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 computer-aided 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.”
“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 handheld wind instrument traditionally made of clay or ceramic — features a pitch-shifting mechanism and improved ergonomics; and Victor Martinez, a Richmond, B.C. designer 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 first-hand 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 by Laurent Lacombe and assembled and finished by Ottawa violin maker Charline Dequincey, 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 co-exist in a healthy way, with the outcome being more access to great music.”
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