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Volume 14, Issue 4: Musica

Wood Vibrations

Duck Schuler

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound His name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
(George Herbert from "Easter")1
"Look at all the trees. It makes me want to cut them down."
(Louis Schuler III, age 4, upon traveling through the magnificent Lookout Pass between Montana and Idaho, July 2000.)
Arguably, the predominant Biblical view of wood is that it is great to cut and burn. It fuels the fires for sacrifices, for cooking, and for heating. It is something to be cleared away in order to make the land habitable and productive. However, God commands man to use really fine wood for very fine things: for the ark that saved Noah and his family from death in the flood, and the supporting structure of the tabernacle, its altar, the table of show bread, the altar of incense, and the paneling for the temples. But because of our debauchery, we also use fine wood to make idols and weapons for murder (Numbers 35:18).
A different use for wood is explicitly mentioned only once (2 Samuel 6:5): "And David and all the house of Israel played before the LORD on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals." Wood is a great natural resonator. In fact, it's hard to imagine the world of music without wood. It amplifies the sound of the stretched strings of the harp, piano, harpsichord, dulcimer, violin, viola, cello, double bass, viola da gamba, guitar, lute, theorbo, mandolin, and gittern. It amplifies the sound of the stretched membranes of the tambourine and timbrel and other drums. It creates a column for vibrating air in the recorder, cornetto, serpent, Baroque flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and pipe organ. The wood itself vibrates in the wood block, temple blocks, castanets, claves, and xylophone. We stretch strings on it, blow into it, and strike it, all to make music.
Wood is good for music. Because wood comes from trees which were once alive and growing and individual, every piece of wood will be unique also. No two instruments will ever quite sound the same because no two pieces of wood are identical. Used as a resonating chamber, wood lends a warmth and beauty of sound to which our souls respond. According to the vision of the poet George Herbert, "The cross taught all wood to resound His name Who bore the same." The beauty of the sound of natural wood instruments resounds the beauty of the name of Christ.
Unfortunately, we are living in a world where some of that beauty is being lost. As technology has progressed, music produced by speakers made of rubber and cardboard has increasingly replaced the beauty of resounding wood. Sometimes it is a blessing, and sometimes it is a curse. I cannot go to the Hague whenever I want to hear the organ at St. Jakobskerk, but I can put on a CD and experience some semblance of the sound of that magnificent instrument. It's not the same as hearing the real thing, but it's as close as I can get. My complaint is that we as a people who live with plastic imitations of wooden flooring and wooden siding are becoming increasingly inured to the plastic sound of amplification and actually prefer it to resounding wood.
The sound of the acoustical guitar has a certain three-dimensional quality that derives from the shape of the instrument and the craftsmanship of its builder, whereas the electric guitar has a certain flat or two-dimensional sound. We turn up the volume because we know something is lacking. Maybe if it's a little louder, it will sound better. But it doesn't. Instead of increasing resonance we get distortion. If an electric guitar and a recording of the same guitar are played through the same speaker at the same volume, there would essentially be no difference in sound between the two. The real instrument, the speaker, is the same. But if the acoustical guitarist plays the same music as a recording at the same volume, the listener will immediately recognize which is the real instrument and which is the recording. The two-dimensional qualities of the recording are immediately apparent. This difference is amplified by the number of instruments playing. The recorded sound of an orchestra can never replace the full-bodied sound of a live orchestra. To prefer the sound of woofers and tweeters to real wood resounding is like preferring plastic flowers to real flowers. Plastic guitars, plastic violins, plastic pianos, plastic recorders—like plastic wood and flowers they're cheap, have some degree of durability, are generally low maintenance, and give only a pasty imitation of beauty. We throw real beauty out of our plastic doors for the sake of saving money and trouble.
By way of contrast, Antonio Stradivarius, the greatest of all violin makers and one of the earliest, spent more than seventy years of his long life shaping wood to create instruments of unsurpassed beauty of sound. He left us around 650 instruments. Nearly 300 years later we still delight in his handiwork and are baffled by how he produced such excellent violins. Through the years, these violins have been given names because they have personalities. Three of the most famous are the Betts, the Messiah, and the Alard. Some violin connoisseurs can not only tell that a Strad is being played, but which particular Strad is being played.
Making and playing wooden instruments is a result of Trinitarian image bearing. Loving them is a response from our souls to the natural beauty that God has put in the wood. He gives it to us so that we can discover more about His own personality in creation.

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