PBS at 9pm on the evening of 10 March 2013. Watch the trailer here:

Here’s the youtube video that launched Jake to fame outside of Hawaii, playing George Harrison’s “When My Guitar Gently Weeps”:

Check it out!

Making Guitars

Instagram’s “Making of … ” series featured Carbonetti guitars last week. The gallery of various stages of guitar construction includes instagrams by Jimmy Carbonetti from his studio in New York, New York:

“I cut all of my own wood and wind all of my own pick ups,” says Jimmy.

Making Guitars @carbonettiguitars

See the entire gallery at Instagram’s tumblr or read more about Jimmy “Cobra” Carbonetti in this June 2011 interview by IO Tillet Wright in The Lowdown (NYTimes Magazine Blog).

Myth or Merit?

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The "Messiah" Stradivarius (1716), held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Is the reputation of famous musical instruments a myth, or do some exceptional instruments just sound better? Legendary Stradivarius violins have been the subject of almost mythological interest. Last year, the recovery of a “missing” Strad sparked interest in London. This brought up many of the peculiarities of musical instruments as objects. While “a violin” is a more or less run-of-the-mill musical instrument, “a Strad” is worth millions and considered to be irreplaceable. (Though not necessarily impossible to replicate.)

So, what are Strads so expensive? Are Stradivarius violins “better” than other violins? Do particular musical instruments have intrinsic, special characteristics that cannot be recreated on any others? These complex questions have been subject to long debate and are the topic of an article by Daniel Wakin in the NYTimes this weekend. Wakin describes the “Strad wars,” which pit the true believers (the players and the owners) against the skeptics (particularly violin makers and players who are not benefiting from a wealthy patron’s largesse) in a “long-running debate over whether the enormous worth of such instruments is rooted in myth or merit.” Although there are powerful ideas about wealth, prestige, and status that make playing a venerated object “valuable,” Wakin also points out that while the “mystique” of the great violin has been subject to profound scrutiny, “it remains powerful in our increasingly digitized and disposable world, where 300-year-old wood objects used to express deep emotion seem ever more precious.” In other words, if the digital world is more ephemeral, something about an ancient wooden instrument has automatic appeal.

A useful FAQ has been made available by acoustics researchers at the University of New South Wales, which takes up the question “What is the ‘secret of Stradivarius’?” They point to a number of complicating factors in answering such a question, notably the highly individual skills and approaches that vary between players. Moreover, since Strads have been used to define optimum sound for multiple generations of players, these instruments have come to more or less define good violins. Would it be possible to do better if they are the standard? Finally, despite what Wakin points out in the article (that these instruments are 300 years old), every surviving Stradivarius and other old master has been extensively rebuilt over the years to the extent that no living person or player really knows what a Stradivarius “really” sounded like. The UNSW lab also points to other studies that have investigated the varnish of the instruments and other theories that have been advanced to explain the Stradivarius phenomenon. (Read their statements here.)

Fusion Instruments

I recently caught a profile of the duo Būke and Gāss on NPR. There are many wonderful new groups and recordings out there, but this one caught my ear because of the emphasis on handcrafted, fusion instruments that are the duo’s hallmark. Their name, in fact, is based on hybrid instrument names!

The toe-bourine

The toe-bourine. Photo by Abby Verbosky/NPR


  • Būke: a six-string ukulele with a baritone range
  • Gāss: a guitar that includes bass strings (and it’s also made from body parts of an old Volvo!)

Hence the group’s name. They also include other homegrown originals, such as the “toe-bourine” (at right). The style is also a bit eclectic, described on WNYC’s Soundcheck as “ornate distorto-twang.” They hail from Brooklyn and, to hazard a guess, fit into the urban hillbilly mode (or perhaps what Eric Cook calls home mode production).

More Info and Listening!
The full NPR profile from 27 December 2010 is available here, and it includes the sound file from the interview. Listen to and watch a video of the duo in the NPR Tiny Desk Concert here. You can listen to the full Soundcheck piece here, or check out the WNYC Culture blog’s review of the duo’s debut album Riposte.