Questions posed by Christoph Kutzer

CK: In 1999, you were awarded the „Prix Européen de l’innovation pour les instruments de musique“ in Paris, in appreciation of your development of the Liuto forte. Is this lute really the first serious attempt at modernizing the instrument after it fell out of fashion?

AB: Yes, in actual fact it is. In spite of their lute-shaped body, the „lutes“ in the Wandervogel movement at the beginning of the 20th century were actually of a guitar-like construction, thus their sound had little to do with the sound of 16th– to 18th-century lutes. In contrast, our development of the liuto forte is based on very careful and thorough studies of historical lute construction, including an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than negating that tradition our own ideas tie in with it (see also About the Liuto forte – Quality Control).

CK: A common interpretation of history holds that the lute was replaced by the guitar because the latter was both easier to play and louder. Do you share this view of the matter?

AB: This narrative, though understandably popular with guitarists, is simply not true in light of the historical facts. First of all, a small romantic guitar was hardly louder than a baroque lute. Lutes for figured bass such as the theorbo or the arciliuto which were used in orchestras would easily have drowned out even several romantic guitars. It was actually the rapidly developing fortepiano that replaced lute instruments in the second half of the 18th century. That was because this instrument could be played softly (piano) as well as loudly (forte), in contrast to the harpsichord as it was in use before then. Until the advent of the pianoforte, plucked instruments were the only chordal instruments that could be considerably varied in volume.

It was in consequence of this sketched historical development that baroque lutes and baroque guitars were already edged out by the middle of the 18th century. In this virtually „lute-free“ space, the small romantic guitar had its astonishing career. Its main characteristics were, firstly, its single strings, easier to tune and play than the traditional double strings, and secondly, its warmer and richer tonal colour which seemed to fit the taste of that sentimental period better than the aristocratic lute with its higher demands on the player and its somewhat drier sound. However, as I said, the romantic guitar neither dislodged nor succeeded the lute in any strict sense. It simply became the new favorite plucking instrument after the lute had disappeared. This happened because of its easy handling and sweet sound. It was not able to even remotely replace the lute with its manifold functions.

In case you would like to learn more about the subject and can follow German, I recommend my article „Weniger ist mehr – Grenzen und Aussichten der klassischen Gitarre“ (see also About the Liuto forte – Contributions, André Burguete LINK).

CK: It is seldom taken into account that the introduction of the guitar was accompanied by several serious drawbacks, such as the limited range of basses (if I got this right as a layman in lute things). Wouldn’t that have forced musicians to try and combine the advantages of the lute and the guitar?

AB: Already around 1800 – when historical lutes and romantic guitars could still be compared – some criticism of the guitar’s body shape and stringing emerged. Independently from one another, several authors held that the box-shape of the guitar was not ideal for a plucking instrument. They proposed to vault the back again in the manner of traditional lutes and theorbos. There were good acoustical reasons for this.

The body of the lute, made up in principle of two parts, soundboard and shell, can be compared to a loudspeaker. It transforms the touch of the string much more effectively into sound than a „box“. In the latter the impulse cannot travel directly from soundboard to back but is actually „eaten up“ by the sides in between. Guitars with more convex backs might produce a somewhat softer sound. However, the transformation of the energy impulse into sound is not at all improved here as long as top and back are separated by sides. It appears the developers of the „Ovation“-guitars considered this. However, the indentation of the edge of the body typical of the guitar still brings unnecessary stiffness here, invariably impeding energy transmission between top and back.

The dominance of the six-stringed guitar today is not so much due to musical reason but rather results from the profit-oriented strategies of publishers of guitar sheet music. These 19th-century publishers mainly targeted the mass of amateurs and guitar fans keen on singing. In contrast, quite a number of important 19th-century guitarists played instruments with seven, eight, or even more strings. However, the corresponding compositions were far less widely published than those for the six-string guitar. This quite distorted the public impression of the optimal number of strings for a guitar, which is actually seven or nine from a musical point of view. I hold however that, beyond this number, the instrument would face severe acoustical and aesthetical limits.

CK: You have created an instrument which is both more powerful and easier to play than either lute or guitar. Could you sketch briefly how these two effects come about? The Liuto forte looks rather „normal” to me, all in all. For example, it is not significantly larger or more rounded (volume), its fretboard is not significantly narrower (playability) …

AB: The Liuto forte contrasts with the lute in much the same way that the sound made by modern violins, or by violins “modernized” in the 19th century differs in comparison with original baroque violins. By the way, only one of the about 300 recognized violins by Stradivari is still in its original state as built in the 18th century in Cremona. Though the body of these modernized violins is still original, significant details – such as the barring of the soundboard, the pressure exerted on it by the strings, the string tension itself – were later modified to allow for increased sound pressure and intensity and thus a broader dynamic. These modifications not only made them more suitable for concerts in front of a larger audience, but offered entirely new possibilities of musical expression.

The Liuto forte does not weigh more than a historical lute and therefore far less than the common guitar. However it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sound pressure could be significantly enhanced due to a novel patented construction of the top as well as the single strings at higher tension instead of double strings. This could be done without placing too much of a strain on the instrument and thus by avoiding the more robust construction which is well-known from early 20th-century lutes. Ultimately, the Liuto forte’s improvements in sound are brought about by many individual components, a new manner of assembly, and rather intensive work in its development. It’s rather complex, there is no particular „trick“.

CK: Do you remember the initial spark, or the first specific plan to start developing the Liuto forte?

AB: It was a natural evolution rather than a call from heaven. Like many contemporary lutenists I first studied the classical guitar. As I felt uncomfortable with the rather restricted repertoire for this instrument, I was magically drawn to the lute and its immense potential and resources already at quite a young age. At nineteen I began to play copies of historical Renaissance and Baroque lutes. But I missed the greater range of sound expressiveness possible on the classical guitar. These restrictions were mainly due to the double strings and to the relatively fleeting sound of the historically designed instrument. Only later I came to recognize the tradition of single-stringed historical lutes such as the theorbo and Angelique, among others. I discovered that Johann Sebastian Bach’s lute works were composed for a powerful single-stringed instrument. From this discovery came the decisive impulse to continue with this promising line of lute instrument tradition. In a sense, Johann Sebastian Bach might thus rightly be named the „father“ of the Liuto forte (see also: www.bach-lautenwerke.de/en.html).

In previous years I had already worked intensively with museums and played on original historical instruments. I was well informed on the internal construction and the functioning of such instruments. Therefore I was able to take the top bracings of late-baroque lutes as a starting point for developing ideas how these should be modified in order to achieve a more powerful instrument with singing trebles, clearer middle voices and impressive basses. In itself, this would hardly have been sufficient. Fortunately enough in this situation, I met „the right people at the right time“. Thanks to the help of the ingenious engineer Benno Streu from Freiburg I was able to specify more closely my ideas regarding the design of a new construction of the top. Finally the luthier Günter Mark completed the team, as the „Third Musketeer” so-to-say. With his sensitive imagination he created the first prototypes of the „Liuto forte“. Without these two collaborators, there would have been no chance of realizing the vision of a modern lute that combined the best of the historical lute and the classical guitar.

It might be of some interest that before ever having heard such an instrument, I already had a distinct sound idea in connection with the word „lute“. This sound neither resembled that of a guitar nor that of copies of historical lutes as I got to know them later on. Now that is quite strange.

CK: You work with scientists at the Dresden University of Technology. Could you tell us about the role and significance of this cooperation? Does this mark the crucial advance over your earlier attempts at lute development? How important is the option of applying state-of-the-art technology in order to achieve optimum results?

AB: So far, modal analysis studies in the lab have unfortunately not supplied a „recipe“ for constructing the perfect instrument. However, they do significantly contribute to a better understanding of certain acoustical processes and basic operation principles of musical instruments. As an example, some video clips on our website give you a good impression which parts of the instrument are particularly active in certain frequency ranges (see About the Liuto forte – Research, LINK). That is not the least useful tool in error analysis. From the beginning, our collaboration with the Dresden University of Technology has been conceived as a long-term project. This was necessary if only because of the considerable time period which is needed to find a common language between physicists, instrument builders, and musicians. It has to be said however that the measurements in the acoustic labs in Zwota and Dresden never constituted a prerequisite for the excellent sound quality of our instruments, which emerged from the collaboration of Michael Haaser, Günter Mark, Benno Streu and myself. Primarily, these measurements helped us better understand the vibration characteristics of our lutes in retrospect. It may well be, however, that results from lab analyses will provide useful clues on how to further improve the quality of our instruments.

CK: In violin making, the old masters are considered the measure of all things, be it regarding sound quality or instrument design, including varnishing (if these domains can be separated at all). Are the old masters equally revered in the area of lute making? How do you deal with that standard?

AB: I wish we had such a gold standard to derive unequivocal quality criteria in the way it is possible with violins by famous craftsmen of the 17th and 18th century, which are still in use. Unfortunately, the situation is completely different with preserved historical lutes. According to current knowledge, there still exist about 1000 historical lutes of European design, of which an estimated 95% are no longer playable. Regarding the remaining few – such as a lute by Sebastian Schelle (1744) in my former possession – it is completely uncertain whether the instrument’s sound is still the same as 300 years ago when it was in continuous use. Today’s luthiers generally copy instruments which have long fallen silent and hang in museums. As a rule, if one historical instrument is copied by different luthiers you get quite different sound characteristics. This even holds true when all construction measurements and all the woods used are identical. The level of craftsmanship might be excellent and well on a par with the original model. However, we cannot tell if the same holds good for sound characteristics, because, due to the circumstances described, the original has long ago died. In consequence, we have no choice but to “reinvent” the lute in regard to its sound.

Despite such limitations, there is a clearly recognizable characteristic of many ancient lutes, namely their astonishingly effortless responsiveness. This is due to some hidden knowledge that was lost in the age of mass production and was only rediscovered in the 20th century by Benno Streu from Freiburg. It has to do with the correct pairing of woods for top and back and is used in all Liuti forti. For the time being, we keep it a company secret.

CK: Was your idea greeted with enthusiasm from the beginning? Or did you face scepticism or even mockery?

AB: Every marketing expert is familiar with the concept of „early adaptors“. This expression refers to people who have long awaited a certain innovation and take it on immediately it becomes available. These customers keep the inventor from ruin in the startup phase. They stabilize his self-esteem and allow him the illusion that he will be able to re-pay his bank debts in the future. A second group, in principle equally benevolent, will wait and see how things develop and whether the innovation survives the startup phase. They usually emerge – by and large unexpectedly – in the dry period that follows the early adaptor phase. This is the period characterized by a very uncertain future for the innovation, bringing with it the occasional thought of capitulation. The third and by far the largest group follow the majority principle. Once enough persons of the first and second category have gained and expressed their satisfaction, these initially hesitant people decide not to hang back any longer, maybe even fearing to look old-fashioned. As for the Liuto forte we seem to be approaching this point.

Innovations are, as a rule, met with scepticism. In this connection it is of interest that most lasting innovations are only accepted after a period of about twenty years. To name some telling examples, this was true for the cello, the fortepiano, the diesel engine, the ballpoint pen and the zipper, among others. This seems to be a kind of incubation period that can hardly be shortened and may be needed to overcome the resistance of the strongest forces in the world, namely habit and prejudice. I did not encounter any mockery so far. However, I have to realize unmistakable signs of uneasiness and even fear on the part of protagonists of “historical” lute playing. I usually assure them that I would never deny the validity of the historical lute, but rather intend to open a new chapter in the history of this beautiful instrument. From my point of view this entails, above all, that lutenists open themselves up to the whole range of musical styles and welcome guitarists rather than exclude them.

Moreover, even the art of making lutes within the historical tradition can benefit by our experiences with the Liuto forte. For example, our luthier Günter Mark just received the German Award for Musical Instruments („Deutscher Musikinstrumentenpreis“) in appreciation of a Renaissance lute in g (alto lute). In the making of this lute he applied several principles that were developed for the Liuto forte, such as methods of fine tuning and principles of wood selection. The instrument was on display at the Frankfurt Music Fair (“Frankfurter Musikmesse“) in March 2012.

CK: Do you see a chance to firmly establish the lute in today’s musical landscape, after a lag of several centuries?

AB: I strongly believe in that prospect as long as people are ready to critically examine and revise the instrument, which has remained stranded in the 18th century. One should be ready to remove any obstacles impeding the use of lutes for 19th– and 20th-century musical styles and up to the present.

Over the last ten years we have not only fundamentally revised the whole lute family but have also developed special strings for our new instruments. They are individually attuned for each model and much better balanced than customary lute and guitar strings. In addition, I have developed a new playing technique, which is especially adapted to these instruments. Traditional playing techniques for Renaissance and Baroque lute are combined and integrated with 19th– and 20th-century guitar playing techniques into something new. For instance, as in piano technique, I apply the little finger of the right hand on an equal basis. This requires a fully relaxed hand position somewhere in the middle between the standard positions for baroque lute and classical guitar. Players will further explore the enormous potential sound quality of the Liuto forte in the years to come. Any proposals are welcome.

CK: Rock music is part of the contemporary musical landscape. My own attention was drawn to you by Ingo Hampf of „Subway to Sally“ … Could you imagine creating special electric instruments with pickups that are suitable for the extreme stresses of a Rock show? The demands on assertiveness are much bigger here as compared to a chamber music setting … Also the heat of spotlights strongly exceeds the heat production during a normal lute concert, which would provoke the well-known oversensitive reaction of many instruments in such circumstances …

A.B: We are in principle open to everything and like to experiment. Sound examples from an amplified Liuto forte, played by Peter Autschbach, can be found on our website (LINK AUTSCHBACH). Primarily however, the Liuto forte is obviously an acoustic instrument, which is constructed to exploit an optimized air resonance rather than the quality of an amplifier. Due to my lack of experience here I cannot tell whether this „natural“ strength might be of any advantage in the area of Rock music. One has to try.

CK: Final question: Would you consider the Liuto forte a musical „philosopher’s stone“ or rather a milestone in a continuing line of development?

AB: As it seems, the „philosopher’s stone“ has already been found by certain protagonists of historical lute playing who fear any change like the devil hates holy water. This instrument, formerly so versatile, is far from having reached its limits. I would be happy to see it leave the realm of museums behind and be set free again. I would be fully satisfied if future music history would mention us as protagonists in this process.

CK: Thank you for this interview.

Zillo Medieval, March 2012

(Printing with kind permission of Zillo medivial)