The Sound Source: A Harpsichord in a Club

Molecular Dance I
Serra Central
Extract VI
Demolition 1901
I, Cog
Kayenta Dreams
Molecular Dance II
The Ringing Grooves of Change
de Moncey-Conegliano
Thesaurus 2
Rathbone Pullen
New Year’s Revolutions

Jane Chapman (harpsichord)
Anakonda [Yumi Hara Cawkwell] (DJ)
Yoshitaka Adachi (visuals)

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 28 March, 2006
Venue: Cargo, 83 Rivington Street, London

The harpsichord has a tendency to be perceived as a dainty, jangly instrument of limited dynamic range, restricted to baroque repertoire and made obsolete by the piano – hence the ‘absurdity’ of finding one in a contemporary nightclub. Yet, played by the likes of Pierre Hantaï or Wanda Ladowska it becomes a rattling, cacophonous noise-making machine, recalling Beecham’s “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof” comment. Contemporary works for the instrument often emphasise these very qualities: Górecki’s instantly engaging Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings is a progressive study of repetitive melodic cells, while Charlemagne Palestine’s extreme Duo Strumming for Two Harpsichords relentlessly and violently assaults performer, listener and instrument. Perhaps finding one in a club is not so absurd after all.

This concert of contemporary pieces for harpsichord (with and without electronic accompaniment) touched upon these heights but also dipped into painful blandness. At worst, the gap between high- and low-art seemed impossible to bridge, with each dragging the other down with the worst aspects of both club and concert hall conventions. Yumi Hara Cawkwell’s Molecular Dance I positioned limpid, uninspired hip-hop beats besides aimless harpsichord melodies (although her more jagged, flashy Molecular Dance II showed greater promise); Mark Wingfield’s Serra Central offered more open rhythmic patterns besides dissonant keyboard lines, but went nowhere; Mica Levi’s Tap was a short, inconsequential study of dripping water and empty harpsichord notes.

These moments were fortunately fleeting. Perhaps surprisingly, the most interesting music came from the unaccompanied instrument. Neil Kaczor’s Extract VI compared the harpsichord with a wind-chime in changing weather, notes and clusters beautifully blowing in multiple directions. The Ringing Grooves of Change by Peter Edwards combined divergent right- and left-hand tempos, repeated descending patterns and restless high-note glissandos. Some works offered an intelligent synthesis of sound and vision: the trills within Elizabeth Walling’s Demolition 1901 mirrored the washed-out, monochrome footage of Victorian building destruction; the shifting watercolours of Caren van Herwaarden and Sandra Kruisbrink enhanced the economic beauty of Aziza Sadikova’s Clavecin.

The harpsichord itself seemed perfectly at home on Cargo’s stage (or rather looked equally odd and imposing here as in a concert hall), its polished white body emblazoned with film projections. SPNM deserve acclaim for their ‘new-music new-space’ approach as this program sat very well with the Cargo audience – standing, free to wander the room, drink in hand – and responding rapturously to most pieces.

Throughout, harpsichordist Jane Chapman was exhilarating, injecting even the lamest moments with energy and conviction and giving the instrument the fresh, alien sound it deserves. At the finish of each work Chapman was beaming – she clearly loves her instrument and relishes the opportunity to work with living composers. While these were not all masterpieces, one must remember how glutted the eighteenth-century was with mediocre works for this instrument.

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