voicing IV

Part four of six.

So now we want to make some plectra with bird’s quill. This entry is about the kinds of material that are suitable for this task.

Material

Raven has again become more common in Europe, but it is still difficult to find raven feathers in the wild. I live at the edge of a Northern forest, and occasionally I can hear a raven make its characteristic croak somewhere out there, but I have never found any of their feathers out in the woods. Feathers of other larger crows are much easier to come by. In rural USA one might find wild turkey feathers, which work fine for plectra (one should find out whether collecting or owning certain kinds of feathers is legal in the state in question); wild goose feathers are useful as well, but domestic goose is not at all durable enough. The idea that a bird needs to fly for its feathers to be any good for plectra is, however, a myth.

I am not going to discuss commercially available feathers-for-harpsichords, because first of all, they are easily available through the established dealers in harpsichord parts. Second, I admit that I would not pay any money for them. Here’s why: I have found the feathers of the larger types of gulls to be the most useful for making harpsichord plectra. In addition, these feathers are ridiculously easy to come by for anyone who occasionally comes close to the coast. Just take a stroll at the beach and search through the debris from the last high tide. One feather of a large sea bird provides plectra for between one and two octaves. On certain days, one can collect enough feathers for several harpsichords in less than an hour.

Thickness and loudness

Long ago there was an article in Early Music where the claim was made that raven was the favorite historical material for quill plectra because one could voice it louder than other feathers. This is not true. Certain parts of gull feathers can be voiced much louder than any raven feather I have seen – really very much too loud, in fact, for any harpsichord. It is also not true that we must select the hardest and thickest feathers: we might be looking for those that sound best – that is, if there are any important differences at all. We are definitely looking for those that cause the least trouble during their preparation and, of course, for the ones that are the most durable. So we would have to choose specific species of bird known to be suited for the job and to pick those feathers that are big and springy enough and that have an appropriate shape for their task.

Durability versus sound

In March 2003, I began keeping a record of the quill plectra I replaced in one of my harpsichords. While in the main 8′ register, sixteen plectra from before that time still are playing today (in the second 8′ about one third is older than five years and in the 4′ only a handful have been replaced since 2003), some other tones in the instrument have needed multiple replacements during these five years. It becomes clear that there are no rules for the durability of quill, and that very few predictions can be made beyond the most obvious one: sloppily cut plectra do not survive for a long time.

Very generally spoken, I have observed that American wild turkey, which sounds beautiful, is the least sturdy of all the kinds of feathers I have used. This is a real pity because these feathers need very little preparation. They are almost automatically of the right thickness and they have a nice curve that enhances their first-month (or so) stability and creates a good sound. Raven feathers and the larger feathers of various other birds from the crow family probably sound best of all (if one can say any such thing), but they are not significantly sturdier than those of the wild turkey. Even these feathers have the right size and thickness most of the time and need very little cutting and scraping.

Gull feathers, on the other hand, come in a large variety of thicknesses. Some harpsichord makers are opposed to large feathers because, so they say, some of the sections become too flat to sound any different from delrin. True, it is important to keep the shape in mind: some sections from the back of gull feathers (what that is will be explained below) are in fact perfectly flat. It might indeed seem that this is the cause of their flat and hard sound. But the sound of this specific part of the feather is in fact caused by the coincidence that it also is exceptionally hard and springy – it is not the result of the flat shape alone. But even in its hardest parts, quill will always produce less mechanical noise than delrin.

Some also say that the feathers of sea birds are more sensitive to humidity changes. However, I have not noticed any real difference between quill plectra from various birds in this respect. It is a fact that most parts of a gull feather need to be cut thinner in order to sound well, but another thing is also true: in terms of durability, they easily outlive all other feathers that I have tested, while they can, in fact, be voiced in a nice way.

In view of the fact that the best and most durable material is lying about for free at the beaches of the world, I have never really understood why some people make such a fuss about using condor. It cannot possibly be easy to come by condor feathers, and then, why would one want to use them? I have seen a feather that came from a wild condor – it was enormous. They could perhaps be used for plucking piano strings, but not likely for much else.

Durability in practice

For someone used to gadgets that stay intact until they break beyond repair and are thrown away, quill plectra are a challenge: they deserve administration and an unfailing service mentality. This said, I normally don’t have to replace more than two plectra a week in my most used harpsichord and that instrument gets it all: technical exercises, solo practicing and continuo preparations. As a professional player, I can maintain one large quilled harpsichord and three smaller instruments, and I still have time left over to practice, cook food and write blog posts.

The beginning and the end of the heating period will cause more plectra than usual to become brittle or too weak. Around two times every year, I will also have to look at the condition of the tips of all the plectra, because they tend to wear down more quickly than the rest of the plectrum. If one wants to estimate how much extra time one’s commitment to quill would cost, one should realize that the material is much easier to cut (if one has a sharp woodcarving knife, see below) than delrin.

The total amount of time necessary to keep one’s plectra in shape will in any case be a result of the level of one’s commitment rather than a matter of one’s choice of material. If one hates to fiddle with plectra or if one tends to work sloppily under pressure, one will probably need more time for the replacements, while the plectra produced in this fashion will probably be less durable.

To be continued

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