Review of Bruce Prince-Joseph's Swingin' Harpsichord and Sisask's “Agnus Dei”and “Benedictio.”

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Swingin’ Harpsichord, Bruce Prince-Joseph

Harpsichordists are usually associated with pretentious performance of old music which might be hard to understand (hence, names such as the “Academy of Ancient Music,” “Collegium Musicum,” “Early Music Society,” and others–don’t they sound pretentious?). In order to try to dispel any appearance of pretentiousness, we then try to force our brains to function as if it were after 1750. This is altogether impossible, but it often results in interesting things.

One of such interesting things is jazz. It’s popular and modern, yet has more than four chords to play with, and melodies which sound melodic (a novelty to much popular music). Besides, the baroque period was a period of experimentation with tonality, just like jazz. The harpsichord, since it has an even more definite ictus than the piano, can emphasize unique rhythms, and since it has a brighter timbre with more overtones, spicy chords sound spicier.

A violist friend send a recording from this album, in which Bruce Prince-Joseph plays various jazzy favorites on the harpsichord. He executes the transcriptions well, and captures the spirit of both the jazz and the harpsichord. The only complaint which I have is that he uses what seems to be a Pleyel harpsichord. These harpsichords were built like pianos, meaning that the aesthetic advantages of the harpsichord which I wrote about previously are not as present, aside from its definite ictus and bright timbre. I do not exempt even Landowska from such criticism; while she understands and performs music quite well, her choice of instrument compromises her recordings. Prince-Joseph must be reviewed similarly: he plays good music well, but on an improper instrument. This is an interesting concept, though, and I would be interested to continue what he has done here. This is a recording well-worth listening to.

“Agnus Dei” and “Benedictio,” Urmas Sisask

Another friend, hearing me talk about the Keplerian notion of the cosmos and that it related to tuning theory (a research project I am yet to complete), sent me this setting of “Agnus Dei” from Urmas Sisask. Sisask constructed his own scale with the mathematical proportions of the planets. Now, while I do not understand astronomy particularly well, this sounds like a very interesting theory. What is especially interesting is that his scale happened to match the traditional Japanese kumayoshi scale.

So, then, has Sisask discovered some sort of cosmological musical constant, universal to all humanity? I somewhat doubt this. His philosophy veers towards shamanism, as Wolverton notes. His music does have, to me, a sort of morbid chantlike quality. While this could be mistaken for the somberness appropriate for the Agnus Dei text, it seems not quite the right affection. In the Benedictio there is no question that this is an incorrect affection, and that Sisask’s interest in astronomy has superseded his ability to properly judge the affections in music. While this sort of scale might be able to communicate certain forms of affections, it does not seem to be useful generally, which Sisask attempts. Novel musical techniques can be useful and should be experimented with, but should not become more important than careful communication of the affections. Perhaps my views will change on this as I research the relationship between astronomy and music, but I cannot currently endorse Sisask’s music.