Ann Arbor Sounds of obscure instruments explored at U. Mich.

By Sam Cenzhang

The Michigan Daily

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- The University of Michigan'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 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. Their music represents a neoclassical approach, 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. The harpsichord is also a lens through which to examine music history.

"As I study more, it's 17th century composers that are wild and exciting to play," Yun said. Composers were "unbound by rules" that marked Bach and Handel's music.

Most harpsichord students come to it from piano, Yun said, and most people who pick up the harpsichord have the same interest in repertoire.

"The instruments ... are so different that I feel like I'm using different parts of my brain," Yun said, adding "most pianists have to get over the hurdle of wanting the harpsichord to be the piano."

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. The carillon in Burton Memorial Tower 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.

Helping to create that sound is an eclectic group of carillonneurs. Senior Kyle Helzer discovered an introductory carillon class through a promotional flier. Although he has only taken the class for two terms, he is already producing music heard across campus.

Students must prepare 15 minutes of material before they can play on the tower, Helzer said. Performances last from noon until 12:30 p.m. on weekdays.

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. Giszczak said 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.

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. "Right now, early instruments are a crucial enhancement for students who are working on other things."

Published: Wed, Mar 7, 2012

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