Composing and Performing New Harpsichord Music

  Issue No. 9 Published by ‘The British Harpsichord Society’ AUGUST 2015 ______________________________________________________________________________

Graham Lynch and Assi Karttunen discuss how as composer and player they discover the harpsichord’s hidden qualities and reveal the influence of the French Masters of the past.

Earlier this year a CD of harpsichord music by Graham Lynch and François Couperin was released on the Divine Art label. The recording was by Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen, who also commissioned and premiered two of the sets of pieces on the disc.

Graham and Assi share their experiences of writing and performing this music and also discuss how as composer and player they relate to the instrument and its early repertoire.

The essence of the harpsichord sound

Graham When I was at university I had the opportunity to study harpsichord for two years and this gave me a fantastic handson experience of the instrument, and also introduced me in a deeper way to composers such as Couperin, d'Anglebert and Rameau, whose music I'd not played much before. Some years later, through a commission from Sophie Yates, I wrote my first work for an early keyboard instrument. Although this piece, Admiring Yoro Waterfall, was initially conceived for the virginals its natural home seems to be on the harpsichord. At the time I had composed a number of pieces for various instruments that were similarly inspired by Japanese woodblock prints and the sonic possibilities of the harpsichord/virginals appeared very appropriate for this; perhaps the sound of the koto was in my ears. The ability of these plucked instruments to articulate tones in a manner that is luminous and immediate, and that manifest with such clarity, seemed to relate so well to the precision of line in Japanese art and design. I had discovered the harpsichord to be an instrument of sudden revelation, logic, rationality but also contained passion.

When I compose for particular instruments I like to focus on the positive sides of their capabilities and these help to create the music the emotions, timbres, chord voicings, and so on. Over time I've gradually discerned which harmonies breathe life into the harpsichord and also the varied characteristics of different registers. Above all, I've recognised the fabulous possibilities of rhythmic articulation that comes over so strongly on the instrument.

Assi When I first heard Admiring Yoro Waterfall by Graham Lynch, my attention was immediately caught by the subtle combination of the musically meditative ‘inner thoughts’, and the conjuring up of the translucent sounds of water. I felt that this composer had a strong inner musical identity that was able to fuse surrounding worlds inside its magig circle. The music had its roots in the rich materiality of the lived through life, instead of being ‘about’ life in a descriptive manner. The textures were idiomatic for the harpsichord, and I heard later that the composer had actually studied harpsichord as his second instrument at university.

What a lucky coincidence! I had been searching for some music for a project called ‘in the wood, in the hut, in the mind’: a series of meditations using music, word and sound, based around the poetry of Matsuo Basho and first performed in September 2013 at the Helsinki Music Centre. I commissioned a new work from Graham Lynch PresentPastFuturePresent for this project, and I also included Admiring Yoro Waterfall. Further performances followed, and are also programmed in the future.

Graham In PresentPastFuturePresent the music explores the question of how we perceive the things around us, both as physical objects as well as the contents of our own minds. This can be immediately heard in the opening piece, Present, in which a strictly paced ‘walking’ motif periodically appears and disappears, being intercut with episodic material that is freer in nature; the mind flickers between outside reality and inner reflection. The purity of the harpsichord sound, where even simple textures can radiate a presence, allows these contrasting processes to unfold.

Assi - In Graham’s music the pauses give time for musical reflection without actively perceived thinking. For a musician the reverberations of sounds and their fading away and sinking into the silence become an act of listening to the acoustics and the spatial environment. The omissions, interruptions, breaks and pauses communicating musical poetical expressions are a natural part the music.

At times, Graham seems to avoid cadential processes and instead creates long, “everlasting” phrases like the ones in the last piece of the Basho set, Future, and in Admiring Yoro Waterfall. These unexpectedly long gestures are also playing with our normal way of grasping phrase lengths, as something that happens during a single exhalation.

The harpsichord of the past

Graham - I find all culture of the past not only fascinating in itself but also intriguing in the manner of its transmission over time. For example, the iconography of the river god is something that spread from ancient Greece and Rome, then resurfaced in the Renaissance, next through artists like Poussin and Pannini and onto Picasso's Vollard Suite, and beyond. There are always certain cultural themes that continually return and I see nothing wrong in plugging into these currents of meaning and expression – as T.S. Eliot suggested, tradition is not something that is dead but rather what is already living in the present moment of the past.

Assi - The idea for a CD combining Couperin’s and Lynch’s music came later on, and maybe as a result of meandering discussions concerning Watteau, Poussin, Couperin, Ravel, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. On this CD the metaphor of flux implies ideas of fluidity and repetitiveness of form, freedom of melody, quasiimprovisation, and a dialogue across the ages; a Heraclitean idea of the endlessly changing river of time. This juxtaposition of two composers and periods has been very positively received by reviewers as an interesting way to shed light on different styles.

Graham - Out of all the harpsichord music that I've written, Beyond the River God (the title work of the CD) is the piece that comes closest to having a dialogue with the French clavecinists of the 18th century. The form of the music consists of a fivemovement structure that is built around the rondeau/couplet idea. Pieces one, three, and five, are rondeaux; each one having three statements of the principle idea, which are interspersed with episodes. Movements two and four are couplets that act as episodes within the overall form. As the music progresses through the five movements earlier material starts to reappear until, at the final rondeau, all the motifs are conceived from previous melodic sources and flow towards a glittering conclusion in a manner – like a river – that is always the same and yet always different.

In most of my harpsichord writing I've avoided the use of ornamentation, feeling that this might be suggestive of pastiche and would tilt the aesthetic back into the 18th century. A more recent piece, however, composed for a new project of Assi's, makes more conscious use of ornaments and is partly an exploration of the concept of the unmeasured prelude.

Assi - Aha, ornaments! For me the ornaments are an essential part of a harpsichord's expression. Instead of thinking that one cannot play dynamics on a harpsichord one could instead add the art of ornamentation to the many means of harpsichord nuances. The ornaments are not necessarily mere ‘adornments’, something that can be referred to beautiful jewellery or a pretty scarf. The ornaments have centuries’ connections to the rich corporeality of the art of rhetoric. Therefore, it’s possible to use ornaments in order to emphasize the radical moments of a musical phrase in a way that resembles the use of light and shadow in the visual arts. All the rhetorical figures of exaggeration, irony, understatement, questioning, gentleness, playfulness and humour have their musical expressions in the harpsichord literature. Not to mention the role of ornamentation in replacing musical phenomena like sostenuto, legato, vibrato, crescendo and diminuendo.

Harpsichord techniques

Assi - The harpsichord’s sound articulates in a clearcut way. It requires special skills to write for the instrument in a deliberately ambiguous manner that blurs the lines between the unheard and the heard. Usually one has to (paradoxically) write a group of voices that can be played like clusters, in a casual and sketchlike style. Graham uses many ways to arpeggiate the chords, by writing both rhythmical, arpeggiating passages, or sprayed, broken sonorities.

These varied arpeggiations also deliver the music into a horizontal and floating sound world. The vertical chord pillars are realised in a variety of horizontal textures, in a lutelike way; luthé. The chords played luthé become functionally more ambiguous as the voices are heard one after another and are intertwined. This musical feature is also typical of the meditative preludes of 17th and 18th century France; it’s as if the harpsichord was thinking by itself.

The sonorous clusters of the knolling bells in Petenera and in Past are closely related to the rich arpeggios of Couperin’s music, and to the harpsichord techniques like baigné and carillon. Both the techniques imply that the voices following each other are allowed to sound on top of each other, even if they don’t conventionally belong to the same harmony. Graham goes even further and lets the chords flourish within bitonal colours.

Graham - In Petenera the title of each piece comes from the poems of Lorca. The modal musical language draws, in a distant way, on the music of Andalucia. At times in this music I allowed the harpsichord to become like a guitar, letting the free and sensuous lines cut loose from the surrounding harmony and allow the performer a fair degree of licence to shape the music. The same harmonic ideas are explored in Ay! but this time the melodies are underpinned by a relentless rhythm.

In writing for harpsichord I think it's important to be extremely sensitive to the smallest details of articulation because, like brush strokes in a Cézanne painting, these tiny nuances can add up to a whole new layer of meaning. And underpinning the unfolding of the music I try to create harmonic rhythms which allow the instrument to sing in an expressive style.

Assi - What is the most delightful technical feature in Graham’s harpsichord writing is the obvious trust in the cantabile qualities of the instrument. This is fairly rare among contemporary compositions for harpsichord, even though earlier composers had no difficulties with writing horizontally singing lines. This aspect of harpsichord writing may elude some composers who are not so familiar with its repertoire.

The French clavecinistes of the eighteenthcentury describe the 'liaison' among the most important harpsichord techniques, which for them meant legato and also a type of playing called overlegato. Maybe liaison is actually something that goes slightly beyond our human senses. It’s nearly impossible to play legato on an instrument that seems to make a diminuendo after the pluck of a string. Perhaps the harpsichord cantabile is a phenomenon related to our auditory imagination?

The harpsichord in the present

Assi - What happens when an eighteenthcentury solo harpsichord composition is detached from its original context? As an‘early music’ musician I encounter this question on a daily basis. The original context is gone, but the music lives on and becomes subjected to inevitable processes of reinterpretation.

By combining Couperin’s and Lynch’s music the seemingly unrelated elements are creating interfaces, transformations, and expanded meanings. The elements of Baroque and contemporary music have their own integrity, but as a combination they are perceived in a new and timeless context.

This context of acoustic harpsichord music as a part of the modern, digitalized, motorized, and amplified sound world could be seen as almost schitzophonic. However, acoustic instruments are still used in most classical music performances. The human touch and the special physical bond between a musician and the instrument are irreplaceable.

For me an acoustic piece of music now has an even greater possibility to reach out to a listener tired of everyday noise. The contrast between its manner of presentation compared to the sort of music heard at a stadium concert is striking, and this is exactly the reason why Couperin’s and Lynch’s music is so powerful. The scale of presentation is equal to the scale of our senses.

Graham - There are few experiences more startling to my sensibility than a fine harpsichord in a sympathetic acoustic. I've mentioned the characteristics of clarity and logic that the instrument conveys to me, but with this there is also a delicate sensuality of timbre as well as a rich power in the lower registers. This is not the caress of a piano (wonderful though that is) but a constellated ambiguity of sound, symbol & meaning that creates a mysterious aural landscape. For this reason alone the harpsichord is, to me, very much a relevant and contemporary instrument that is an exciting challenge to write for.

Assi Karttunen Graham Lynch

To find out more about the CD
'Beyond the River God' please go to info.htm

Harpsichordist Assi Karttunen has specialized in performing and researching Baroque music. She also performs in interdisciplinary groups with experimental and contemporary repertory. Karttunen works as a musician-researcher and as a teacher at the Doctoral school of Sibelius Academy. She has recorded four solo harpsichord CDs.

Graham Lynch was born in London. He has a PhD in composition from King’s College London, and he also spent a year at the Royal College of Music, and studied privately with Oliver Knussen. Graham 's music has been performed, recorded, and broadcast in many countries, and his compositions vary from chamber pieces through to orchestral works. He has a particular interest in writing for the harpsichord, as well as the intriguing combination of harpsichord and guitar.

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