Fiddling more sustainably

Ebony and Ivory? A not quite flawless anti-racism song … Thoughts on making musical instruments and on the world’s first vegan-certified violin

Music and the animal kingdom: these are two things which, at first glance, have little to do with one another. But if you take a second look, it makes you start to think. Histori-cally, musical instruments are often made out of materials from – killed, stripped – animals: Drums are made with animal skins or covered with fur, and the tortoise shell from turtles is found in mouthpieces. Acoustic guitars use cow bones for the saddle on which the strings rest, and violin strings are made of dried gut. The bows of string players, in turn, are strung with horsehair, which is carefully harvested from live horses, but can also be painful for the animals. Not to mention the bone glue which is often used in the assembly of the instrument parts.

Against this backdrop, Ebony and Ivory, the basically well-intentioned anti-racism song by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, can begin to leave a bad aftertaste. If white ivory and black ebony can harmonize perfectly on the piano keyboard, according to the conciliatory message of the 1982 evergreen, why can’t black and white people do the same? There is a small catch: For a long period of time, the ivory for the white keys came from elephants which had also often been poached. And the ebony for the black keys may not be an animal, but it still comes from a precious tropical tree listed as an endangered species. Thus, Wonder and McCartney involuntarily invoke a questionable state of harmony. To their credit, they probably didn’t know any better at the time – like many fans who enthusiastically hummed along to the song, including the author of this post. Regulations to protect species, which at least limit the use of animal materials and endangered tropical trees, including in the manufacture of musical instruments, have only been in force since the end of the 1980s.

Since then, research into alternative materials has been conducted with a passion. And in violin making in particular, this has led to the world’s first certified cruelty-free violin. The instrument, which received an award from the Vegan Society earlier this year, was made by the renowned violin maker Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh of Hibernian Violins in Malvern, Worcestershire, England. He used steamed pears for the lining, colored the wood with the juice of wild berries, and used regional spring water, among other things, for the binding agent. During the Corona pandemic, Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh was inspired by thoughtful customers who finally wanted to play their violins free of ethical concerns. The award from the Vegan Society, however, only pertains to the body of the instrument – for bows and strings there have long been plant-based and other non-animal options available. The unique instrument retails at approximately 9,600 euros, but this may change as demand increases. And of course Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh is not the only violin maker who works according to vegan principles – his violin was merely the first to be certified accordingly. Among German specialists, the one who is most frequently mentioned is Jan Meyer in Leipzig.

It goes without saying that a key aspect of sustainable instrument making is the question of whether using other materials alters the acoustics – and if so, whether the sound is equivalent or worse. This is a subject of passionate debate among experts. But one can assume that, in light of their own high standards, specialists like Jan Meyer and Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh would not go public with substandard work on principle alone. And that, including when it comes to listening to music, many things just need getting used to.

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