The University’s music program has its share of world-class pianists and virtuoso violinists, but there are plenty of faculty and students exploring instruments and sounds with less exposure. While these instruments are far from being performed in today’s concert halls, they are important at the University as ways to gain a deeper understanding of current musical practices.
The sounds of the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that generates sound by plucking strings rather than hammering them as the piano does, are alive and well at the University. It was once the instrument of choice for professional and amateur musicians alike, but it gradually faded from prominence as the piano gained popularity.
For harpsichord doctoral candidate Francis Yun in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the primary draw of the instrument was its repertoire. Like most harpsichord students, Yun had a strong piano background but turned to the harpsichord because of his interest in the music.
The harpsichord music of 20th century composers such as Gyorgy Ligeti and Alfred Schnittke is a big part of why he plays it, Yun said. Ligeti’s and Schnittke’s music represent a neoclassical approach to music, where musical forms and styles of the past are deconstructed to counterbalance saturated and familiar sounds. In that vein, many students’ paths to the harpsichord are similarly motivated.
“I was getting sick of the piano repertoire, so I looked to the 20th and 21st centuries as well as way back to Bach, Handel and even before that. I just fell in love with the repertoire, and most of the music for those chunks of time is for harpsichord,” Yun said.
The harpsichord’s plucking mechanism results in a sharp and piercing sound, which Yun describes as an “equalizer,” clarifying textures and combinations of sounds and timbres that the piano cannot. Not only does it produce a distinctive sound, but the harpsichord is also a lens through which to examine music history.
Historical harpsichord music isn’t limited to the same keyboard suites with which every pianist is familiar.
“As I study more, it’s 17th century composers that are wild and exciting to play,” Yun said. Composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi, Louis Couperin and William Byrd were ‘unbound by rules’ that marked Bach and Handel’s music.
“What Bach did within those limits was amazing, but the stuff in the 17th century was a lot wilder,” Yun said.
One cannot approach harpsichord playing without at least some consideration for historically informed performance practice, a school of musical thought that suggests music should be played exactly as it was first conceived, on instruments of its era of composition.
“By playing the harpsichord, I’m a part of that,” Yun said.
However, he’s not necessarily overly concerned with perfect historical accuracy. He prefers to make musical choices based on the music on the page, rather than following centuries-old style.
“A lot of it is vague and hard to interpret, and musicians aren’t necessarily the best writers,” Yun said.
Most harpsichord students come to the harpsichord from piano, just exploring what’s out there, Yun said, and most people who pick up the harpsichord have the same interest in repertoire. Yun stresses the differences between harpsichord and piano in his teaching as well as playing.
Though the harpsichord draws easy comparisons to the piano, Yun conceptualizes them very differently. Harpsichord technique requires a much lighter touch, so much so that the mechanics of piano playing are almost forgotten.
“The instruments, by their very nature, are so different that I feel like I’m using different parts of my brain,” Yun said.
“I like to get people to just be able to play one note with good touch and good sound, and to realize that it’s not the piano. Most pianists have to get over the hurdle of wanting the harpsichord to be the piano,” Yun said.
From strings to bells
It’s difficult to imagine the carillon as anything other than what it is, an instrument made up of bells, played using a keyboard-esque assembly, with manual pegs hit with the fist and foot pedals. While there is a carillon on North Campus, the carillon in Burton Memorial Tower — named after its donor, former Michigan Athletic Director Charles Baird — on Central Campus contains 56 bells and is one of the largest in the world.
“The carillon can be a significant part of your memories of college,” said Steven Whiting, associate dean of graduate studies in the Music, Theatre & Dance School, referring to the chimes as students walk from class to class. “The sound is an integral part of campus.”
Helping to create that sound is an eclectic group of carillonneurs. LSA senior Kyle Helzer discovered an introductory carillon class through a promotional flier, and though he has only taken the class for two terms, he is already producing music heard by the entire campus.
“I had a little bit of a music background, but I wasn’t really doing anything with music here on campus. I saw the flier, and I thought, not many people get to do that,” Helzer said.
Students must prepare 15 minutes of material before they can play on the tower, Helzer said. Performances last from noon until 12:30 on weekdays, and consist of material from sonatas and dance suites written specifically for the carillon, as well as arranged popular melodies.
Richard Giszczak, a safety officer in the chemistry department, has been playing the carillon for 24 years, and runs a business that arranges popular music for the instrument. According to Giszczak, the carillon is better suited for minor-key music because of the physical properties of the bell. But this doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom up on the bell tower.
“It’s primarily popular stuff, but I’ve done a lot of funny things and fun things. I do the Halloween concert, and that’s some pretty goofy music,” Giszczak said.
A lot can be gleaned from unconventional instrument and composition pairings, goofy or not. Pius Cheung, a well-known marimba and xylophone specialist, recorded Bach’s Goldberg variations, originally for keyboard. Trombonists often play Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello, Prof. Whiting said.
“Imagine all the things trombonists can learn about phrasing, legato and counterpoint from tackling a Bach cello suite,” Whiting said. In the same vein, playing Bach on older keyboard instruments can yield ideas about articulation and manipulation of dynamics that pianists can bring back to the piano.
Obscure instruments, however, are not simply limited to enriching pianists’ musical style.
“Some people are drawn to be specialists. There’s a fundamental curiosity about acquiring expertise that’s not shared by many people,” Whiting said.
As Whiting explained, there are two ways to approach the study of more obscure instruments.
“The question when you’re running a music school is how specialized you want to get. Are the earlier instruments there primarily to be ancillary to people who are focused on piano mainly, or do you have the resources to devote specific academic programs to early music performance?” Whiting said.
The answer to that question changes from decade to decade. “I wish that we could answer that more strongly in the affirmative,” Whiting said.
He added: “Right now, early instruments are a crucial enhancement for students who are working on other things.”