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Classical 101

Carbon Fiber Beats Wood at Instrument Competition

Mezzo-forte's carbon fiber violin
Mezzo-forte
Mezzo-forte's award-winning carbon fiber violin.

For nearly 35 years, the Deutschen Musikinstrumentenpreis (German Music Instrument Awards) has recognized excellence in the building of contemporary instruments in Germany. For the first time, a violin made from a synthetic material has bested wooden violins in the competition. It was manufactured by mezzo-forte, a German company which first began making carbon fiber bows before venturing into making instruments in 2009.

There have been any number of blind listening tests to determine whether a violin by Stradivari truly sounds better than modern instruments. That debate continues – but carbon fiber? ”No way,” has been the standard response. On the other hand, many musicians say that these instruments are wonderful to play and to hear. Below, Josephine van Lier plays the Sarabande from the Bach Cello Suite No. 5 on a carbon fiber cello manufactured in 2005 by Mr Clark’s company, Luis and Clark.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f479m1UE0Ro

The story of how these instruments came about is quite fascinating. Carbon fiber composites have strengthened aircraft and spacecraft for many years, as well as sailing vessels competing for the America’s Cup. It’s strong, light, and durable. When professional cellist Luis Leguia, who was also an amateur sailor, was out on the water, he noticed the tone his fiberglass hull made in the water. In the late 1980s, he began experimenting with various materials in his basement, eventually building prototype carbon-fiber instruments.

After teaming up with Steve Clark, a shipbuilder and carbon-fiber expert, the project gained momentum. They began manufacturing instruments in 2000.

Winning a competition after only fifteen years of production seems amazing. I doubt the disagreement over which is better ever disappears, but this certainly ratchets the competition up a bit. As prices for classic instruments continue to skyrocket and those instruments disappear into private collections, the game may change.

In this video, a violinist plays a duet with himself, one part on a wooden violin and the other on a carbon fiber model. You decide.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsW_BUIrZUg