Or­ches­tra tries printed in­stru­ments

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It is fit­ting that the Ot­tawa Sym­phony Or­ches­tra will open its new sea­son on Nov. 4 at the Cana­dian Avi­a­tion and Space Mu­seum. For while the late-af­ter­noon con­cert will open with a main­stay from the golden age of clas­si­cal mu­sic — Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue — it will close with an un­cer­tain yet bold leap into the fu­ture.

A new work writ­ten by Mon­treal/New York com­poser Harry Stafy­lakis, whose mu­sic has been de­scribed as “an amal­ga­ma­tion of the clas­si­cal mu­sic tra­di­tion and the soul and grime of heavy metal,” will end the con­cert, which will fea­ture eight stringed in­stru­ments cre­ated through 3D -print­ing.

The show will also fea­ture a short per­for­mance writ­ten for the win­ner of the or­ches­tra’s Na­tional 3D Printed Mu­si­cal In­stru­ment Chal­lenge, which en­cour­ages par­tic­i­pants to im­prove or de­sign er­gonom­i­cally-op­ti­mized in­stru­ments to help ad­dress the nu­mer­ous per­for­mance-re­lated in­juries suf­fered by mu­si­cians.

Univer­sity of Ot­tawa bio­med­i­cal PhD stu­dent Robert Hunter is one of three fi­nal­ists in the com­pe­ti­tion. His com­bined in­ter­ests in biome­chan­ics, 3D com­put­eraided de­sign and mu­sic led him to come up with a new clar­inet and arm brace that re­dis­tributes the in­stru­ment’s weight to larger mus­cle groups. Ex­ist­ing clar­inets put most of their weight on the per­former’s thumb.

Hunter played clar­inet through­out high school, and notes he of­ten felt pain along the thumb and wrist of his right hand, the one sup­port­ing the clar­inet. When he read of OSO’s com­pe­ti­tion, he im­me­di­ately thought of im­prov­ing the clar­inet’s de­sign.

“That’s one of the things we teach in class,” he says. “A prob­lem from per­sonal pain is al­ways a good project.”

The other fi­nal­ists in the 3D chal­lenge are Win­nipeg’s Jared Kozub, whose de­sign of a ti­ta­nium oca­rina — a hand-held wind in­stru­ment tra­di­tion­ally made of clay or ce­ramic — fea­tures a pitchshift­ing mech­a­nism and im­proved er­gonomics; and Vic­tor Martinez, a de­signer from Richmond, B.C., whose elec­tric vi­olin de­sign in­cludes a chin-and-shoul­der-rest sys­tem that bends and adapts to the shape, pos­ture and play­ing style of the per­former.

The win­ner will be an­nounced Thurs­day at OSO’s open house at Do­min­ion-Chalmers United Church.

The chal­lenge and the stringed in­stru­ments are part of OSO’s 3D String The­ory project, which, funded through a grant from Canada Coun­cil for the Arts, aims to in­cor­po­rate emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in what many view as a staid, un­chang­ing genre.

“At the sym­phony, we play beau­ti­ful reper­toire, and the clas­sics for a very large or­ches­tra, like the Strauss and Mahler sym­phonies,” says OSO’s mu­si­cal di­rec­tor and con­duc­tor, Alain Trudel. “We have a spe­cial mis­sion, but I want to ex­tend that mis­sion to also think out­side of the box, to projects that we could do that bring us to other places in town.

“Or­ches­tras all over the world have been seen as some­what of a mu­seum,” he adds, “where you hear mu­sic by com­posers who have been dead for 200 or 300 years, like Beethoven or Mozart. I love those com­posers — Beethoven is one of my all-time favourites — but one of the things that was so ex­cit­ing about Beethoven or Ber­lioz or Mahler was their sheer in­no­va­tion. Peo­ple would come and say ‘What are they go­ing to do now?’ And they would lis­ten and say ‘Oh, my God, Beethoven did this?’ ”

Trudel cites Beethoven’s third sym­phony, Eroica, as an ex­am­ple, not­ing it is about twice as long as were its con­tem­po­rary coun­ter­parts; does not ad­here to the strict four-move­ment con­struc­tion; and in­cor­po­rates in­stru­ments that were lit­tle-used at the time, such as trom­bone, con­tra­bas­soon and pic­colo.

“That was re­ally think­ing out­side the box, al­though for us, now, it seems stan­dard.

“So I re­ally want to mo­ti­vate the cre­ation of art in a way that’s as ex­cit­ing. It’s not only to re­pro­duce what is great and what has proven to be the clas­sics, but also to ini­ti­ate some new and some­times com­pletely off-the-wall projects.”

In keep­ing with that sen­ti­ment, OSO’s sea­son opener in­cludes a Frank Zappa piece, Naval Avi­a­tion in Art, which Trudel says isn’t even the show’s most off­beat com­po­si­tion, that nod go­ing to Le Chaos, by 18th cen­tury baroque com­poser Jean-Féry Rebel. “He makes Zappa seem like pop mu­sic,” says Trudel.

“Peo­ple might say you’re tak­ing a chance,” he adds of OSO’s in­clu­sion of 3D in­stru­ments, “but I don’t think so. Tak­ing a chance is not do­ing any­thing. The sta­tus quo is putting clas­si­cal mu­sic in trou­ble some­times. For me, it’s about the art and it’s about mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple to try some­thing, so when peo­ple come to see this con­cert, it’s an event. They’ll be, ‘Oh, wow, what are they go­ing to do? What’s go­ing to hap­pen?’”

But it is a gam­ble. For while ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing — the in­dus­try ’s um­brella term for 3D print­ing and sim­i­lar pro­cesses — traces its roots back to the 1980s, us­ing that tech­nol­ogy to craft fine mu­si­cal in­stru­ments is still in its in­fancy. And al­though ma­te­ri­als used for print­ing — now typ­i­cally plas­tics, met­als and poly­mers — are con­stantly be­ing de­vel­oped and im­proved upon, none so far matches the res­o­nance and tone of wood.

“I think there’s prob­a­bly noth­ing bet­ter than wood in cer­tain ar­eas,” ad­mits Frank De­falco, man­ager of Canada Makes, a na­tional net­work of pri­vate, public, aca­demic and non-profit groups ded­i­cated to pro­mot­ing ad­di­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing in Canada. “Whether there are ma­te­ri­als that can get close to the lev­els of wood, I’m sure they ’re get­ting close with poly­mers.”

He’s con­vinced, though, that the day will come when a 3D -printed vi­olin, for ex­am­ple, will be able to com­pete with a wooden one. “For sure,” he says. “It’s just a mat­ter of get­ting the right ma­te­rial with the right de­sign. And there are a lot of peo­ple look­ing at it, peo­ple who are both en­gi­neers and mu­si­cians.”

De­falco says that 3D print­ing of­fers the mu­sic world sig­nif­i­cant po­ten­tial ad­van­tages. De­signs can be eas­ily cus­tom­ized and changed with­out a great in­crease in cost — ma­chines needn’t be re­tooled, for ex­am­ple. Ad­di­tion­ally, 3D print­ing lends it­self to man­u­fac­tur­ing items of which small quan­ti­ties are re­quired, which is why the med­i­cal and aero­space in­dus­tries have been early and avid adoptees of the tech­nol­ogy. (That said, 3D print­ers are still too slow for mass pro­duc­tion; the pro­to­type vi­olin made for OSO took 60 hours to print.)

De­falco points to hip-re­place­ment surgery as a com­par­a­tive ex­am­ple. “In­stead of mak­ing just small, medium and large, you can make it ex­actly the size a per­son needs. In the same way, a larger per­son could have a vi­olin made that’s slightly larger.”

Costs are also gen­er­ally lower and ac­ces­si­bil­ity im­proved. UPS in the United States has of­fered cus­tomers 3D print­ing since 2016, while FedEx an­nounced sim­i­lar ser­vices ear­lier this year. In­stead of ship­ping a wid­get across the con­ti­nent or around the world, cus­tomers can sim­ply email the de­sign and have it made in the des­ti­na­tion city.

“What we may see is a 7-Eleven hav­ing a 3D printer where you send your file and they print your part, and you go pick it up,” De­falco says.

That lat­ter ad­van­tage is one that ex­cites OSO con­cert­mas­ter Mary El­iz­a­beth Brown. She al­ready teaches vi­olin to stu­dents on five con­ti­nents each week, via Skype, in such dis­tant lo­ca­tions as Sweden, Ja­pan and Tan­za­nia. “I have first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence try­ing to help a young per­son in the Arc­tic Cir­cle get her hands on a vi­olin,” she says, “and that’s a lit­tle bit of a chal­lenge. But if there’s a 3D printer in that com­mu­nity, maybe her par­ents wouldn’t have to spend sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars to fly a vi­olin in.”

The eight in­stru­ments be­ing printed for Novem­ber’s con­cert in­clude four vi­o­lins, two vi­o­las and two that re­sem­ble a vi­ola da spalla — a small cello played like a vi­olin. Brown has al­ready played the first vi­olin it­er­a­tion, which she found had a re­duced pal­ette com­pared to her 18th cen­tury Ital­ian vi­olin.

“It was a dif­fer­ent kind of soul. I felt I was go­ing to need to search and maybe change what I do a lit­tle bit.

“It takes a while to get to know an in­stru­ment,” she adds, not­ing that it took three or four years on her cur­rent vi­olin “to fig­ure out how to ask it nicely to do what I wanted it to do.”

On her tra­di­tional vi­olin, she says, she can son­i­cally cre­ate any colour of the rain­bow. On the first pro­to­type of the 3D -printed one, she can make some bright pri­mary colours. “And prob­a­bly some pur­ples and greens and or­anges if I work at it, but I only had it in my hands for five or 10 min­utes.

“I got the sense that if I spent some time with it, I might not be able to make it make the sounds that my Ital­ian in­stru­ment makes, but that I would be able to find a wide range of colours, and I would be able to find some­thing in there that would al­low me to be ex­pres­sive.”

And in­deed, fur­ther it­er­a­tions will im­prove the in­stru­ments’ tonal qual­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Trudel, the first vi­olin, de­signed, as­sem­bled and fin­ished by Ot­tawa vi­olin maker Char­line De­quincey, with the help of dig­i­tal de­signer Lau­rent La­combe, was con­structed thicker than was ul­ti­mately nec­es­sary, out of a con­cern that the ten­sion of the high-E string might break the in­stru­ment’s neck.

“The first one was a bit on the safe side, it was thicker and doesn’t res­onate as much. But we were sur­prised that it’s very much in tune and it plays well. So we’re fine-tun­ing the in­stru­ment — no pun in­tended — to see what kind of sound we can op­ti­mize.”

Brown notes that OSO is at the cut­ting edge of 3D mu­si­cal tech­nol­ogy. “The clas­si­cal mu­sic in­dus­try, and the mu­sic in­dus­try in gen­eral, is hurtling into un­known ter­ri­tory re­ally fast. I’ve talked about clas­si­cal mu­sic be­ing a liv­ing mu­seum, and that’s re­ally im­por­tant for us to do. But at the same time, we live in this time when tech­nol­ogy is ad­vanc­ing so quickly, and I think it’s so im­por­tant for us to find a way for the two to co­ex­ist in a healthy way, with the out­come be­ing more ac­cess to great mu­sic.”

It’s about the art and it’s about mo­ti­vat­ing peo­ple to try some­thing, so when peo­ple come to see this con­cert, it’s an event.

Luthier Char­line De­quincey examines part of a pro­to­type of a 3D-printed vi­olin. 3D-printed de­signs can be eas­ily cus­tom­ized and changed with­out a great in­crease in cost. Eight 3D-printed stringed in­stru­ments will be in­cluded in Ot­tawa Sym­phony Or­ches­tra’s first con­cert of the sea­son, on Nov. 4.

A pro­to­type of a 3D-printed vi­olin. OSO’s 3D String The­ory project, funded through a grant from Canada Coun­cil for the Arts, aims to in­cor­po­rate emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in or­ches­tral performances.


A 3D printer makes a sur­gi­cal plan­ning com­po­nent at the In­sti­tute for Re­con­struc­tive Sciences in Medicine (iRSM) in Ed­mon­ton. The med­i­cal in­dus­try was an early adopter of 3D print­ing.


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