Capacity for Being Messed With

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?

8 thoughts on “Capacity for Being Messed With

  1. davidcoll

    just recently wrote a piece for this london-based duo, check them out- its prep piano and hpschd. Was a good experience, though yea, i sympathize w/the limitations of the instrument.

    dynamics are there, in the way that if you play two notes at once it’ll be louder than just one…this simple idea helped…another is that there is a good sustain if you hold the key down, it rings for quite a while. The last thing is the lute stop or the other type- forgot what its called…really changes the timbre, and some have pedals for this so it can be a quick ch.ange. Also the timbral differences between extreme ranges in the hpschd are pretty good.

    and of course mixing this w/prep pno was a big relief, as i could sorta stretch some hpschd-like sounds w/the pno.

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  2. jchang4

    Some people consider those parameters that you speak of to be “peripherals”. I think this is why music of pre-Romanticism appears (I think) to have a stronger foothold than music of the Romantic and post-Romantic periods. The strength of earlier music lies within the use of pitches itself. I’ve noticed that the Romantics and later composers often relie on dynamics and other effects as somewhat of a crutch. Yes, I do enjoy the works of such composers as Schubert and Schumann and what not, but how many times can you hear essentially the same exact motive before it gets annoying? Sure, they may use a different dynamic shading or different accompanimental patterns or whatnot, eventually leading to the thematic transformation treatments of Liszt, but this doesn’t seem to be true, hardcore development (to me). I really miss the old school ideals of motivic development, melody, and texture. It’s a complicated issue tied in with things like the history of composition/instrumentation, I’m sure. But anyway, I just wanted to throw out the word “peripheral”.

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  3. pgblu

    Edgard Varese (who?) said to his pupil, Morton Feldman, that he should give some thought to the time it takes for sound to travel from the stage to the listener. This was, according to Feldman, a statement that made a huge impact on him. It’s advice I think you followed in your harpsichord piece, Colin, now that I’ve heard it a few times. Have you ever thought about that?

    David, I’m very interested in finding out more about your duo. Can you send a link about the performers and, if available, about your piece?

    I completely disagree with jchang about Romantic music and it’s focus on peripherals instead of motivic development. You can’t really play Chopin on the harpsichord, but it’s not because the music lacks melody and texture or any other pair of buzzwords. What composers do you think were real hounds about “true, hardcore development?”

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  4. jchang4

    Gosh, I’m always nervous about posting on this thing because I know someone will inevitably attack my choice of words, and demand all sorts of explanations. I will be making generalizations in my response, to which there are always exceptions. I assume that we are all aware of these, so I won’t be pointing them out.

    I am partial to the sort of music that tries to squeeze out of an (melodic? motivic? thematic?) idea every last drop of invention. I know that may be a rather vague explanation… isn’t it funny that sometimes when you try to be really specific, you actually end up coming across as really vague? Anyway, in this respect, I am partial to Haydn over Mozart, because Haydn tended towards motivic/cellular development where Mozart tended towards melodic invention (different meaning from the use of invention above). Chopin, I think, was inventive in much the same way that Mozart was inventive, only with Chopin it was rather handicapping since he was not nearly as successful with larger forms. I think that’s why, generally, the Romantics faired better in smaller than larger forms, because, like I said before, there’s only so many times you can hear the exact same motive again and again before it gets really annoying. And that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the works of Mozart or Chopin. I played pieces by both on my last recital and they were perhaps my favorites in the program.

    Now we’re straying very far from the subject… and I’m not even sure if I really answered the question. I mentioned Haydn… I suppose also, naturally, Beethoven. Then there’s Bach, who, incidentally, actually wrote pieces called “Inventions”. But, I probably wouldn’t include Chopin in this list.

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  5. JJeffers

    jchang I accuse you of being an anti-melodist! How dare you!

    All kidding aside, whenever I think an interesting piece for modern treatment of the harpsichord (modern as in within last 30 years) I think of Ligeti’s ”Continuum’ for solo harpsichord. It’s like through the continuous movement and dissonance a distortion is created that obliterates any communication of pitch material, I think a side effect of the conceptual basis of the piece (that being the illusion of a continuous, rising column). The downside of it being that it tires on the ears quickly. To me the harpsichord puts dissonance into overdrive, which can be an effective tool, especially opposed to simple consonances.

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  6. jlz

    Varese was right on. Music makes it impression largely through distinctive but non-pitch aspects:

    – register in which the statement appears;

    – sheer length of a phrase (is it longer than a human breath? see Kernis)

    – singular packaging (precise articulation: begin, sustain, release)

    – idiosyncrasy: extremes of loud and soft; emphatic repetition (yay, Beethoven!)

    – directionality: does the overall statement shape slant UP from Down; hang DOWN (as curtain swags) from tessitura Up; swirl across registers regularly/occasionally/ once or twice for maximum dramam, etc.

    – continuous/distoninuous sound.

    Plus much more.

    These elements of color are the things that go towards producing distinction in a musical statement. Only part of a distinctive impression arises from the messaging of the pitches themselves.

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  7. ChristopherAdler

    It is ironic that you mention the ability of an instrument to “orate”, as rhetoric was a popular way for Baroque theorists to understand music’s expressive power. If pitch were the only parameter available to manipulate on the harpsichord and pipe organ (setting aside the registration of tone color/”stops”), then keyboard music would have been dreadful for centuries. The crucial parameter is duration. What every harpsichordist and organist must learn, very early on, is the careful control of duration in order to acheive expressive effect. This is called “articulation” by harpsichordists and organists, and has a somewhat different meaning that with other instruments, because it means something like “simulating expressive articulations through the control of duration”.

    So I suggest that the best way to learn to write for the harpsichord and organ is first to look at how very fine players play the instrument. How does a good harpsichordist orate with the instrument? (Consider especially expressive music by Couperin or Frescobaldi, for example.) Then go back and look at idiomatic music and study how those expressive details were encoded in the notation. The discipline of performance practice has been crucial in figuring out how notation has encoded these expressive details (see Malcolm Bilson, for example). Although our perpsective on notation has changed significantly since the Baroque era, so modern harpsichord notation might need somewhat more detailed, a good harpsichord player should still be able to interpret the usual musical markings (slurs, dynamics, accents) using their skills of “articulation” to make the instrument sing.

    I applaud you for tackling a wonderful and challenging instrument!

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  8. jbunch

    Was it Thomas Beecham who compared the sound of a harpsichord to “skeletons copulating on a tin roof” ? Anyhow, I’m really appreciating these responses. So many good thoughts.

    I have hesitated to write for the harpsichord myself for a couple reasons – the first is because of its limitations (which as I listen, the fewer their seem to be). The second is more troublesome to me – the feeling that the harpsichord is such a characteristic sound, you are almost invoking a musical period or style. I know this is probably my fault – something about my inability to let even those sounds be themselves. Right now I am listening to A L’Ile de Gorée by Xenakis. I can hear what Chris Adler is talking about. The duration makes a huge difference. It’s actually akin to my experience as a hack pianist too. I used to play Bach a certain way – no ability to create line and a hideous tendency of reaching for the pedal to make the really naked spaces smaller – this was until a friend asked if she could give me organ lessons for one of her pedagogy classes. I agreed because she was a friend – I’ll admit a stoic temperament towards the organ. Well I learned some fancy finger work for sustaining notes and choreographing my fingers to be everywhere they needed to be to get the line how I wanted it. That’s when I starting realizing how physically amazing Bach is. That is also when this music started to take on new levels of communication and musicality as well.

    Actually, Lachenmann’s Serynade is kind of about the same concept. Creating texture through density of information (also like in Continuum) is at least a first step. It reminds me of early electronic music – supposedly everything was in the reach of the early electronic music composer – all you had to do was combine (or subtract) the right combinations of pitches from a collection of pitches, and voila (!) an airplane engine, a dog barking, a church bell ringing! Well – a little naive, but something crucial was discovered – something maybe Feldman was up to (by a different apparatus).

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