The Highs and Lows of Harpsichord Building: A Talk with Jack Peters
Michael Connolly writes:
Although the harpsichord resembles a smaller, more ornate version of a modern piano, it produces sound in a markedly different way. Instead of striking strings with a felt-covered hammer as the modern piano does, the harpsichord 'plucks' its single strings using a plectrum made from quill or, in recently built instruments, plastic. The resulting tone, which is thin, bright, and quick to decay, is the signature sound of Baroque keyboard music.
While a modern piano's cast metal frame, interchangeable parts, and high demand make mass production both feasible and desirable, the same is not true of the harpsichord.
Instead, harpsichords are generally built as they always were: slowly, painstakingly, and by the hands of a single person - or a few at most.
Longtime Seattle resident Jack Peters has been building harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments for more than thirty years, and he was happy to spend a morning answering my questions and showing me around his workshop.
"I don't recommend this trade."
Jack Peters smiles ruefully as he says it. I sit in his living room, surrounded by harpsichords, spare parts, strings, and hundreds of books about the instrument's history. Harpsichord paraphernalia is scattered everywhere I look. But there is a certain order within this chaos, and, despite his stern warning, a certain twinkle in Jack's eye.
In a converted three-car garage behind his modest home on the north end of Seattle, Jack builds harpsichords, clavichords, and virginals, all historical keyboard instruments whose designs date from the late 1400s to the 1800s. Jack generally builds "historically correct" instruments, meaning that the design and construction of the instrument is as close to the original as practical.
Using homemade tools, more than 70 species of wood, and sometimes no more than a painting as a guide, Jack is able to recreate instruments from more than 500 years in the past. It's a demanding craft, and lonely at times, but it's a good fit for Jack's lifelong curiosity, musicianship, and love for the sound of unusual instruments.
The early years: pipe organs and beyond
Jack's interest in keyboard instruments started early: at the age of ten, he became fascinated by his church's pipe organ, guarded over fiercely by a stern organist. "Much more than playing it," Jack says, "I wanted to know what went on inside. So when the organist opened the door to where the pipes were, it was like she was opening Pandora's box."
Though the organist generally kept Jack away from the instrument, fearful he would damage it, both the organist's assistant and the church's minister proved to be allies, unlocking the organ's cabinet surreptitiously to feed Jack's natural curiosity.
At the age of 16, Jack decided that the best way to circumvent the church organist's strict rules was to build his own pipe organ. With his father's help, Jack began to build wooden "flue" pipes, the most basic and versatile type of organ pipe. "The big breakthrough came," Jack says, "when I got a call from an organ builder whom I didn't know terribly well. He'd lost his lease on his storage facility and he needed to get rid of three pipe organs right away!" A few phone calls later, the builder dumped several truckloads of organ pipes, keyboards, and windchests in front of Jack's parents' house.
And was the budding instrument builder able to assemble this collection of discarded parts into a working instrument? As it turns out, yes: "With a lot of effort, help, and advice from other people, I was able to. I got a blower installed in the basement coal cellar, ran polyethylene ducting up through the walls all the way to the attic and built a reservoir to store the air, and I got one of the chests working. I had to learn an awful lot to get that thing to work! But I could play it for anyone willing to go up to the attic with me."
The first harpsichord
Jack's first encounter with the harpsichord came through a chance purchase at a record store: "I bought some recordings - I still have them - with Jean-Pierre Rampal and his accompanist Robert Veyron-Lecroix from Paris, who was playing the harpsichord. That was the first time I'd heard a harpsichord, and I got fascinated by this interesting sound I was hearing."
Indeed, many people during the sixties had never heard of a harpsichord, let alone heard one played. Jack credits television sitcom The Addams Family, which featured the harpsichord-playing butler Lurch, for bringing the instrument into the public consciousness. Shown prominently in several episodes, Lurch's harpsichord playing was no Hollywood illusion: actor Ted Cassidy actually played the instrument proficiently.
Though Jack was intrigued by the harpsichord's sound, he had no access to an instrument to play - until one day, he stumbled across a small classified ad in the newspaper. "The Same Harpsichord used by the New York Metropolitan Opera" could be bought - as a $150 kit! Almost as amazing as the ad itself was the address listed at the bottom: just eight miles away from Jack's home.
The kits were offered by Wolfgang Zuckermann, a German-born musician and instrument builder who immigrated to the US in the early 1920s. Zuckerman, who sold finished harpsichords as well, developed the kit in the late 1950s as a response to customers who found themselves unable to maintain their instruments, reasoning that if a customer built the instrument themselves, they would understand how to keep it in working order. The "Zuckermann Box" or "Z-Box", by virtue of its simple construction and use of off-the-shelf parts, was immensely popular and many playing examples still exist.
To young Jack, frustrated by having to beg, steal, and borrow time on pipe organs and other instruments, the prospect of having a harpsichord of his own was seductive indeed. It was only a matter of time before Jack persuaded his father to drive him into the city to first examine, and then order, a Zuckermann kit for himself.
"And that's where the fun began," says Jack, "because when it came, the keyboard was the only recognizable part. Everything else had to be built from scratch." Indeed, the base kit for Zuckermann's harpsichord was little more than a set of plans and an assortment of specialized parts, leaving the builder to supply much of the wood for the cabinet, as well as a few hundred hours' worth of work.
With his father's help (and at times, prodding) Jack built his first harpsichord over a period of four years - the entire length of his college education. But after the kit was completed, "the thrill was essentially gone." Used for an occasional concert, the Z-Box mostly languished in the corner of Jack's apartment, eventually succumbing to humidity and becoming unplayable.
Becoming a builder
Newly married, Jack moved from the New York area to Seattle in the mid-60's, intending to find a teaching position but instead enrolling in graduate school at the University of Washington. Though the school's music department owned several harpsichords of its own, the professors refused to move the instruments or use them in performances. As news traveled that a certain graduate student owned a harpsichord of his own, Jack began to get phone calls from an assortment of musical groups clamoring to borrow his kit-built instrument. "All of a sudden a light bulb went off in my head," Jack says. "Boy, this is something I could do. I could rent this harpsichord out."
First, a campus early music group rented the instrument for a concert. Then, the University's symphony did the same; then, the Seattle Symphony; next, the Seattle Opera. With nothing more than a few friends and a station wagon, Jack could move the Z-Box to a concert hall and back the same night.
Jack's interest in building harpsichords was rekindled through a chance meeting with seventeen-year-old Ken Bakeman among the stacks at the Seattle Public Library. Bakeman was building instruments in his mother's greenhouse, a formidable task given the building's extreme humidity. "We kind of clicked," Jack says, "and I had a garage." Over the next three years, the pair built around six instruments together from scratch, finding an enthusiastic buyer for each.
The workshop tour
As we walk out to the workshop, Jack tells me the outbuilding, the size of a large three-car garage, was one of the main reasons he bought the house. To the raw structure, he's added insulation, a furnace, and electricity, creating a space suited for both fine work and the storage of the raw materials used in constructing the instruments.
The inside of the shop is a jumble of raw wood and plastic, instruments, plans, and more unrecognizable parts than I can count.
Jack gestures toward a group of shelves stacked high with rolls of paper. There are over two hundred plans for different instruments here, some copied from period instruments, others drawn up using only a historical painting or engraving as a guide. The plans represent a sizable amount of research, guesswork, and collaboration with other builders willing to share information; I cringe inwardly when it occurs to me that this collection of thin paper rolls, the output of decades of careful research and experimentation, could go up in smoke in a matter of minutes if the shop were ever to catch fire.
I voice my concern but, seemingly unperturbed, Jack instead motions me over to his current project: a clavicytherium, essentially a vertically strung predecessor of the harpsichord which dates from the late 1400's. "We don't know whether these had leather plectra, or quills, or what! So you just try stuff - you try to get it to play."
Every component of the clavicytherium, including the strings themselves, is an unknown: First, Jack strung the clavicytherium with brass strings, as used in a standard harpsichord, but the results were less than satisfactory. Perhaps, he reasoned, the strings were never intended to be metal at all, but gut. Another relative of the harpsichord, called the Lautenwerk, used gut strings, and after a series of phone calls and a period of years, Jack was able to get in touch with a Lautenwerk maker living in Alabama, who revealed the secret of how to string the instrument. The answer? Fluorocarbon fishing line. "And that's the magic clue I'd been looking for for over a year," Jack laughs. "So I went home, took all the strings off, put them in an oatmeal box, and proceeded to restring the instrument, and then I could proceed. So it's really kind of slow."
Making it all work
Jack keeps busy in a variety of ways: he builds new instruments, rents a personal collection of harpsichords to various groups for special events, and is even helping a local high-schooler build his own harpsichord from scratch: "This," he says, motioning to a half-built frame leaning against the wall, "is Derek's dream harpsichord. If he gets his senior projects done and has more time before college, he's going to finish this double manual instrument."
As we sit talking about his business, Jack's phone rings incessantly with inquiries from around the globe. Today's interview must end promptly, because a visitor from Japan has come to learn more about clavichords. Meanwhile, another caller has found Jack's name inside a 30-year old Zuckermann kit started by her late husband and wants Jack to finish the project.
Not every day is like today, however: "You can't rely on anything coming in every month - it's always feast or famine. You might get a check for $10,000 but it's at the same time as a bunch of bills. A lot of things come up that you didn't expect, and it depletes rather rapidly."
Along with the challenge of keeping afloat financially, there is the problem of how to satisfy the scheduling needs of a pool of customers waiting on new instruments, rentals, or repairs.
"It's a juggling act," Jack says, "and you have to be careful how you treat people, because some people can't be kept waiting and others can. The woman who just called - she's been waiting for that harpsichord for 30 years, so what's another two weeks?"
Because Jack builds each instrument to suit the buyer, there is an appreciable delay between the initial order and the completion of the instrument. The harpsichord's large frame is built during the summer months, and filled with an action during the winter. Seattle's moist, temperate climate is an ideal environment for the construction process, minimizing the wood's dimensional changes due to seasonal variation.
Even though the basic design of the instrument dates back several hundred years, Jack constantly strives to improve the quality and period correctness of his instruments: "I'm always on the lookout for new books and new information. I travel around and visit my friends who are building different things and we trade notes, information, stories, and spare parts!"
As the interview draws to an end, Jack sits back on the couch and cracks a wry smile. "I don't recommend this trade," he says. "I think it's a good thing to have your hands into it, and it's meaningful work, but as far as a reliable income - it's not. I go through periods of real crisis, and then things tend to work out, but only because of I've got a lot of contacts."
"That's one very important thing - personal contact. It makes all the difference in the world. There are a lot of people who build instruments, but they don't answer the phone - they don't answer email. They're totally oblivious to the world - and they don't do well at all."
With those words still hanging in the air, the doorbell rings. It's the visitor from Japan, a man in his thirties, ready to talk shop with Jack about clavichords. I excuse myself and make my goodbyes as Jack welcomes his visitor inside.
To learn more about Jack Peters and his instruments, you can visit his website at www.jackpeters.com
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