Archive for February, 2008

voicing II

February 29, 2008

Part two of six.

The good function of a harpsichord plectrum is a matter of its length and of the shape of the lower side of its tip:

– it must not touch the string when the register is switched off,

– it may not be so short that it, when engaged, barely touches the string so it sometimes sounds loud and sometimes soft,

– it must safely slip back under the string when released.

The first two points need no further explanation. To test whether the plectrum actually does slip back properly, one has to manually dampen the string and release the key as slowly as possible. The best way to describe this test is that you should act as if you actually wanted the plectrum to hang on the string. Those plectra that frustrate your effort are fine. Those that respond to your wishes are not (various maintenance course members have failed to understand the twisted logic of this image, but I still like it). If the plectrum doesn’t slip back properly, the usual solution is to cut the tip diagonally from below so it makes a slope that glides off more easily. In plectra made of quill, this shape is absolutely necessary. (more…)


voicing I

February 28, 2008

I am posting here a new version of my article on harpsichord voicing, which has previously appeared in Swedish and Dutch (1995 and 1998). Since then, I have collected more information about voicing (both with delrin and quill) and I have seen many more instruments by various makers and in various states that in one or another way confirmed my ideas or helped to refine them. So while this text is, in structure, not unlike the original one, it speaks, let us say, louder. This article is divided in six sections. After final proofreading, I will also provide the whole text as a downloadable pdf document.

The article was originally intended as an encouragement for using bird’s quills in harpsichords. However, the commonly used delrin is a very good alternative for quill, if it is used well. Even the reader who is not considering quill will find useful information about delrin further below.


Harpsichordists hear a lot from other musicians about how their instrument sounds: it is too loud, says the recorder player; it is too soft, say the members of a string ensemble; it sounds too aggressive, says the cellist who sits beside the bentside; it is unreliable and out of tune, say all those people who have to do with casually played conservatory harpsichords. A true harpsichord lover might find these remarks ridiculous, but let’s face it: there is every reason for learning how to improve one’s tuning technique, how to keep the dampers in shape and, of course, how to make proper plectra. A harpsichord in poor shape has, in terms of charm, not much to offer – and even in an instrument in better shape we must accept most of the basic conditions that characterize harpsichords: their dynamic range is relatively small in comparison to other instruments, no matter how hard we hit the keys; their tone has a high content of partials; and although the non-musical noise that accompanies the tone production – that is, the mechanical clicking that accompanies the attack and the characteristic sound heard when we release the key – may be low in a good instrument, the player has little influence on it. If we want to maximise our possibilities as players, we ought to look more closely at the part of the action that produces both, the tone and the noise: the plectrum. (more…)

on not writing about ensemble leaders

February 27, 2008

Ever since I posted about rehearsal culture and the democratic ensemble, my mind has been munching on a few tough morsels. I keep returning to the following questions: in what kind of situations do I believe that a musical leader is necessary; what kinds of musical leadership do I believe to be appropriate on various occasions; and which set of attitudes serves a musical leader best for functioning appropriately in practice? (more…)

conference nostalgia: stuttgart, long ago

February 15, 2008

A post about split bridges (a feature of harpsichord and fortepiano construction, not an accident) on the hpschd-list brought back various memories from a keyboard conference in Stuttgart in the early 1980s. Harpsichord conference time! The rambling character of this post is carefully chosen to illustrate the experience.

That was the first time I was out there lurking. Apart from two short visits at the music market of the Utrecht Early Music Festival and a conference with an instrument exposition where I was invited to play and present a lecture, it was also the last time: the usual harpsichord exhibition – inevitably part of the conference – is, as I have learned to understand, too many instruments crammed into too small a space and preferably played simultaneously. Nobody can hear anything apart from the shop talk of the more vociferous section of the instrument makers. An experience I can live without. (more…)

the turn of the screw

February 12, 2008

A while ago, a good friend asked me whether, in a Walter-style fortepiano action, one could reduce pre-touch by twisting the hammer capsle up one turn. It seems indeed that this is a simple action that would yield good results fast. One needs to look at a graph to appreciate the avalanche of problems a simple 180-degrees turn of the capsle will, in fact, unleash.


As one can see in this crudely jpg-ified version of my original vector graph of a Walter action, the amount of pre-touch is defined by the distance of the hammer beak (which is, of course, one part with the hammer shank a but gets here a separate letter f) and the escapement hopper (some call it a pawl). The brass capsle is the diagonal part at the left-hand side of letter b; it is screwed into the key end. By turning the whole assembly of hammer (a) and capsle (b) a whole twist counter-clockwise, the hammer beak would come closer to the pawl hook and that was the whole idea.

Think again. (more…)

technique – competition in what?

February 10, 2008

Edited 6 Oct 2020

A fellow student once looked at my penciled figures in an Allemande by Louis Couperin, made a smart face and asked in a casual tone, “do you really need to write fingerings in a piece like that?” Matter of one geek telling another geek who of the two is the professional one. Yes, I do in fact put fingerings in all sorts of music, at least if I think I want to be able to tell myself something specific, now, tomorrow, or many years ahead. Figuring out fingerings is part of the work I’m doing, one of the manifestations of how my life is being filled with activity, why shouldn’t I record it in some manner?

In an intermission of psychology class (yes, we had psychology at the conservatory) another member of the group, a violinist, worked his way towards where I sat and spoke, “Ah, Er, do you harpsichordists also practice very much? Because we violinists need to practice very much.” Matter of one geek telling the other one who of the two is the better geek. (more…)

history of the tin roof

February 10, 2008

In his book The audible past, Jonathan Sterne cites a spoof advertisement (p. 272) clipped from the Judge Magazine, for the new Orthophonic Victrola: “Every instrument sounds like a skeleton’s Charleston on a tin roof.” The Orthophonic Victrola was introduced in November 1925, so this undated fragment is likely from around 1926 – a reaction to Victrola’s product-launching ad campaign, which was unprecedented in history in terms of financial expenses.

In 1926, Sir Thomas Beecham was 47 years old. At that age, Beecham likely had his most favorite bon mots well-rehearsed and easily accessible stored on his hard drive. This would have included the one about how a harpsichord sounds. (if you are – unlikely, really – unaware of what I mean, enter the words ‘Beecham’ and ‘harpsichord’ in the search window of your favorite search engine and you’ll soon know.) (more…)