For Italian musical woodwinds, threats from outside and inside
On the side of the on the road there is a pile of about 200 spruce logs, each about 30 feet long, all blown down by a recent severe winter storm. It’s late spring, but the wood is still covered with a layer of snow. A kneeling middle-aged man, wearing hiking boots, jeans and a waterproof jacket, examines a section of one of the trunks, looking for mold or knots. He calls out to the driver of a crane and asks him to turn the ball to see better. If that meets his needs, he will take a can of black spray paint and mark the end of the log with the letter “C”, then ask the operator to load it onto a flatbed trailer. The rest goes in another pile.
Although all logs look the same – same length, straight and sturdy – to Fabio Ognibeni, not all spruces in Val di Fiemme, in the Alpine region of Trentino Alto Adige in Italy, are not the same. Ognibeni estimates that only two to three trees in 1,000 – which he can recognize on sight – will make great music. He can see how this wood will resonate in prestigious auditoriums and concert halls, in schools and homes around the world, in the form of grand pianos, violins, harpsichords and harps. Ognibeni is the owner of Ciresa, a company that supplies “soundwood” to luthiers and piano makers, including world famous brands such as Fazioli, C. Bechstein and Blüthner.
The sound is produced by a piano when the vibrations of the strings are transmitted, via a bridge, to the soundboard. The music you hear is the vibration of the wood transmitted to the air. This wood. The wood of Ognibeni. “If you want to see a piano’s soundboard, you have to lie down with your head held high. Ninety-nine percent of people don’t even know it’s there “, says Ognibeni” Many pianists are really convinced that it is the keys or at most the hammers that make their instrument sound, many do not don’t know where the soundboard is. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s how it is.
It works the same for the violin, but not in secret. The body of the instrument — stomach, ribs, and back — is the soundboard. It is also the wood of Ognibeni, sold to luthiers who then sculpt it to create the sound they seek. The most famous luthier in history, the Italian Antonio Stradivari, who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries, used spruce from Val di Fiemme. Today, his famous violins still sound great and can fetch millions of dollars.
Spruce is found all over the Italian Alps, but only those that grow in that specific valley are so coveted for their musical qualities. There are two reasons, says Ognibeni: “One is orographic, the second is cultural. The slopes of the Lagorai mountain range, one of the two that border the valley, are exposed to the north-north-west, so they receive less sun and this allows the trees to grow slowly. In addition, there is a lot of rock and it is not very calcareous, so the roots absorb less minerals and the wood is lighter than the forests dominated by the Dolomites. This is an essential quality: The heavier the wood, the less it vibrates. Of course, there are woods that are even lighter than spruce, but they don’t have the same quality of fiber.
The cultural reason is that since the end of the Middle Ages, the woods of Val di Fiemme have been managed by a local authority, Magnifica Comunità, which has always maintained and managed its forests with care and competence. “The forest here has always been cultivated by selecting plants, growing them evenly, at the same height, so that little light can filter through. This is why the trees are tall, straight and with very few low branches which, without direct light, dry up immediately, ”explains Ognibeni.
It only takes a few seconds for Ognibeni to know how the chest will sound. The only tool he uses are his glasses. He first looks at the growth rings on the outermost layers of the trunk, the only part that is used for soundboards. “The fiber should be tight and evenly spaced,” he says. “Even two or three larger rings are enough to throw the trunk.” A larger ring means the tree has grown more, often because it has received more water than usual. Ognibeni fears that climate change will mean less wood for musical instruments, as droughts and storms become more frequent. Ognibeni also looks for knots, circular or elliptical scars left by old branches. “A knot means a difference in density in the wood, as if it were a brake on the momentum of the music,” he says. And then there are the mold stains: if they are very large, the trunk should be thrown away. This search for the most perfect logs is why resonance wood costs $ 195 per cubic meter, compared to $ 85 or less for the consistently high-quality logs used for furniture.
The wood that Ognibeni’s company, Ciresa, selects is then dried and seasoned for a year, then re-examined before processing. At this point, it’s more or less perfect. The defects, already few, are eliminated by the craftsmen of the company who make up the soundboards of the pianos by assembling wood from different trunks but with very similar fibers, like a puzzle. The lines of the rings are equidistant from each other and regular, as if drawn with a ruler. “Imperfections are not allowed, but at the same time we are talking about an organic material, not plastic. And that’s why it can’t be mechanical work, ”Ognibeni explains, looking at an empty factory, ready to come back to life the next morning.
In addition to climate change, there is a more pressing threat: Ips typographer, the small pill-shaped European spruce bark beetle. These insects penetrate the bark, reproduce, and suck the sap until the tree withers and dies. Under normal circumstances, healthy trees have defenses against beetles, which control their population. But in late October 2018, the most powerful windstorm on record here, Vaia, destroyed nearly 100,000 acres of woodland in northern and northeastern Italy. Winds of over 120 miles an hour have cut down millions of trees. These carcasses, still rich in sap but defenseless, fueled a beetle explosion, despite efforts to clear the logs as quickly as possible. Now, with a full-blown spruce bark beetle epidemic, even healthy trees are at risk.
Red-brown spots are already visible on the slopes of the valleys in the region: standing, withered and dead trees. “The bark beetle can match and even overcome the damage caused by a windstorm,” says Andrea Battisti, an entomologist at the University of Padua and one of the leading bark beetle experts in Italy. The beetle proliferates when the temperature reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and when that happens, technicians, forestry officials and experts place hundreds of pheromone-based traps and baits in the Alps.
In the valley of Gares, east of Val di Fiemme in Veneto, Battisti explains the traps to a group of students. The traps are three foot tall plastic “houses” that look like apartment mailboxes. They have drawers at the bottom where the trapped insects end up. Every 10 days, the traps are emptied and the victims are counted. In mid-May in Veneto, the average was 4,700 insects per trap. At low altitude, it can reach 25,000, or three times the critical threshold. And that was right in the spring, before the warmer summer temperatures.
Another method of containing the outbreak is “bait”, where foresters cut down five or six trees and then “decorate” them with pheromones. “The insect is attracted and begins to reproduce under the bark”, explains Valerio Finozzi, technician in Veneto. “After a few days, if we see that the infestation is at its peak, we remove the bark so that the larvae are killed by the sun or by the rain. The principle, says Finozzi, is to sacrifice a few trees to save hundreds.
But it is an uphill battle. “We can monitor and work to keep it under control, but we cannot hope to eliminate the bark beetle,” says Renzo Motta, professor of forest ecology and forestry at the University of Turin. “You have to take part of the damage into account, which is inevitable. “
Ognibeni remembers well the days following the fateful storm of 2018. “The Val di Fiemme was hit hard. The idea that among those felled trees there were hundreds that could have played music made me sick, ”he says. “So we worked like crazy to save whatever could be saved, before it rotted, and we found that we had many ‘friends’. Around this time, Ciresa launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the purchase of thousands of cubic feet of timber. “The idea was that anything that can become music should become music, not cabinets or baseboards,” Ognibeni explains. He was aiming for € 40,000. He received 230,000 €, coming from all over Italy and abroad.
“The solidarity of these weeks pushed us not to give up,” he says. “And today we are already starting to reimburse the money to the first donors. Because for us it was just a loan. Without this feverish recovery operation, he says, the company would have been out of work for some time because after the damage to Vaia, logging was suspended in the Val di Fiemme and in many other areas of the alpine arc, leaving storms as the only source of fresh wood. “But rather than making planks out of poorer wood,” he says, “I would have preferred to grit my teeth and shut the business down for a while.”