Ottawa Symphony: Geena Salway puts the 3D String Theory Project on her bow

When you are producing a concert that features 3D printed instruments, you need someone to play those instruments. The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s 3D String Theory Project features an octet called Singularity. One of the eight women performing the music by Harry Stafylakis is Geena Salway. The uOttawa graduate student will be playing the bass viola in the concert on Nov. 4. As part of ARTSFILE’s coverage of this ground-breaking project we sent some questions to Geena to find out what playing this new instrument is like … and much more.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your career as a musician?

A. I just finished my Master of Music at the University of Ottawa and I’m currently continuing my studies at uOttawa in the Performance Diploma program. Previously, I did my undergrad at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. 

Q. What influences your playing?

A. I don’t necessarily have a “go to” violist I listen to. But I do tend to gravitate toward players who are very expressive and bring their own voice into the music. For example, I’ve been inspired by Richard O’Neill and Marina Thibeault. 

Geena Salway plays the bass viola in the Ottawa Symphony’s 3D String Theory Project concert.

Q. What is your usual instrument?

I play on a 16⅛ inch viola made by Darren Molnar, a luthier based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 

Q. When you were asked to play a “new” instrument, what did you think?

A. I was definitely very intrigued when I was asked to take part in the 3D String Theory Project. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly how these instruments would sound or how similar or different they would be from their wooden counterparts. For example, I wasn’t sure if these 3D instruments would be tuned in fifths or if they would sound like a string instrument at all, hence creating a significant learning curve. However, the 3D instruments are similar enough to the wooden instruments so that the basic playing technique is the same.

My hope is that the project will have applications in outreach in the future. For instance, it would be great if this helped bring music to rural and remote communities. Perhaps 3D printing will eventually become a cost-effective way of producing  instruments for school and community music programs that don’t have access to traditional instruments. 

Q. When did you get your bass viola?

A We have had our instruments since the end of August. So far, we have been rehearsing with the ensemble, just the eight of us. We will rehearse with the full orchestra closer to the concert date. I also got to try out the original violin prototype back in April 2018. 

Q. What is the difference between the 3D instrument and the instrument you normally play?

A. The biggest physical difference is the weight. The material is much heavier than a traditional wooden instrument so it took a lot of getting used to. I had to take a lot of breaks when I first started practicing the printed instrument because of the weight. 

All of the instruments are white except for the neck of each instrument. The body and neck of the instrument is the part that is printed. The pegs, bridge, tailpiece and other parts are adapted from regular instrument pieces. The fingerboard was made and fitted specifically for this instrument. The original violin prototype had a printed fingerboard which was also white in colour. However, the later designs used a regular wooden fingerboard because of concerns that the printed fingerboard would bend while playing in the high positions, to allow for adjusting over time and to eliminate the rough texture of the 3D printing. 

The instrument that I’m playing is the 3D printed “viola-cello” or “bass viola,” so has the same range as a cello. It sounds just like a cello, but does not resonate as much as a wooden instrument. In terms of playing technique, I do have to approach the instrument from more of a cellist’s perspective. As an example, I need to do slower and wider vibrato in the same way a cellist would. For right hand technique, I’ve found that the strings don’t respond well to excess arm weight. If I play with lots of weight in the string at the frog (the lower half of the bow), the strings will rattle against the fingerboard. The solution is to play with more bow speed to draw the sound out of the string, which I found somewhat counterintuitive at first.

A cello bow has also been loaned to me for this performance which makes playing on the lower strings a lot easier than with a regular viola bow. Using the cello bow helped a lot with my bow weight/bow speed dilemma, although I am still cognizant of it. 

Q. Are you approaching this performance any differently?

A. In our soloist rehearsals, we’ve been talking a lot about what kind of sound we need to have for certain sections, as well as just producing sound on the instrument. Mary-Elizabeth Brown, the OSO concertmaster, was talking about finding the resonance within the instrument. On traditional string instruments, when you play closed notes that are the same pitch as an open string, the open string will ring, provided the note is in tune. The printed instruments also work the same way. Since they do not project as easily as their wooden counterparts, we have to embrace these resonant notes a bit more.

Q. Can you talk about the music you are playing? 

A. We are playing a piece called Singularity by Harry Stafylakis. The eight of us are soloists with the 3D instruments while the rest of the orchestra is playing on their regular instruments. The concept of the 3D StringTheory Project is to explore the possibilities of expanding musical expression through technology. The Stafylakis piece definitely depicts this concept as each movement features the expressive qualities of the printed instruments differently. For instance, when the soloists start, we are sustaining long notes played on the bridge so there is no discernible pitch. Gradually, the pitch emerges. The next movement is very mechanical and rhythmic, aggressive in nature. Eventually, it moves toward more melodic material. 

In addition to the Stafylakis, we will also be performing arrangements of J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue in which we will play on our printed instruments with other players in the orchestra playing on their regular instruments. This will be an interesting opportunity to compare the sounds and timbres of the printed instruments and see how we can use these differences to create new possibilities of expression.

Q. Technology and music-making go together. Is that a good thing?

A As musicians today, we need to be cognizant that the field is very different. A lot more people are attending university, and hence, more people are taking music degrees. There simply aren’t enough positions in orchestras around the world for every musician. To stand out, it is imperative to have a more entrepreneurial innovative approach. The 3D StringTheory Project takes the traditional symphony orchestra model and adds a new element. It is a great example of anticipating change, but also focusing on the tradition of the symphony orchestra. In the soloist ensemble, there are moments where we approach a section like a classical string chamber ensemble (tuning each chord by listening to the bass voices). But there are also moments where we’re trying to find the best way to get the effect for the non-pitch scratch tones. Even though it is a new piece, we approach it with the same attention to detail as we would in a Mozart Symphony. 

I think the ideal would be to incorporate innovative ideas into music-making, but still honour the traditions of the art.

Q. Are you concerned about technology taking over your role?  

A. I don’t think technology will necessarily take over my role as a musician. Hypothetically, one could argue technology can replace the role of a musician. One doesn’t need to hire a string quartet for a wedding; the couple could just play music off of a smartphone. However, nothing can truly replace live art or music. I think, if anything, we should embrace the intersection of the arts and science. The 3D StringTheory Project is a great example of this: how can we use the technological advances of today as a means of heightening musical expression? Even if robots with Artificial Intelligence were to take over the world, they would still never have the depth of expression in music or art that a human would.

3D String Theory
Ottawa Symphony Orchestra
Where: Ottawa City Hall
When: Nov. 4. The music starts at 11:30 a.m. with chamber music by J.S. Bach. 3D String Theory concert in Jean Pigott Hall begins at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information:

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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.