There is a certain thought about harpsichord sound – or a suspicion about why harpsichord sound works the way it does – that I have had buzzing around my head for years. Recently I have been trying to put it into words in a way that represents it properly. This is one attempt to achieve that.
First some background:
When a harpsichord note is played, at the instant when the quill lets go of the string there is a quick transition from no sound to sound. Once this transition has begun, the player’s control over the sound has ended – that is, it has ended until it the time comes to bring the note to a close by lowering the damper onto the string. The sound of a harpsichord note has a life-span that has been created for it by whoever made the instrument – or really by whoever collaborated in the making of the instrument as it stands at that moment: builder, string-maker, stringer, voicer, tuner, and so on. Once the string has been released from the quill, it will do what the building/stringing/voicing process has (in effect) programmed it to do – that is, again, until the player lowers the damper onto the string.
There are a number of shapes that a harpsichord note can have – in fact, considered in minute detail it can have infinitely many different shapes: no two notes are exactly the same. However there is one template for the shape of a harpsichord note that interests me the most, because it is what I hear in the harpsichord sounds that I find the most beautiful, stirring, and compelling, and the most useful for trying to create great performances. This is the model in which each note begins with a crisp, clear attack sound, and then dies away in waves, so that the sound has a pulse, or beat, or bloom to it. (This is different, for example, from the shape of sound in which the moment of attack is followed just by a linear decay or dying out, or the shape in which the attack is followed by a quick sort of lunging decay, which is in turn followed by a slow decay of what sound remains. It is also different from a sound in which the attack itself is not crisp, but rather diffuse and muted. All of these kinds of sound can also be found in harpsichords and other plucked instruments).
The shape of sound that I am describing can be heard in all or almost all of the surviving antique harpsichords that I have ever encountered, and – almost as a tautology – in the modern-built harpsichords that seem to me best to recreate the sound of the antiques. Looking back on my own process of getting to know the harpsichord, and of first acquiring a harpsichord of my own, I see that the first instruments that I ever heard on record that really struck me as being beautiful and compelling and important were instruments that had a sound that fit this description. And the first modern instruments that I ever heard that I liked well enough to want to get one for myself were also the first I ever heard that had this shape of sound.
It is also, when it is present, not something arcane, elusive, or mysterious. It can be subtle, but it is clearly audible, it is clearly there. One of the first things that I do with any new harpsichord student is to ask him or her to listen to individual notes and describe to me what they hear. No one fails to notice the first, strongest, pulse or bloom. Students always signal the moment of that bloom exactly when I hear it. That is true on different instruments with different timing to the shape of their bloom. To put it another way, it is not hard to listen to the sound of harpsichord notes analytically once you have realized that it is possible to do so.
So here’s the point itself:
In asking myself why this particular kind of sound is so compelling in itself and so useful for creating compelling performances I have come up with this: that this structure of sound is strongly and precisely analogous to a whole range of ordinary human experiences, both physical and emotional. That is, the shape of the sound is the same as the shape of a host of experiences that we all have all the time, and that, because they are our experiences, have emotional content. The harpsichord sound taps into that emotional content because the analogy that it creates to those experiences is so real and so clear – even though it is experienced subconsciously.
The ordinary experiences that I am talking about are of all sorts, and the emotions with which they are invested cover the whole range. Some of them are rather mundane. In fact this idea first came to me after I had stubbed my toe. The pain of that experience followed exactly the shape that I am talking about: at the instant that the toe bumped (hard) into a chair leg, I felt a sharp intense pain, but that sensation was very brief; it was overtaken and succeeded by a surge of dull but strong pain that grew more slowly, reaching its peak about a second after the beginning of the event, and that then died away slowly. You can recreate a version of this for yourself by reaching over with one hand to the other arm and scratching yourself rather quickly. (You have to do it hard enough that it hurts, but not so hard that it injures you). Pay attention to the shape of the physical sensation. You will experience the same thing if you pass a hand through a stream of water that is too hot or dip a toe into a too-hot bath: not something to try on purpose, but something to notice if it happens.
You can experience the same thing with taste. Take something that has an intense flavor – perhaps a strawberry. Pop it in your mouth, bite into it, and start to chew. You will notice a similar shape: an intense – sharp – initial burst of flavor, followed by the growth of a broader more complex taste. Sometimes the moment of swallowing – rather than the biting or chewing – is the sharp, pointed attack, and the aftertaste is the bloom. This happens for me with some drinks, orange juice, for example. The experience of many physical sensations follows this shape or something a lot like it.
Perceptual and emotional experiences follow this shape too, probably more so the more striking they are, good or bad. Imagine opening the door to an unexpected knock – and there’s your child who you thought was abroad for the whole year, home for a surprise visit; or picture rounding the corner to see your favorite big, old, beautiful tree dead and broken, sprawled out across the lawn. These experiences follow this same template: an initial, essentially instant, awareness, then a longer unfolding of understanding.
If I am right that the sort of harpsichord sound that I am talking about draws its power from its direct evocation of this kind of experience, then the act of playing music on such a harpsichord is in part the act of arranging the timing of those emotional reactions in the way that is the most powerful or effective. This is carried out, of course, in the context of presenting the note-picture of whatever piece we are playing. I am continuing to muse about the implications of this for performance, and I will write about that at some point in the future.