And if you listen very hard, a stairway to heaven awaits


And if you listen very hard, a stairway to heaven awaits

Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul? Stradivarius or Guarneri? WILLEM KEMPEN tunes in to the instruments with which the world's finest music is made.

Mandolin and Guitar. Pablo Picasso, 1924. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.
Mandolin and Guitar. Pablo Picasso, 1924. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

WHAT do you hear when you listen to Jimmy Page's guitar on Whole Lotta Love? Or to violinist Jascha Heifetz performing Paganini's Caprice No. 24?

Perhaps more importantly, what do you see when you look at these two artists, and what do you already know about them? How does the visual picture, or any prior knowledge you might have about them, influence your experience of their music?

Some people, upon hearing the first sounds — or even at first sight of the artists — will decide not to listen further to one or the other: you don't listen to classical music, or you don't listen to rock music. Or to jazz or blues or rap or hip hop or death metal.

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Some people hear electrically amplified sound and lose interest; others won't understand why you would want to listen to something produced by only one or two instruments, or that has no vocals. Some wouldn't listen to a musician wearing a tailcoat, others would snub anyone who parades on stage with long hair and tight-fitting pants. This one wonders why a musician would be drunk on stage, the next why someone would always be sober.

Try to put all these things out of your mind, then listen to this:

And to this:

Perhaps the question should really be: how do you judge someone playing a piece of music? Is it about virtuosity, creativity, intensity, coherence, precision, expression, the mastery of an instrument? The ability to communicate emotions, to tell a story or create beauty with sound?

What role does the zeitgeist play, or the culture within which all of this takes place? Or the style and the atmosphere in which it is done, the kind of audience listening to it, the acoustics, the quality of the recording or even the reputation of the instruments?

How much does it matter that Page might be playing on a Gibson Les Paul Standard, or Heifetz on an 18th century Guarneri? Or, to put the question differently: that Page doesn't play on a Fender Stratocaster, or Heifetz doesn't play on an instrument by Stradivari or Amati or one of the other old masters?

Should you judge a live stage performance of Led Zeppelin in the same way as a recording of the same music in a sophisticated sound studio? Would Page be able to play at his best to an audience of smartly dressed middle-aged people on upright chairs in a formal concert hall? Or Heifetz in front of a crowd of giddy teenagers on a stage dripping with beer?

Can you ever know how good Heifetz truly was if you never saw him play live, or you had to rely on scratchy recordings on vinyl or on black-and-white videos on the web? What about “artists" who would never venture on stage because without electronic intervention they are completely awful to listen to?

Surely no serious musician would want to play on an inferior instrument, one that produces false notes or a superficial or unpredictable sound, or that is mechanically unreliable or easily goes out of tune, but is the relative difference in musical quality between two excellent instruments really that big?

Yes. Maybe. Sometimes. It depends, and on many things.

For example, when I asked Bing who makes the world's best concert pianos, it neatly listed its answers from one to eight, as if it's something everyone would agree on:

Steinway & Sons, Yamaha, Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Fazioli, Kawai, Stuart & Sons.

Drums? Neat list of five:

Pearl Drums, DW Drums, Ludwig Drums, Tama Drums, Yamaha Drums.

Acoustic guitars?

Five again, without hesitation: Martin & Co, Taylor Guitars, Gibson, Fender, Collings Guitars.

Electric guitars?

Again there are five on the list, but Bing is more careful this time: “Some of the best electric guitar brands in the world include":

Fender, Gibson, PRS Guitars, Ibanez, Jackson.

And when I asked about violins, suddenly there was no mention of contemporary makers or any country of origin outside of Europe. All five on Bing's list are old masters from the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries, four  are Italian, and the list is simply taken from violin magazine The Strad:

Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri, Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, Carlo Bergonzi, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (the only Frenchman on the list).

Even the finely strung (sorry, couldn't resist) members of The Strad's editorial staff would readily admit that their list is as subjective as any of the others. The other problem with this list is that those kinds of violins' rarity and historical or collectible value place them out of reach for all but the very top violinists. A beginner pianist can find a Steinway to play on with a little effort, or a young rocker a Fender, but most violinists never even get to see anything from Cremona up close, let alone play on one.

In other words: such lists may be fun to compile or argue about, but they don't mean much. Even when every now and then someone goes to the trouble of comparing instruments in a scientific way under controlled conditions, the results are usually ambiguous or otherwise inconclusive. All those theories about the type of wood or other materials, or the recipe for the varnish with which Stradivari protected his violins against insects, or the time of year the tree was cut down, or how long the cable between the Gibson and the amp are, go out the window rather quickly.

For example, in a comparison like the one on YouTube below, can you hear the difference between a Stradivarius believed to be worth $10 million and a bunch of much cheaper instruments?

Or, when watching this one, decide which of a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson Les Paul is the better electric guitar?

Andries Bezuidenhout, professor of development studies at the University of Fort Hare and himself a recorded artist, says the music and the musician should always count more than the instrument. But he also immediately confesses: “I suffer from GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome: guitars, microphones, you name it.

“Would I buy a Fender Stratocaster if I could afford it? For R50,000? Absolutely, alas. But the danger is that you start fixating on the instrument instead of on your efforts to master it. That's where GAS comes in — notes on the credit card rather than reading notes.

“Does the wood the instrument is made from make a difference to the sound? Absolutely. And for acoustic guitars, whether it is a ‘solid body' or not. But a good guitarist can make even the cheapest instrument sound good."

And he sends me these two videos about an argument on YouTube on the merits of Yamaha's electric guitars:

Andries also says: “I don't think the myths surrounding instruments are unimportant, provided you don't get stuck on them. And it's sad that violins have now become a commodity, to such an extent that the musicians themselves can no longer afford certain instruments but have to borrow them from rich people. It's perverse."

He refers to the French sociologist Luc Boltanski who writes about the tendency for the rich to invest in rare cultural objects, including art, antiques, books, architecturally outstanding buildings and musical instruments.

“An entire industry of people, mostly academics, then arises around the valuation of these objects or commodities, and they become the arbiters of taste. The result is that something like a violin becomes a commodity for speculation, rather than a musical instrument. Fiction and truth are now determined by the interests of investors, rather than how the instrument sounds in the hands of a musician."

And he talks about the “beautiful old beat-up Yamaha electric guitar" he bought at a Cash Converters in East London: “A hell of a bargain. Then I found someone who could do a ‘setup' for me. He imported pickups from England (Iron Gear, a small boutique company). Camel bone nut. He adjusted the guitar's action (how high the strings sit off the fretboard). The whole process made me build a kind of relationship with the instrument. I love recording with it."

And such a relationship with an instrument is crucial, says Andries. “The psychology of a good performance is important. If the artist feels good about the instrument, then it helps with the interpretation of a composition. And something I learned about good sound engineers: the atmosphere in the studio is just as important as where you put the microphone and what kind of microphone you use."

The value of such a relationship, and of a physical involvement in the music, also arose when I asked Piet Koornhof, professor of violin at  North-West University (and an inexhaustible source of jokes about viola players) about musicians and their instruments.

(What is the difference between violinists and viola players?
All violinists can play the viola, but not all viola players can play the viola.)

Piet regularly challenges anyone who doubts whether a contemporary violin like that of Boris Sverdlik, on which he himself plays, can be the equal of those of the 18th century masters, and at the same time insists there is no substitute for musicians who have walked the long and hard road of mastering an acoustic instrument and its repertoire.


On the importance of physical involvement in music, Piet sent me this quote from William Westney's book Eros at the Piano: The Life-Energy of Classical Music:

“Among the abstract arts music stands out by its precise and complex articulation, subject to a grammar of its own. In profundity and scope, it may compare with pure mathematics. Moreover, both of these testify to the same paradox: namely that man can hold important discourse about nothing. For they both speak to us. We do not merely hear music but listen to it and enjoy it by understanding it, even as we enjoy mathematics. Like mathematics, music articulates a vast range of rational relationships for the mere pleasure of understanding them."

And, says Piet, it's this kind of enjoyment that is sometimes lost along the way.

“Before the early 20th century, there was no distinction between classical music and pop music. There was only ‘music' — admittedly on a spectrum from ‘folk music' to individual creations that arose from a musical system that developed rapidly and was highly complex, but always kept a link with folk music. Just ask Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on.

“Why then the split that arose between classical and pop music? That's the million-dollar question. I think it's primarily because composition has become so abstract in the pursuit of greater complexity, encouraged by academia, that the fundamental connection of the human body with the instrument has been broken.

“Then it was no longer necessary for a composer to also be a top performer in order to compose properly, and the criterion for originality, again encouraged by academia, became inaccessibility: the more complex, the more inaccessible, the better. Inaccessibility became a sign of originality and complexity. Each composer actually had to develop a whole new musical language of his own to be considered worthy by academia. So, the more radical the break with tradition was, the better.

“Now their abstractions were given free rein, and this left a fundamental void. Before, the best composers were also the best performers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on. Rachmaninoff was the last great composer who was also a top performer. The visceral was replaced by the abstract, and the body was lost.

“Pop music was the backlash. It emphasised the bodily involvement with the instrument and therefore the music. And as these things seem to go, the pendulum then swung to the other extreme, and pop music took on a life of its own, backed by electrical technology that made a bigger noise and could reach more people. A case of [Jung's] Logos versus the Eros, perhaps. The unity was broken and the two drifted further and further away from each other."

But, says Piet, he sees encouraging signs of a revival, and of the Eros returning to classical music, especially when attending the annual Verbier music festival in Switzerland in July.


“A greater range of acceptable interpretations and of style, more informality of presentation, greater emphasis on individuality, more sensitivity to audiences' needs and expectations — a general greater openness to variety and creativity and accessibility, in composition as well as execution. The standards at Verbier were staggeringly high. It puts any previous era to shame."

Which made me think, not quite sure why, of the ending of another piece of music, from another time and in another style:

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all, yeah
To be a rock and not to roll

And she's buying a stairway to heaven

♦ VWB ♦

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