Different Strings

Detail of a harpsichord, by Sguastevi. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

As a young boy, long before I started learning piano, I used to clunk around on my family’s Yamaha Clavinova. I remember composing something like a dirge and playing it down in the bass of this electronic keyboard. As I switched my crude melody between its different synthesised voices, I heard how its character changed.

These voices were just pale imitations of acoustic instruments, of course. But among them was a distinctive and crisp sound. It was something I’d never encountered in real life – a harpsichord.

From my CD collection – lamentably forsaken in recent years for the convenience of internet streaming – I recently pulled out Glen Wilson’s album of harpsichord music by the English Renaissance composer Giles Farnaby, on the Naxos label. Farnaby is not the most celebrated name of his era, but his music for this instrument is full of verve and character. 

Meanwhile, on YouTube – where much of my listening takes place these days – I’ve been exploring some different strings. The Mandé Variations is an acclaimed 2008 album by Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. World Circuit Records have generously uploaded the whole thing, and it’s perhaps my favourite recording of kora music I’ve found since I started investigating its repertoire last year.

Both recordings are worth their own in-depth exploration. But taken together, they showcase the fascinating differences and resonances in music for solo sets of strings.

The harpsichord is most often found away from the limelight, plinking away in a Baroque continuo group. While a piano hammers its strings, the harpsichord plucks them, with a penetrating sound and even dynamics – its volume cannot be shaped by the player’s touch on the keys.

As a solo instrument, the close-up metallic twang might at first seem a little pungent. And the flourishes of ornamentation in its early repertoire can initially sound mannered and fussy.

But the ear quickly adjusts to this sonic profile, and the harpsichord brings a graceful precision to contrapuntal music. At slower tempos, it lets in light and air between the lines. The bright percussive tone makes virtuoso passages all the more exuberant.

And since vitality abounds in Farnaby’s music, any fears of plodding fuguery can be quickly laid aside. Wilson’s recording includes his fantasias, and several idiomatically transcribed part-songs. As Wilson writes in the liner notes, the learned style of imitative entries that begin the fantasias tend to break into ‘playful anarchy’:

The virginalists […] add to their contrapuntal working a final toccata, a closing section of idiomatic keyboard pyrotechnics and polyrhythms […]

The opening theme is often deceptively simple and broad. In the example below, there’s even a disconcerting premonition of Richard Strauss. But from here the contrapuntal texture quickly grows, florid lines unexpectedly shoot from nowhere, and Farnaby starts to play metrical games with us. The music sounds highly improvisatory, its progress constantly swerving and unpredictable.

This may be ‘early music’, but anyone partial to the guitar solos of heavy metal shredders will find a kindred spirit in the freewheeling virtuosity of its toccata. And as the jazz musician Ethan Iverson recently wrote, keyboard music of the English Renaissance has ‘a familiar kind of atmosphere’ for him too:

The sources are incomplete, supported and thwarted by oral tradition, kept together out of love and duty. The titles are remarkably inconsistent, let alone the notes. When you get to ornamentation, all bets are off. Play it how you want to play it.

Compared to the harpsichord, the music of the West African kora is much softer in timbre. But it bears some noteworthy similarities. The polyrhythms of Farnaby’s showboating are very much a staple of its technique, while melodic ornamentation and fast improvised runs – known by the lovely onomatopoeia birimintingo – are a key feature too.

But the kora is a harp – with a large calabash gourd resonator – which means the player’s fingers have direct expressive access to the strings. Traditionally these were made of twisted leather strips, but modern koras now commonly use nylon. Their silvery sound caresses the ear, and the polyrhythms create an effect rather like dappled sunlight.

The whispering gorgeousness of Diabaté’s playing certainly makes for a seductive listen, and I was hooked in by the album straight away. The YouTube video is festooned with enthusing comments, one of which sums it up concisely: ‘this is like chocolate cake for the soul’.

I couldn’t agree more. And this being so immediately pleasurable and fit for savouring, it seems Diabaté might ask why Farnaby’s music is in such a rush to cover so much ground so quickly.

In the opening track, Si Naani, he sets up a ostinato, and the interplay of notes creates a kind of stasis, cultivating a gentle groove. Expressive improvisatory figures appear and disappear, little details suddenly emphasised before returning to the underlying pattern. It teases the ear with wonderful sensitivity.

In the second track, Elyne Road, it is not hard to hear Diabaté’s influence on the soothing piano minimalism of Ludovico Einaudi. As I wrote last year, Einaudi’s popular album I Giorni makes specific reference to a time he spent with Diabaté in Mali.

Within the kora’s 20-odd strings, Diabaté finds room for plenty of variety. Kaouding Cissoko conjures dazzling sonic clouds that sound startlingly ambient and modern. In Djourou Kara Nany, he stops the strings to create a brisk staccato effect on the offbeat, with a sharp syncopated rhythm.

The album’s title is also worth noting. Mandé music is an oral tradition, and within the patterns of its repertoire exists a realm of limitless potential variation. So while Wilson’s disc proudly states it contains the complete Farnaby fantasias, the very idea of completion would be missing the point of Diabaté’s record entirely.

Of course, such oral traditions can also produce frustrating ambiguity. The kora has become emblematic of the West African hereditary tradition of ‘Griots’, who trace their origins to the 13th century. But as an excellent article by Lucy Durán explains, its exact age is much disputed. It is most likely younger than other Griot instruments – and possibly younger than the harpsichord too.

A kora. by Steve Evans. Wikimedia Commons.

Much clearer, however, is the fact that the kora’s modern spread across the international music scene has changed it considerably:

The original, older and rougher sound of the kora, produced by leather strings (in use until the 1960s), the buzzing of the metal rattle attached to the end of the bridge, and the non-western intervals and scales, have now been largely abandoned for a cleaner, more resonant, and western aesthetic.

In fact Diabaté uses two koras on this album, with different tuning mechanisms – traditional leather strips, and modern pegs. Its cosmopolitan journey is summed up on the final track, named Cantelowes after the London road Diabaté lived on in the 1980s. Unexpectedly, it begins with an  quotation from Morricone’s famous theme to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

Like its music, the kora itself seems to be undergoing continuous variation. Its modern developments certainly sit in contrast to the efforts Wilson goes to for a historically-informed performance. His liner notes tell us he spent two days with a modern copy of a surviving English harpsichord in preparation for this recording.  On the vexed question of temperament, he assesses Farnaby’s clues and ends up with ‘an irregular tuning […] which gives better fifths to G and its neighbours at some unavoidable cost to the thirds and leaves a half-comma wolf in the usual place’.

As someone who struggles to tune even the six strings of my guitar by ear, I can only say I am supremely grateful not to need to worry about wolves at all.

Though still languishing somewhat in the piano’s long black shadow, the harpsichord remains a remarkable piece of engineering, and the various innovations created for it  – transposing manuals, different choirs of strings, ‘lute stops’ – are a fascinating testament to this.

In the 20th century, the instrument became newly attractive to composers. Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre is one charming example of this, exploiting its archaic associations for a kind of camp neo-classicism. Since then it has steadily built a modern repertoire to complement its old one. Now younger harpsichordists like Mahan Esfahani and Jean Rondeau are pushing forward its solo profile, and both explore far beyond the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Wilson’s album ends, appropriately enough, with a piece called Loth To Depart. It’s a great example of English Renaissance melancholia, fit to sit and weep beside Dowland’s Flow, My Tears. Its theme embodies the idea of a reluctance to move, tarrying within the small range of a perfect fifth, while the harmony makes bitter-sweet turns between major and minor.

Farnaby elaborates this disconsolate tune through several variations, eventually galloping it out through the open air with surging scales. But there is no virtuoso send-off. In the last variation, it returns to a more restrained style.

The harpsichord may not have the sensitivity of the kora or lute, nor the sustaining power of voices or viols. But in Farnaby’s exquisite final bars, Wilson draws out something you might not expect from the decaying notes of these plucked strings. It’s certainly nothing I could have imagined while fumbling through my childish composition on the Clavinova’s keys. There’s a lingering sense of real poignancy.

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