As a performer, I ask myself, what is the limit of my body? Can I play this or that technically difficult thing well and trust that my hands will submit? Can I play this fast? Or is this relaxed and gentle? How much concentration can I reach?
As a performer, I ask myself, what is the limit of my instrument?
My instrument is the harpsichord. Often it is taken as something that only fits classical events. But this is totally wrong, because this instrument can be so different. It is great for free improvisation and works well with electronics. The variety of different possibilities to play with the era, time, style and wide range of sounds fascinate me. Thus, the harpsichord is an instrument with microdynamics.
But what is a harpsichord? It is a keyboard instrument with a piano-like interface, with a plucking mechanism, with a fancy design from the times of Louis du Soleil. A guest from the era “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”, an art-object itself, a beautiful toy for a modern composer.
Looking at the timeline, we find that the harpsichord in its early terms (“Clavicembalum”) was first mentioned in the 14th century and was mostly used before the French Revolution. Then, due to its association to high society, it was replaced by piano, which became the main keyboard instrument for the classical-romantic period.
In the 20th century the revival of the harpsichord began. The interest in historical performance brought us back to the piano’s predecessor.
Promising piano virtuosi like Wanda Landowska decided to dedicate their career to this instrument. Builders tried to experiment with materials (quite unsuccessfully) and composers started to write. Now we already have quite a big library of the classical modern harpsichord repertoire with pieces of Ligeti, Xenakis, Schnittke, Andriessen, Bruynèl and many more.
But time doesn’t stand still and with new technologies, surprising points of view or unexpected combinations, the instrument continues to live.
My first experience of harpsichord and electronics was a piece with a Tape that has already become a classic: Schrootsonate by Ton Bruynèl (1990). It is so Einstürzenden Neubauten! Playing this piece solved the problem of choice: “Blur or Bach” or how one can play industrial on a harpsichord.
“The burned out frame of a Steinway grand piano”, ruins of an Utrecht Conservatory destroyed by fire, bulldozers bringing down the Berlin Wall, “a musical saw bringing ode to hammer and sickle” – that’s how the harpsichord can also sound in combination with electronics. (Bruynèl)
Recently I played “Borra de Vidala” for Harpsichord, Sensor and Live Electronics by Víctor Ernesto Gutierrez Cuiza. It was great, and I’m happy that the composer entrusted me with the premier of his piece: unexpected irregular Argentinian rhythms, combinations of clusters in my right hand and dancing movements of my left hand connected to the sensor triggering the electronics. The combination with a red light in a black box room created a very special atmosphere: it is an instrument we know, but something is wrong. Or maybe so it is exactly right.
My next project will be less radical in terms of new technologies. Baroque harpsichord music will be part of an experimental theater piece. It opens a discourse, going on for quite a while about what is actually modern. I believe that now, when we have access to a wide range of tools from historical instruments to the newest technologies, we can combine the two in a clever and respectful way. Thus, early music pieces can be used in experimental performances as a marker of an era to highlight the represented idea.
I find many examples and a lot of inspiration in new music, visual art and films. For example, one of my favorite directors, Peter Greenaway, played with a baroque aesthetic in a quite sophisticated way. In “Caravaggio” by Derek Jarman, the life of the painter in the 16-17th centuries is put outside of the time frame where harpsichord and harpsichord music remind us of the time but used organically with jazz, motorbikes, cigarettes etc.
I believe that you can learn a lot from your instrument.
Are there limits of a performer? Are there limits of the instrument? And who decides?
Staying open and respectful, I’m looking forward to new collaborations and exploring the sound of the harpsichord in the 21st century.