In an old magazine interview that I am now unable to retrieve (despite much scouring of the web) and which I may in fact have imagined, Tears for Fears mastermind Roland Orzabal was asked to expound upon his use of digital and analog synthesizers. He noted that the older analog hardware is worth keeping by virtue of its greater…well, here Orzabal invented an unprintable neologism that means “capacity for being messed with.” That concept comes to mind whenever I think about instrumentation; most of the instruments with which I work lie in a continuum of “messiness,” of wider or narrower sonic possibility-spaces.
This principle was at the front of my mind while working on a small set of harpsichord pieces some months back. The harpsichord is a very cool instrument with an impeccable Baroque pedigree that’s been embraced in more recent years by figures like Berio and Xenakis; it even shows up on Van Morrison’s record Moondance. However, it inhabits the least messy extreme of the aforementioned curriculum: Multiple manuals and choirs notwithstanding, the harpsichord offers only one manipulatable parameter, namely pitch.
Admittedly, if I could pick just one parameter to play with, pitch would be the one; indeed, it’s no coincidence that the harpsichord has been the locus of some of the past’s greatest polyphonic music. On the other hand, writing for such an instrument limits the composer’s options quite severely. What if you want a decrescendo on a single note? Hell, what if you want a decrescendo over a bunch of notes? No can do. For composers like myself who are accustomed to thinking at the most basic level in terms of changing parametric values, the harpsichord is a real brainteaser.
The solution that eventually revealed itself to me was to focus less on what happens within the piece and more on what happens between the piece and the listener. I’ve been thinking harder and harder about this dichotomy over the past few years—the things that music can show, in other words, and things it can do (i.e. to you). Because I couldn’t make the harpsichord orate as I’ve tried to in the past with the cello, for example, I felt I had to focus more on a psychological cat-and-mouse with the audience using the harpsichord’s material as symbolic markers (with, of course, inherent expressive traits) rather than as an immanent rhetoric.
I’m curious to know how other composers have dealt with the harpsichord—is it just me, or is that “capacity for being messed with” sorely missed?