“Building passion into sound”
Each craftsman has goals that guide his activity and are the ultimate purpose of his work. Given our trade’s leading trends, I should probably start telling how hard I try to create copies that are indistinguishable from the ancient; and yet, even better: decorated in leaf gold even inside the case and built using only wood that is at least 400 years old; dressed obviously in eighteenth-century fashion and working by candlelight. And all this only to give my clients, the illusion that time stopped in that golden age, where heretics were burned on the main square and women died of childbirth.
Unfortunately I am not the man for these fairy tales. Imagining that for some of you, this page will be the first contact with my work, I also don’t want to repay this welcome interest by telling stories.
My view of the instrument maker is much simpler. My main interest does neither lay in the imitation of Louis XV furniture, nor in the alchemic charm of varnish, paint or wood. The reason why I’m interested in harpsichords and clavichords is because they are “tools” (lat. instrumenta) to make music. My main goal is to build instruments that are really worth playing and listening to. For obvious this aim may sound, instruments of this kind are quite rare.
From the very moment I started to take this mission seriously, leaving the romanced vision of the instrument maker behind me, the quality of my work has only improved.
Just by reflecting on the function an instrument needs to fulfill, it’s possible to get a detailed idea of its purposes; then it’s simple enough to establish their importance for quality. So here are my conclusions, which have therefore also become the goals of my work:
1- The main purpose of an instrument is to have a beautiful sound.
2- The secondary purpose of an instrument is to allow good control.
3- The tertiary purpose of an instrument is to last.
4- The last purpose of an instrument is to look inviting.
I know how unpopular it is to talk about objective criteria nowadays. On the other hand, I challenge those who criticize my approach to prove I am wrong by deliberately buying an instrument with bad sound, uncontrollable mechanics, weak structure and ugly appearance. I can only congratulate whomever cares so much about relativism to do this; yet all the damage will remain to him, because no serious musician could ever make career with such an instrument.
Incidentally these principles are also a good medicine against idiosyncrasies of builders and musicians: what in an instrument is not heard or seen and does not affect solidity or touch, is totally marginal. It sounds pretty obvious and yet you often enough meet people that make a religion out of insignificant details. I have decided to save my energies and to direct them only for the above purposes in that precise rank.
Assuming that a truly excellent instrument deserves 100 points out of 100 and that an acceptable one has about 60 out of 100. Here’s how I came to organize these principles in order of importance:
– Sound is the ultimate reason why instruments exist and is by far the most important element. An instrument, even the most beautyful, that has a mediocre, ordinary and boring sound has therefore no reason to be. Period.
It might be a nice piece of furniture, but from the point of view of a musical instrument it’s very clearly inadequate; this is the reason why the sound alone deserves 50 points out of 100. The first duty of an instrument maker is to do everything in his power to improve sound making it worth of the great musical masterpieces.
The quest for sound, from a practical point of view, does not end by studying the originals and using high quality materials; indeed this is only the starting point for the work of a good builder.
Of course everybody is free to believe that the great sound of the antique instruments comes largely from aging or that it depends on woods and varnishes with miraculous properties, as one often hears. There are theories for every taste, ranging from alchemical to climatical, so that everybody can find his favorite explanation on why modern copies don’t sound as enchanting and alive as originals.
Otherwise you can think that the great masters of the past built excellent instruments because they simply knew exactly how to do. This is my deep conviction.
The fact that measurements or even x-rays of a good harpsichord, behind a great impression of scientificity, don’t help us to fully understand how to build an equally good one, seems pushing us towards magical explanation. However, even considering our common everyday life, the visual approach is not enough to fully describe acoustic, olfactory, tactile or taste phenomena, as they are rooted on a different level.
Not even the most accurate X-ray of a great Margherita-pizza would help an aspiring cook to bake an equally good one. And yet it’s surely not a question of miraculous “aged” tomatoes or sensational “Stradivari” mozzarella: there is simply much more to know than its outer dimensions. A skilled pizza baker, on the other hand, rather than relying on extremely accurate measurements or prodigious ingredients, would be able to cook an excellent pizza mainly trusting his own senses and experience. It is my belief that the pizza baker’s attitude is closer to that of the ancient instrument makers, than that of colleagues who spend their days with calipers in their hand or are searching for extraordinary materials.
What we called “experience” for the pizza maker of this example, in the field of instrument making could be named practical acoustics or “acoustic technology”, as my master Keith Hill labelled it. It can be defined as a corpus of empirical knowledge aiming to enhance the sound of instruments. and is mostly about practical applications of simple acoustic principles he discovered during his working activity.
Believe it or not, one day we put together a list of over 45 small and large individual acoustic enhancements, which can be applied to the construction of a harpsichord (and probably there are still more to discover). Needless to say, most of these improvements would be nearly impossible to decipher visually; even more so using X-rays. And yet they are undeniably present in the instrument, because the effect they induce is easily audible. The core principle of this technology is to tune the material of the instrument’s internal parts, especially the soundboard. This is done by listening and removing wood until the desired pitch is reached.
When all acoustic enhancements are done accurately, the instrument acquires an enchanting sound and seems to come to life, as one can observe in the best antiques; if these improvements have been done or attempted at least in part, the instrument will still exhibit some good features and a certain charm. By relying only on eyes and measurements, the acoustic result can only be a matter of chance, as even making exact copies, being wood always different, so will be its acoustic properties (try for yourself to knock on two pieces of wood of identical size: it is quite rare that they emit the same sound). This is ultimately why, by relying on measurements, one instruments can turn out better or worse for no apparent reason.
-The action, understood as an interface for the musician is the second element in order of importance, because if there’s no way to control it, even having a good sound the musical result will be impaired. Of the remaining 50 points, half must therefore be assigned to the action of the instrument, because it is, after the sound, the most important element for a musical performance.
We often tend to focus on the most immediate elements such as voicing or depth of touch. Additionally, some consider essential to have very smooth keys while others prefer them porous and “lived”; each has of course his favorite material and the most zealous have even elaborated, so they say, ideal measurements for the octave. Since in practice one encounters good instruments that have quite different characteristics of quilling, depth of touch, materials and measurements, I cannot escape the impression that these elements are perhaps not as crucial as they seem at first.
I suggest looking beyond the first impression: the main quality of an action is to offer good control over the instrument. Except in those cases where one got it entirely wrong, a little harder or softer, smooth or porous, wide or narrow won’t make a huge difference and for a professional it only takes a few hours to get used to a new keyboard. To some extend it is also a matter of taste, as nobody plays alike.
What not even the best playing technique can compensate for, is the lack of control due to major faults in the instrument. In this regard in addition to voicing, distance of plectra and their length, balance ratio and accurate weighting of the keys are very important.
In clavichords these parameters become even more critical and other factor are added as well, such as stringing, overlength, arrangement of listing cloth and so on. Some of these are easily changed while other are pretty much fixed. As in clavichords the sensation of volume and touch are deeply connected, a good sounding instrument will feel easier to play. This is particularly evident when one only changes the soundboard leaving the rest of the instrument untouched; and yet the instrument feels immediately more comfortable to play.
-A good instrument must be durable, reliable and stable. Perhaps someone will wonder why I have assigned only 15 points to this aspect: my answer is that if one starts choosing wood, strings, construction and glues that yield the best sound, he has already come a long way in regard to durability. The additional work required to make the instrument even more stable is limited to a couple of interventions in the right places.
If the structure of historical harpsichords was actually as weak as it appeared to restorers of the late nineteenth century, they would certainly not have survived 4-500 years in good condition.
There is therefore no reason to increase thicknesses out of fear and even resorting to super-glues, special plywoods or waterproof paints brings more disadvantages than gain. Good materials and traditional construction are all it is required for a durable instrument.
On the other hand, also reducing the thickness of soundboards arbitrarily does not bring great advantages, because under a certain limit sound begins to deteriorate: a harpsichord is not a banjo. In the end the acoustically most successful materials and structures are by their very nature the best compromise between lightness, stability and resistance: as a simple proof of this fact there are several hundreds antique instruments, which are still in good condition.
-The appearance of the instrument is an extremely critical element for many musicians and builders. After all, it is the first thing one sees and, judging by the efforts, one sometimes can’t avoid the impression that for somebody this might well be the most important aspect. For this reason it is healthy to take a step back and resize appearance to its right value: until the day in which music will be heard with eyes, sound must unquestionably be considered the most important element of a musical instrument.
I am not fond of ugly instruments and I think, indeed, that an attractive instrument invites the musician to play, which is important, as halfhearted performances are tasteless. But I am also convinced that the compulsive search for lavish decoration is inappropriate and useless: if one has done his best to get an instrument that sounds good, he will generally have already obtained an instrument of rather pleasant appearance. The reason is that the beauty of the instruments lies mainly in the proportions and few instruments that sound good have visually unbalanced proportions.
When these are pleasant, it is enough to emphasize them with graceful cheeks and mouldings. When proportions are wrong, not even a whole shitload of golden leaf and intarsias, will be enough to disguise them. It is therefore pretty useless to focus on aesthetic elements hoping to achieve beauty by decoration alone.
My personal taste is for sober decoration; that means, in practice, to decorate only to the point where you no longer feel compelled to add something. It is precisely in this plain and friendly elegance, tasteful but unpretentious, that lies the great charm of many historical instruments.
These are essentially the conceptual basis of my work. Common sense often labels philosophy as a waste of time; but for those who want to achieve good results it is definitely not useless to rationally point out their aims. Since both musicians and builders are beings, that must deal with limited time and energy, in order to avoid any waste, it is important to have clear and defined goals. Well, these are mine: I can guarantee that all my efforts will be directed to improve my instruments in the light of these criteria.