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Article A Comparison of Five Violins: Recording Notes by Nicholas Kitchen

Image: Nick Kitchen
Nick Kitchen, 1st Violinist, Borromeo String Quartet, playing the "Goldberg Baron Vitta" violin in the Library's Coolidge Auditorium.

In May 2007 the "Goldberg" violin was donated to the Library of Congress. The "Goldberg" violin joined its "twin," the "Kreisler" violin to become part of the Library's collection. At that moment, the violin officially became the "Goldberg Baron Vitta" Guarneri del Gesú violin.

In the process of preparing the donation, many discussions were held about the meaningful collaborations surrounding the "Goldberg" violin. One such notion was mine--the idea of an intensive exploration of five extraordinary violins that are part of the Library's collection.

I felt that a very potent vehicle for exploring the tone of these individual violins would be the Bach Ciaconna for solo violin. This piece, written in 1720, was created very close to the time that the five violins themselves were created. The work was written just after the sudden death of Bach's wife and it seems to be an outpouring of grief. It is a piece of huge proportions--13 minutes of music for solo violin which covers as large a range of emotions and sonorities as any piece of music--all from a single violin and violinist.

My idea was to explore and reveal the expressive characters of the violins in a real performance. In this way, a listener could hear a particular violin in a fully involved process of making music.

In March 2007, I joined the Library's Music Division, the Information Technology Services directorate, and the concert-recording studio; we set up for two days of work in the Coolidge Auditorium. The video cameras were arranged, the mics were set up, and the five violins arrived.

The "Goldberg" arrived with me. Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the Library's musical instruments, brought the four other violins to the Coolidge--the "Kreisler" del Gesú, the "Castelbarco" Stradivarius, the "Betts" Stradivarius, and finally, the "Brookings" Amati. John Montgomery, a luthier who maintains the Library's instruments, also was on hand to make sure that all of the instruments were in the best possible shape.

I took about a half hour to accustom myself to each instrument, and then played the Bach Ciaconna in three complete performances on each instrument. Two pieces of tape marked my position on the stage, so that for all of the recordings the violins were in exactly the same position relative to the microphones.

There were three exceptions to the three-take pattern that resulted in extra performances. The very first take with the "Goldberg" had a mistake in setup so it was abandoned. During the first performance with the "Betts," a misunderstanding about the work schedule of the Architect of the Capitol--the office in charge of building a tunnel between the U. S. Capitol and the Library--resulted in a take with tunnel-building percussion. Then, I decided at the end of all the sessions that one more session with the "Kreisler" was important. I felt that I had gotten a little over-excited in the first couple of takes and had let the rhythm be shaken.

So with these various exceptions, in those two days there were four complete performances of the Bach Ciaconna on the "Goldberg" Guarneri del Gesú, four complete performances on the "Kreisler" del Gesú, three complete performances on the "Castelbarco" Stradivarius, four complete performances on "Betts" Stradivarius, and three complete performances on the "Brookings" Amati. This agenda resulted in a total of 18 complete performances of the Bach Ciaconna on these five magnificent instruments. It was a very rich two days.

On a personal note, Tom Bramel, then acting chief of the Multimedia Group at the Library, who attended most of the sessions, heard of the passing of a close friend during the sessions themselves. The Bach Ciaconna was written in mourning and is one of the most moving expressions of this sadness. Bramel shared his thoughts that it was a remarkable coincidence that he should hear this news in the midst of such moving and appropriate music.

Once these 18 audio and video recordings were made, my next job was to do a rough combining of the audio of the three (or four) versions. In a fully edited recording, tiny sections are prepared with the oversight of an engineer for sounds and a producer for fidelity to the score--the goal is complete perfection. In what I call a "performing edit," the final track is jumping between a few complete live performances. The goal is to include the best sections from each performance, but it is not such a detailed process as a fully edited recording. The idea is to preserve the spirit of live performance and not be too concerned with a few imperfections. Doing a fully edited version with each violin would have required perhaps 5 times the amount of time that was spent on the present project.

Once each audio edit was done, I worked with Michael Black from the Library's Information Technology Services directorate in order to coordinate the video footage from the two days with each edited audio track. Mike and I tried many methods of editing the video material, but eventually decided what was both attractive and interesting was to let the video edits follow precisely the plan of the audio edits.

The three videotapes were taped from three distances. The first take was the widest shot. Take two was zoomed a little closer and take three was zoomed to a very close shot. When the "Kreisler" take (take three) was added at the end, it also was shot from the most distant zoom setting. So, because of this method, the playing that one sees in the video is exactly the video of what one hears. One can follow visually the points at which the different audio tracks were used.

I have also done a lot of video work inventing a technique called Simulscore--at the bottom of the video an exact score of what the listener is hearing is shown. In the case of the Bach Ciaconna we are very fortunate as a beautifully preserved manuscript survives in Bach's hand.

I scanned a facsimile of the manuscript into Photoshop and then carefully divided the 51 lines of the score. This was only achievable with a USB sketchpad as in fact many of the lines in the manuscript overlap. Also, Bach's hand-drawn staves often needed to be reoriented so that they would not slant severely. Once this was done, I brought the 51 lines into Final Cut Pro (the video software that is used by both myself and the Information Technology Services directorate of the Library). Each line was synchronized with the audio of each of the five versions (each has a different timing) and combined with the video. This resulted in five files that one can watch in their entirety seeing Bach's manuscript of the notes being played.

Once the final files were finished I wanted to create one other type of file--where one could hear in rapid succession the same short section on all five violins. I called this file the ABCDE file. In three minutes, one hears very full rolling music, extremely soft music, dark sonorities, and glorious sustained sounds; the sections are designed to be short enough so that it is easy to keep the memory of the five different sounds. This file also had a particularly pleasing look on the Final Cut Pro working screen because of the geometry of the switching between the violins.

This material will be available both on the Web at lower resolution and quality, and in a DVD which will preserve the highest possible quality.

A special thanks is due to the brilliant musician and sound engineer Dahong Seetoo (famous for his GRAMMY-award-winning work with the Emerson String Quartet). The Borromeo Quartet and I have worked with Dahong on an upcoming project with the Bartok 5th String Quartet. Dahong was kind enough to offer to adjust the final sounds files for the Bach to try to reduce the prominence of a blower that was impossible to turn off during the recording sessions.

Nicholas Kitchen is a violinist for the Borromeo Quartet ( and also performs as a soloist. Kitchen's multifaceted career includes recording, teaching, and working on media innovations. Kitchen's comparison of the five violins at the Library of Congress can also be found on the Web site, Living Archive (

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