What kind of cello is that? This Thursday's Avant Gardner Instrument Experiment

luis-clark At this Thursday's Avant Gardner Concert, we'll be playing Francesco Geminiani's "La Folia" on a complete set of carbon fiber instruments, generously loaned to us for the month by Luis and Clark Carbon Fiber Instruments. Imagining our audience might be curious about this idea, we checked in with Jae Young Cosmos Lee, who fathered this exciting brainchild.

Q) Where did the idea come from? A) The initial idea came to me while AFC was on tour a couple of years back playing at an outdoor venue in Louisiana with 98% humidity and light rain and our musicians were freaking out... A few of the artists were very reluctant to continue playing on their precious instruments and most of our instruments sounded like they were under water.. We still finished the concert by sheer will, but the experience inspired me to look for a solution.

Q) How did you come across Luis and Clark instruments? A) Well the very first time I ever saw and heard a Luis & Clark instrument was in 2006 - the Canadian cellist, Shauna Rolston, was playing hers at Banff. Then a few years later after our concert in Louisiana, to my surprise, I found out that the company was located in the Boston area and that one of our board members already knew Luis Leguia, founder and owner of the Luis & Clark company and a former cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Moreover, it turned out that he had already seen A Far Cry perform, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the group. At my first meeting with Luis & his wife Stephanie, they generously loaned me a carbon fiber instrument, which I ended up playing a couple of chamber music concerts on in the fall.

Q) On a concert largely made up of music written in the past 20 years, why specifically play the one Baroque piece on the program (Geminiani's La Folia) on these new "space age" instruments? A)The title of this "Avant Gardner" program "Folly" is taken directy from the context of "La Folia", in its literal translation meaning "Madness".. What could be more "Avant-Garde" or even "Mad" than playing on a set of instruments that the 17th-century violinist and composer, Geminiani,"Il Furibondo" himself, or even Jascha Heifetz would never have imagined hearing.. Believe it or not, this is the very first time a professional ensemble would be playing on a set of carbon fiber instruments in a concert setting.. ever. I gotta say that is pretty sweet. Maybe The Guinness Book of World Records will come calling us. In all seriousness though, it seemed like the best way for us to really try these instruments was to use them to play the most "conventional" piece on a new music concert..

Q) How is it different playing a carbon fiber instrument? A) Carbon fiber responds very differently than wood and possess a completely different voice of its own without the loss of sound quality. The response time is quicker and it resonates 360 degrees around the instrument in comparison to the wooden instrument relying mainly its "f" holes as the sound output. It is virtually unbreakable & can resist the most dramatic of weather conditions.. Some people lament over the fact that its color palette is a bit more limiting than a wooden instrument, but in my opinion, one can find many different colors with judicious use of the bow. I heard a story that a couple members of the Louisiana Philharmonic who played on Luis and Clark instruments were able to retrieve their instruments in sturdy condition after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the instrument locker flooded. The only parts that had to be replaced were the bridge and soundpost, which are the only wooden parts. It really is a modern marvel.. I can imagine the experience perhaps feeling like the first time Buddy Holly plucked the strings on an electric guitar and began drooling over its distortions...

Q) Part of the inspiration for this project came from the Landfill Harmonic. Right? Can you tell us more about that? A) Back in my days when I was living out in west coast, I worked for a violin dealer for a couple of years, and was very fortunate to play on super fine, 17th and 18th century Italian instruments for clients every week. There were Strads, Guarnerius, Gaglianos, Amatis, you name it.. They were already priced in the multiple millions of dollars even back then, and I look at auction reports now a days and find that a lot of these prices have doubled and tripled.. HOW, WHY.. WHO CAN AFFORD THAT!!

Especially not me and a lot of the best musicians I know, who should be playing them. Then on the flip side of that equation, I recently watched a YouTube video of a student orchestra in the slums of Paraguay, called Landfill Harmonic. These under privileged kids play on instruments made by recycled garbage parts, but I have to say that it is one of the most inspiring videos about music I've seen in a long time, since it puts the love of music, the person's musicianship and soul before all the other things that preoccupy our business presently. There should be something in between a $20 million Stradivarius and a violin made out of a gas canister, not only that sounds great but is more affordable, because the aim of young musicians should be one of lofty goals such as creating beauty, excitement and having fun - not "When I grow up, I want to play so well, a foundation will buy me an expensive Montagnana cello!" There needs to be a equalizer in our present day, which is not that different from an electric car that forces us to move away from fossil fuel, to save our environment and economy. In a sense, I see carbon fiber instruments leading this movement for classical music as a whole, in the years to come. I want to think of them as even-ing the playing field - research into new materials might make it possible for people all over the world to experience the music we love, and we want to support that.