Why Harpsichord?

“All the pieces are performed on an instrument called the harpsichord – have you heard of it?” This is me, describing my Canons album to someone whose musical interests I don’t know. If the person turns out to be a classical music buff, they might be slightly offended by my assumption that they could possibly not know what a harpsichord is. On the other hand, if the person isn’t “into classical,” they might look at me with a blank stare, if they don’t just assume I’m using a fancy word for… maybe.. the harp.

Considering that my canons can also be performed on piano and could be arranged for other instruments altogether, I wanted to say a few words about why I sought the harpsichord’s particular voice for this project.

One of the most notable aspects of the harpsichord is its narrow dynamic range: the performer cannot achieve a dramatically louder or softer sound by striking the key with more or less vigor. The harpsichord can be highly expressive, but that expression cannot be achieved through, say, a gradual swell from pianissimo to fortissimo. Some qualifications are in order. The first is that subtle variations in loudness may be possible through touch — depending on who you ask and what particular harpsichord they have in mind. The second is that music played on harpsichord may seem to get louder or softer as its texture, rhythm, and registration changes — for example, as it employs thinner or denser chords and as the performer articulates those chords in different ways (simultaneous vs. broken attack, quicker or longer duration, etc.). The third is that some harpsichords do allow the performer to significantly change volume and tone quality by switching between different sets or “choirs” of strings, or by making other adjustments to the plucking mechanism, but these are coarse changes that are not typically applied on a note-to-note basis.

Why would anyone choose to play an instrument that limits one of music’s most important expressive devices: the control of volume? That’s a reasonable question.

For some, the answer is historical. In using a harpsichord, a modern performer can experience the tactile response of a keyboard such as, say, Scarlatti would have played, and a listener can hear the music as Scarlatti’s own audience might have heard it.

As for my goals in the Canons album, I’m not primarily motivated by historical concerns. The album has a mix of traditional-sounding and contemporary-sounding pieces. I do like the idea of giving the stage to an early instrument, and in particular the idea of giving the early instrument new music to play, but these weren’t my first motivations for choosing harpsichord.

Some people say the harpsichord has a notably “clear” sound but I wouldn’t put it so simply. The harpsichord is capable of great clarity but that clarity does not come as a matter of course.

What does come as a matter of course with the harpsichord is that each note has a crisp attack. In listening to a melody played on harpsichord we can hear the onset of each note as a discrete event that is never blurred or hidden. I’ll venture to say that this crispness of attack helps to keep fine melodic details — the intervallic relations from one note to the next — at the forefront of the listener’s awareness. In turn, this “presence” or forwardness of melodic detail makes it easier to perceive imitative relationships between voices.

But if crispness of attack is a very valuable feature for apprehending counterpoint, it is still not the same as overall lucidity of sound. Play a dense, complex chord on the harpsichord: listen and try to pick out the chord’s most salient pitches. Is this any easier in the case of the harpsichord than the piano? Sometimes I think the harpsichord is more inclined to producing a jumbled “wall” of sound than a piano, particularly when the musical texture is dense. Oftentimes it’s the subtle control of loudness that creates the perception of order and clarity, and with uniform loudness we have fewer cues for parsing what we hear. I feel the harpsichord is only “clear” in the broad sense when it is skillfully played — its clarity must be wrought.

For me the appeal of the harpsichord is comparable to that of black-and-white photography. Why would anyone choose black-and-white when color is possible? First of all, it challenges the photographer to fully exploit the other available expressive devices without relying on color to create interest. (A good black-and-white photograph may even create the impression of color without actually employing it.) Second, since people see in color, the black-and-white photograph has a certain distance from our natural experience that helps us reflect on the image as something apart from us, apart from the everyday world — something “from elsewhere” — even if its content is familiar. And third, because the black-and-white photograph does not mess with the problems of color, it admits a kind of “perfection” that is hard to achieve in the more complex scenario.

These same points apply to the harpsichord. First, since loudness is not widely variable from note to note, the performer must work to create drama and contrast using other devices like timing and articulation. Without wide dynamic contrasts to guide the listener’s attention, the composition itself must be more explicit if it is to remain intelligible: the challenge of restricted dynamics is an interesting one for performer and composer alike. Second, the harpsichord’s voice differs from our typical soundscape — what we hear in daily life — where loudness is rarely uniform, and this gives it a distinctive, otherworldly quality that sits somewhere between the mechanical and the sublime. And third, because a harpsichord performance does not broach the complexity of wide dynamic contrasts, it can achieve a kind of perfection, or at least a kind of definitiveness, which we might not hear in a piano performance.

In writing each canon, I sought perfection. I did not consider any piece finished until I believed I had achieved it. I don’t mean this in a presumptuous or boastful way and I would never claim to have achieved perfection in writing, say, a symphony. But because of its compactness and its extreme constraints, the canon is a form that almost offers the composer a path to perfection, or at least to a place where no note can be changed without diminishing the whole, much like a tight mathematical proof. The question was, could I reach that summit while retaining an element of spontaneity and surprise? Could I breathe life into these pieces born from mechanical designs?

If canons are so tightly constrained, it seems fitting to play them on an instrument that is similarly constrained, where the performer faces a challenge much like the canon composer’s challenge: how to overcome mechanical limitations and make living, breathing music? How to do more with less? If canons admit a kind of perfection that’s hard to achieve in freer styles of composition, it seems fitting to play them on an instrument which, because of its dynamic uniformity, can come close to a “perfect” rendering.

Beyond the value of the harpsichord’s constraints, I should say I love its sound in a simple way. When a good harpsichord is in tune and played well it has a shimmering brightness that is totally seductive. And, in a nod to my collaborator, I’ll add that when you meet a talented and sensitive performer you want to hear your music on their instrument regardless of what instrument it happens to be.

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