…and still your eyes are on the ground

by pieces of moments


Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.

Dante Alighieri


So I’ve been reading through Italo Calvino‘s amazing Six Memos For The Next Millennium. The book is really a collection of lectures on literature he was to give at Harvard University in the 1980 as part of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Each chapter discusses a different values of literature he felt were vital:

  1. Lightness
  2. Quickness
  3. Exactitude
  4. Visibility
  5. Multiplicity

I’ve been thinking a lot about what he says especially regarding the first two, lightness and quickness. Perhaps it is because these are the two that do not come naturally to me when it comes to the arts. I tend toward density (my favorite author in the world is Henry James. If you are at all familiar with literature, that alone tells you something about my creative propensities).

[Quick aside: if you have never read any Italo Calvino I highly suggest you remedy that situation ASAP. If you want a full out book, try this…or read his short stories, which make great little jewels to admire right before bedtime.]

Lightness. This is something I feel is lost about Baroque music when performed on modern instruments. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to ban or protest the performance of Bach on a piano. I love playing Bach on a modern piano. But, having confessed that much, I also have to tell you that as a harpsichordist, there is something magical that occurs when you play Bach (or any Baroque composition) on a period instrument: it lightens. To a certain extent it has to, just by virtue of the fact the instruments were made of lighter materials that could handle less pressure (one factor of the birth of heavy romantic era piano music was the instrument itself got beefed up). One of the things that strikes me as particularly intriguing is just the mental shift in thinking “up” rather than thinking “down.”

What do I mean? Well, it’s as simple, and complex, as the mechanics of the thing. On a harpsichord the plectrum actually plucks the string. A pluck is an upward motion. On a piano the hammers strike the strings. A strike is a downward motion. So, what happens in the performer? Well, ideally the reverse. The harpsichordist has to figure out ways to keep ground the sound from time to time to create definitions of sounds, whereas the pianist sometimes finds her/himself needing to concentrate on the upward motions so as to lift the sound off the plane of the keyboard.

I, personally, have found that over time I began to play Bach (let’s just stick with him as an example) on a modern piano whilst thinking of jazz rhythms in my head – it’s amazing how it lightens everything right up. I’m pretty sure Nikolaus Harnoncourt wasn’t thinking about jazz whilst conducting in the video clip below, but it’s a great example of making sure a performance of Baroque music maintains the quality of lightness. I mean, how many times have you heard this poor piece hammered to death at weddings all over the country, trudging through each downbeat. Poor Bach. Poor Cantata. And yes, I do realize they have period instruments, but the principle is applicable in any case, with any piece from any period, on any instrument.

Basically the bottom line here is: lighten up, kids.