MUSIC / The bare necessities: The harpsichord suffers from old age. But, as Jane Chapman tells Mark Pappenheim, there's still life in it

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Sir Thomas Beecham's scurrilous squib likening the sound of the harpsichord to that of 'skeletons copulating on a tin roof' may have proved a thorn in the flesh for generations of players but it was far from being the final nail in the instrument's coffin. On the contrary, the harpsichord has found a new - or rather, old - lease of life.

For the kind of instrument Beecham was berating, and for which a succession of 20th-century composers from Poulenc to Ligeti have composed, was the modern pedal harpsichord pioneered by the legendary Wanda Landowska. Built like a truck, with an iron frame, high-tension strings and a clutch of register-changing pedals, this bizarre attempt at reviving the antique instrument was itself reduced to a mere historical curiosity by the advent of the early music revival.

Today, no self-respecting harpsichordist would play on anything but a period piece - even if it's new pieces that they want to play. For, to the ears of a baroque instrumentalist such as Jane Chapman, the pedal harpsichord is simply a 'plucked piano' and the legacy of works left by Landowska a travesty of the historic instrument's intrinsic character.

Chapman, who switched from piano to harpsichord after succumbing to Bach at school, and later studied with Ton Koopman in Amsterdam, conceived her love of contemporary music during her time at Dartington College. 'I think I was there in its halcyon days,' she observes, 'when it was a very good environment for exploring all kinds of different musics.' For Chapman, these encompassed both Eastern and Western traditions: she added sitar to her keyboard skills and is currently working with ethnomusicologist Gerry Farrell on realising some extraordinary late 18th-century English keyboard transcriptions of Indian ragas. 'But my big thrust,' she says emphatically, 'has been to commission new works for the baroque harpsichord.'

Her own instrument is a modern copy of an early 18th-century French model. Far from Beecham's posthumous coital clattering, the Blanchet's wooden bodywork boasts a tremendous resonance 'and', she adds proudly, 'a really lugubrious bass'. Nevertheless, without Landowska's added ironmongery, this plucky precursor of the pianoforte still suffers all the limitations of its age. Chapman prefers to think of them as creative challenges.

The fact that, unlike the piano-player, the baroque harpsichordist is powerless to control either the volume or the duration of the sound leads, she believes, to a welcome concentration on the quality of the tone itself and the subtlety of its articulation. This emphasis on how each note sounds, and the way it falls in relation to the next, makes timbre and touch the essence of the harpsichordist's art. 'It's the gaps between the notes that's the important bit,' Chapman observes.

If there is any truth in Beecham's celebrated quip, it is that there is no way of dressing things up on a harpsichord: anyone writing for the instrument must be prepared to have their music stripped bare. It is this, Chapman suspects, that so excites today's composers - 'the idea of trying to get more out of the instrument than is actually in there'. Literally so in the case of Andrew Lewis, whose tape and harpsichord piece INT/ext, presented last year as part of Chapman's South Bank solo recital 'Electro Harpsichord', had the player burrowing around within the instrument's innards, attempting to extract new sounds by main force.

That's one way of getting something new out of the old instrument - as well as subverting its twee, twiddly image. Adding electronics is another, and last year's recital included works by Mike Vaughan, David Little, Kaija Saariaho and Allen Strange that all used different combinations of synthesised and sampled sounds to extend the harpsichord's range.

This year, Chapman has ventured into new combinations with other acoustic instruments, including her own voice. Her two-part 'New MucICA 2' concert tomorrow night follows solo pieces (by Roderick de Man, David Little, Daniel Brozak and Gyorgy Ligeti) with a jazz-based collaboration with former Loose Tubes member Django Bates (playing E flat horn and electronic keyboards) and percussionist Martin France. In Bates's song-cycle pindrops . . . , Chapman herself provides the vocals. She particularly relishes the topical, headline-bashing style of the central 'City in Euphoria - World in Chaos'. 'It's crazy rhythmic stuff,' she enthuses, 'really mad, with a bit of free improvisation at the end.'

But then, this is one classical musician for whom jazz holds no terrors. A former winner of the Wavendon Allmusic Award, she enjoyed the early support of Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, while, as a student in Amsterdam, she supplemented her grant by singing with a professional jazz group. Jazz supplies the underlying theme of tomorrow's recital, but it is not the only unexpected musical ingredient. Roderik de Man's Frenzy (originally titled 'Another Bird') contains allusions to both Charlie 'Bird' Parker and William Byrd; David Little's Three Phase Etudes nods towards the Minimalist processes of Steve Reich; Daniel Brozak's In A runs the gamut of music history from Bach to Wagner; while Ligeti's classic Hungarian Rock is self-explanatory.

Playing bebop, Wagner and American systems music on the baroque harpsichord may seem the antithesis of the current vogue for authenticity. Yet the early music revival hasn't only resurrected old instruments, it has also succeeded in cleaning out contemporary ears to such an extent that many composers can no longer cope with the congested textures of the modern symphony orchestra or concert grand. 'A lot of composers have told me that they just couldn't face writing for the piano,' Chapman explains. 'There are just too many associations. Whereas composing for the harpsichord is almost like returning to the raw material.' And, as the composer Nigel Osborne has observed, in the absence of any really new instruments, old instruments are the next best thing this century has come up with.

That said, the baroque harpsichord remains something of an unknown quantity for most 20th-century composers. They may want to write for it, but they don't necessarily know how. As Chapman testifies: 'Some of them write for notes that don't even exist.' Ideally, potential composers would always come and see what she can do, yet there are those who simply send in unsolicited scores through the post. 'What I'm looking for is a challenging harpsichord part,' she explains. 'But it's really got to be a harpsichord piece. Some of the things I've seen might just as well have been written for any keyboard instrument. And if I ever find the words 'For harpsichord or piano', it goes straight back in the post.'

But what really makes her mad is baroque pastiche. 'I can't tell you how much I hate that sort of tinkly tweeness,' she explodes, 'the sort of music you can play at lunchtime concerts. Personally, I'd rather push things the other way, towards that harder-edged New Complexity stuff.' There is, though, a point at which she really does draw the line - detuning the harpsichord. 'I know it's the obvious thing to do,' she concedes, 'and a lot of composers suggest it. But I'm afraid it's just too much hassle to retune in the course of a single recital.'

In the meantime, she has not forgotten her first love - the music of the High Baroque. 'Rameau is still my favourite composer,' she admits. 'That's why I've got a French instrument.' She is currently preparing a straight programme of Bach and Rameau - 'I call it my 'Baroque Concert for Europe' ' - for her local hall in Ealing. Whatever Beecham may have said, one suspects there's plenty of life left in those old bones yet.

Jane Chapman, with Django Bates and Martin France: 8pm tomorrow, ICA, The Mall, SW1 (071-930 3647)

Jane Chapman plays Bach and Rameau: 7.30pm 27 Oct, Pitshanger Manor, Ealing

(Photograph omitted)

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