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HPSCHD-L  November 2004

HPSCHD-L November 2004

Subject:

Lengthy antiquarian rant (was: More reflections on Europe trip)

From:

James McCarty <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Harpsichords and Related Topics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 27 Nov 2004 14:46:05 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (71 lines)

on 11/27/04 12:14 PM, John Howell at [log in to unmask] wrote:


> Yes, of course they did, but I'm not sure that "engineering" in the
> modern sense even existed as a concept.  During a 7-10 year
> apprenticeship you learn your materials, you try (within the limits
> set by your master) different things, you "become one with" your
> materials (for want of a better term), and you become able to work
> with them and bring out their best at an almost instinctive level.  I
> have never doubted that.  In a very real sense it was a
> whole-to-parts approach, with the final goal ALWAYS to produce the
> best instrument those materials could produce, and therefore always a
> willingness to adjust what needed adjusting to reach that goal.  A
> modern engineering approach (and this school turns out a great many
> well-prepared engineers in a variety of fields, and I have great
> respect for them) strikes me as being more of a parts-to-whole
> approach, in which if every subsystem is accurately put together and
> functions, the "whole" will function as designed.  But if scientific
> analysis can produce perfection, why are 17th and 18th century
> violins and 19th century bows still considered the gold standard?

John has described succinctly the engineering approach to problems. The
question long-belabored on this list is why this "parts-to-whole" approach
may not necessarily be the best one for some of the problems we face.

Systems with a high number of variables, each of which has a wide range and
considerable unpredictability of behavior, will be less amenable to an
engineering approach. The human body is an excellent example of such a
system. There being a large Lockheed-Martin jet fighter plant in my city, I
regularly care for engineers and their families, and I often sense the
frustration when engineers are forced to confront the reality that human
beings do not function with the reproducibility of the mechanical devices
they deal with every day. One once haughtily announced to me that in his
profession, "we would never tolerate that degree of uncertainty!" This does
not mean that engineering is not a tremendous help to us in dealing with
certain specific medical subsystems, e.g., pacemakers or dialysis machines,
but rather that the engineering model is not adequate when considering the
whole human body. In medicine, truly, science without art is nothing.

I submit that a harpsichord, while not as complex a system as a mammal,
nevertheless is complex enough to resist "improvement" by an engineering
approach. This is not least because much of a harpsichord was once alive.

During the last century, we experienced how thoroughly engineers were able
to pervert and deform our beloved instrument. Every "improvement" distanced
us from the results obtained by the old makers, until the harpsichord became
the object of off-color jokes. Van Cliburn, whose only experience was with
these monstrosities, justifiably asked, "Is it really a musical instrument?"
Thanks be to God that Martin Skowroneck, Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and
many others had enough faith in the old makers to mount a successful
counter-revolution.

I offer one last example, that of digital recording. On paper, it is far
superior to analogue, with flat frequency response and virtually no wow,
flutter, or distortion. These are all readily measureable parameters, and
once the engineers had dealt with them, they were sure they had conquered
the problems of sound reproduction--we were promised "Perfect Sound
Forever." And yet, today I listened to a 1980 LP recording of Malcolm Bilson
performing Beethoven sonatas. The reproduction of the sound of his
fortepiano was orders of magnitude more realistic than any CD I have ever
heard. It is indeed regrettable that, just as generations of musicians have
never experienced anything other than equal temperament, so also many
generations will never experience anything other than the "improvement" of
digital recording.

Newer ain't always better, folks.
--
James R. (Jay) McCarty, MD
Fort Worth, TX

"Sine arte, scientia nihil est"

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