Along the Way: The Notes We Lose
An effort to preserve a string instrument in Italy, and why we should save the sounds of the things we hold dear
BEFORE DAYBREAK today, I came across a story about an Italian violin on its deathbed.
Antonio Stradivari crafted it and hundreds like it in the 1600s or 1700s. Over time, people developed treatments to delay their expiration. But even the most treasured instruments check out at about 400 or younger, or about six or seven lifetimes in human years, or 40 or 50 lifetimes in dog years. “After they reach a certain age, they become too fragile to be played and they, ‘go to sleep,’ so to speak,” museum curator Fausto Cacciatori says in the story, published in The New York Times.
For the city that gave birth to the instrument, Cremona, Italy, this is a time of mourning. Stradivarius violins, according to people with better ears than mine, produce a sound like no other violin in the history of violins. One sold for $16 million.
The good citizens of Cremona, where Stradivari had his workshop, have taken extraordinary measures to retain the violin’s voice. Early in 2019, engineers set up 32 ultrasensitive microphones in an auditorium and began recording professional musicians as they performed hundreds of thousands of notes on the instruments. Their hope is to retain a digital collection of every sound the violin can make.
This was their second preservation attempt. In 2017, they quit because the microphones picked up sounds that tainted quality—vibrations from cars driving by on the cobblestone streets outside, or people clicking along in high heels. This time, the mayor shut down streets around the auditorium and gave nearby residents a soft order: Please be quiet. For five weeks, from early January to early February, recording sessions went on while everyone in this city of 72,000 whispered, tiptoed, and tried not to break wind, all so artists in the future can record songs with the sounds of ghosts.
I’ve wasted a few minutes since reading the story trying to think of an American town that might unite for an artistic endeavor like this, but I’ve come up empty. Certainly it wouldn’t happen in the places we think of as music hubs—Atlanta, New Orleans, Nashville, and Austin are too big. So is Charlotte, for that matter. The best I’ve come up with is Johnson City, Tennessee, which with 66,000 residents is slightly smaller than Cremona and has a reputation as a music town.
After reading the story, I head out before breakfast for a walk through Evergreen Nature Preserve, not far from our house in east Charlotte. My mind wanders: If you had to lose all your senses but one, which would you keep? I think mine would be hearing; lay me flat and spin some records, and I’ll be happy.
It’s a soggy and gray morning. I’m alone in a mud bottom when I stop to hear the wind in the woods. Here’s one of the rare places in this city of almost a million people where I can escape every damn one of them. The quiet is comforting.
It’s been one week to the day since my father died. I know plenty of people whose prescription for grief is distraction. I’m not like that. I’ve spent the past seven days and six nights trying to understand it, taking walks like this, waking up before 5 a.m. to read stories about violins I’ll never touch, swirling the grief around like a sommelier swishes a new wine, only I can’t seem to swallow yet. I’m one of the lucky ones who can say that my father meant the world to me, but the downside is that when it speeds away, it leaves burn marks.
Throughout the last seven or so years of my father’s life, after his strokes, I saved all of his voicemails. I’m not sure I can offer much advice on what to do when your loved ones are fading, but I can tell you to do this: Save their voices. More than pictures, more than hats or shirts he used to wear, the short audio clips are now my most valuable possessions.
For centuries, only the most influential people lived on in books and paintings. But then came audio and video recordings, and now any ordinary fisherman like my father can achieve digital immortality, so long as nobody deletes it.
“Mike, this is your old man,” Dad says simply in one from 2011. It sounds like he’s here. “I’ll talk to you in a little while.”
One of the last recordings is from mid-2018, just before he lost the ability to understand how to use his phone. It’s 30 seconds long and has four words.
“Hello, Mike?” he says, as if he thinks I’m there.
Four seconds go by.
Another six seconds go by before he calls out one more time.
Then 15 more seconds of silence. I’ve listened to that message at least a hundred times this week, wishing I could answer.