Ottawa Symphony Orchestra: Making music with instruments of the 21st century

A look at a digital image of a violin being readied for 3D printing. Photo courtesy Ottawa Symphony Orchestra

In the past, luthiers such as Antonio Stradivari would painstakingly piece together a new violin out of special woods.

They would mix the varnish that would protect the instrument themselves and then these beautiful pieces of art would be presented to their owner.

Stradivari’s instruments are priceless today. His name is an imprimatur of the craft.

He was also pushing boundaries and doing things that other makers before him had not done.

In a sense that’s just what the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra is doing with a new project, announced Tuesday. It’s called  3D StringTheory and it explores how new technology, such as 3D printing, can expand musical boundaries. The idea is to produce  3D printed string instruments that will be played in concert in the fall of 2018. 

The OSO has commissioned Ottawa violin maker Charline Dequincey and the Industrial Technology Centre in Winnipeg to make these instruments. And the Montreal-born composer Harry Stafylakis has been asked to write a piece of music to accompany these new instruments in concert next fall.

Harry Stafylakis

For Stafylakis this venture is “very different project from anything I’ve worked on before. Although I’ve written extensively for orchestra, the fact that I’m composing for, and working with technical experts to optimize newly created instruments sets this apart.

“When I was playing and composing metal music in Montreal many years ago, I was an early adopter of the extended range guitars with seven and eight strings. To me, it’s natural that instruments and the way we write for them can evolve.”

The Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of OSO, Alain Trudel, believes the project is an opportunity for creativity and collaboration.

“I’m a trombone player. My instrument hasn’t really changed for about 500 years. A lot of instruments, however, have changed a lot because of technology,” he said while waiting in Montreal for a train to Ottawa.

“We thought it would be a great idea to create something.”

The project will create two copies of four new stringed instruments, each with a different pitch, he says. Exactly what that pitch will be, will be determined by the tension of the strings themselves and by the strength of the new instruments.

“It has to do with the amount of pressure the material (the instrument is made of) can take,” he said. In all it takes about 60 hours to print one of these instruments, he said. “It’s made (thin) layer by layer.”

It is going to be amazing to hear how it sounds,” he added.

The project is funded through a Canada Council for the Arts New Chapters grant of $285,000. Donations have raised that total to about $400,000 which will be spent on such things as design and research and development of the instruments.

In the concert expected in November, the new instruments will play together in an ensemble, inside a larger presentation of The Art of Fugue by Bach. The second half will feature the new work by Stafylakis, Trudel said.

The idea, he says, is to get a sense of how these new instruments sound, alone, in a small group and in a bigger orchestra.

To get to the concert stage, he says, there will be a lot of trial and error, but the big thing is “the pressure of the strings to produce a ‘singing’ tone and” stay in tune.

“What is so inspiring about this project for me is the collaboration between so many creators — the artists, the innovative team of technical specialists, the composer that will bring this new kind of music to life and my dear colleagues of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. We have musicians, instrument makers, designers, technicians, and composers all working to articulate the artistic vision together, taking a completely new 21st century journey marrying music and technology.”

OSO’s Alain Trudel.

The OSO said in a media release that the project will feature public competitions involving instrument making and design challenges for youth, university students and professionals.

The first prototype will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. as part of an Orchestras Canada event in the Speakers Dining Room (274-F, Centre Block) on Parliament Hill. For more informationon the project: ottawasymphony.com.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.