Saturday morning quotes 4.11: Lute or guitar?
Last week’s post that outlined a few broad points concerning new compositions of music for lute sparked a bit of discussion, mostly among guitarists. While the repertoire for the two instruments may be readily transferred with varying degrees of success, the physical differences, acoustical properties, and methods of tone production between guitar and lute are quite significant.
“Taking a geometrically generated outline, and with the help of proportional cross and longitudinal sections, [lute makers] visualized the complete interior air cavity, mentally adding or subtracting pieces of air, as it were, until they had the desired shape… Understandably, then, the lute’s bowl shape is as subtle and complex as that of a violin’s carved belly and back arching, with many variables in the air mass volume and distribution, each variable producing substantial changes in tone color, of bias in power, projection, and/or balance.”
– Robert Lundberg, “In Tune with the Universe: The Physics and Metaphysics of Galileo’s Lute,” from Music and Science in the Age of Galileo. Ed. V. Coelho. University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science 51. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992: 221-222.
Nearly all of today’s better-known lutenists started out on guitar, with a few notable exceptions, including Stephen Stubbs and Lynda Sayce. Robert Barto and Karl-Ernst Schröder recorded an album of guitar duets on the lute’s more modern cousin, and even Paul O’Dette recorded modern guitar duets with Thomas Binkley and the Studio Der Frühen Musik on the LP, L’Agonie Du Languedoc (1976).
There are several thoughtful discussions written by skilled lutenists dissecting the details of their transition from guitar to lute, like that of Richard Sweeny.
The main difference between the two instruments has to do with just how much inconvenience the player is willing to endure. The guitar is reliable, stable and solidly-built. The lute is lightweight, unwieldy and unpredictable. The merest whiff of hot or cold air will cause the tuning to go awry. Humidity or the lack of it can wreak absolute havoc on the thin membrane that is the top. The transparency of tone leaves the player nowhere to hide if there is the least little lapse of control in tone production.
But we still like the guitar and enjoy playing all sorts of music, old and new, that is well-conceived and sensitively written. It so happens that composer John David Lamb, the author of the quote featured in last week’s blog post, has written such a piece for guitar, and has kindly agreed to make the score available for interested and intrepid guitarists: Impromptu, by John David Lamb (PDF).