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Today Paulette and Merle and I visited the shop of Mark Adler, a builder of keyboard musical instruments. (http://www.cembaloworks.com points to his web pages) We were there to see a modest harpsichord that he had kindly reconditioned for us. After Merle played it, Adler took us on a tour of his domain: a small module in an industrial park on the north side of Gaithersburg, Maryland. He discussed the stresses imposed by strings on a soundboard --- thousands of pounds of tension --- and explained some of the structural design features necessitated by the battle against those forces.

Then Adler let Merle try a lovely bentside harpsichord, modeled after an English model of the 18th Century. Although the body of the instrument is mahogany, Adler chose to make the top of American cherry --- because, he said, in the 1760s when the original instrument had been built British trade laws required the use of wood from the Colonies. He speculated about mysterious material factors that contribute to the tone of an instrument: type of wood, use of various lacquers, effects of aging and vibration, and so forth.

As we walked through his workshop Adler pointed to lumber stored high up across the rafters near the ceiling --- thousands of dollars worth of Sitka spruce, quarter cut for maximum musical quality, only available now from Alaska and the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Such material sells for ten times the price of lesser wood. Adler let us handle a $90 stick of ebony, dense and black. He showed us a bundle of Turkish boxwood slats that he acquired a few decades ago from Keuffel & Esser, the old slide-rule company, when they stopped making slipsticks. Mark Adler lives with wood, works with it, and clearly loves it.

Turning to an old harpsichord in the back of the room, Adler described why early instruments of that type had only four octaves of notes: metallurgy. Specifically, he said, the tensile strength of brass was too low to make strings for a wider range. He then gave us another mathematical-musical-technology lesson, focusing on the spacing between the keys on a chromatic keyboard. They have to be made in different widths, he pointed out, because of the incommensurability of the numbers 5 (black notes), 7 (white notes), and 12 (the octave). (More on that another time, if and when I understand it properly.)

On the way to our car in the parking lot I spotted Mark Adler's vehicle. It bore the bumper sticker (with the usual "heart" symbol for {LOVE}):

I {LOVE} A = 415.3

... an allusion to the gradual historic rise in standard concert pitch to today's A of 440 Hz.

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicScience - TopicArt - Datetag20021005

(correlates: UmberLove, 2007-08-31 - Lap, Dog, 2 Comments on ZimmermannSplinters, ...)