SA: What do you think is the secret of the Stradivarius instruments and others from those golden years of Italian violinmaking?
JN: I began developing my theory in the early 1960s, when I lived in Switzerland and made annual vacation trips to Italy. During those trips, I observed repeatedly that in cities like Milan, the wooden artifactsfurniture and also violins, violas and cellossuffered considerable damage from woodworm. The wood, some of it, had holes in it like Swiss cheese. When I asked violin shops about similar damage to Stradivari violins, they told me that in Cremona there is practically no woodworm damage.
So in Cremona, people must have used a preservative, an insecticide. I looked in archival data from Venice for historical insecticide use. Pretty soon, I connected chemicals with acoustical effectschief among them borax, which is very well known as an insecticide and is also well known among chemists as a powerful cross-linker of polymers. Nothing would make wood tighter and harder and the sound accordingly more brilliant.
We also considered the use of materials against mold because the climate in northern Italy is very humid. They [violinmakers in Cremona] used various sugars made from fruit gums. Fruit trees are everywhere [in Italy] and in springtime exude a nice, colorful liquid through bark that dries to a glassy matter, very stiff, very brittle. They used it for candy making around 1500that's how candy was discovered in Italyand it was also found to be very good for preventing mold.
The last element of great interest I found was the use of very fine crystal powder to saturate the wood. Crystal powder is the ultimate weapon against woodworm because woodworm would not be able to chew on crystals. Many kinds were used, but quartz from the mountains was a major component, as was Venetian glass, colored glass.
Now, if you mix fruit gums with quartz powder, that makes the outer surface extremely brilliant, very hard and very brittle. This theoretically would result in a very brilliant sound, but not only that. Other fillers like shellac or animal glue can also produce brilliant sound, but their sound would also generate a high-frequency hissing noise. The Stradivari violins are very brilliant and are also not noisy because their coating is brittle and breaks up into of millions of fragments. Theoretically that allows vibrations at certain given noise frequencies to be strongly damped, leading to a clearer sound.
Also, the wood used by Stradivari was not naturally seasoned wood. It was stored in water for a considerable amount of time. Once you soak the wood, the wood pores are more open, so aqueous solutions can penetrate it much deeper.
SA: You¿ve been making re-creations of the instruments. Could you describe what goes into those?
JN: With my theory, the historic evidence was there. All I had to do was make a couple of hundred violins with different compositions and explore the effect of various chemicals on the sound. That's how I¿ve spent the past 25 years, and we have explored the use of many, many compositions.
We explored a variety of fruit gums and animal proteinsegg white and so onwith a dozen or so soluble salts and insoluble crystals. We've also classified materials that make the sound mellow and not brilliant, like linseed oil and walnut oil, which makes the wood look very beautiful but the sound very mute.
SA: One of your recipes involves shrimp boiled in lyenot exactly the first thing I¿d think of if I had to think of a magic formula!
JN: I used shrimp shell chitin in 1976 to 1984. I worked with chitin originally for nutritional reasons, to lower serum cholesterol in animals. Chitin is good--it made the sound brilliant--but it also made the sound noisy. And it¿s not traditional. Stradivari had nothing to do with it. It was my own invention, and I have not used that since 1984.