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How To Annoy Your Dad: Play The Harpsichord


It's not every day that you get to hear a lively discussion about a musical instrument that was once said to sound like two skeletons copulating on a roof.


SIEGEL: That's how the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once described the harpsichord. The old instrument has its devotees and champions, though. And that was evident earlier this year when I spoke to the man we now hear at the keyboard, Mahan Esfahani. He had just released an album called "Time Present And Time Past."


SIEGEL: On this album, you play both Baroque music and also minimalist music. To begin with, explain your love of this not hugely-popular instrument, the harpsichord.

MAHAN ESFAHANI: Well, firstly, you know, Robert - if I may call you that - I mean, I have a huge respect for your work. But if you don't mind, I'm going to friendly - in a friendly tone, take issue with almost everything you've said so far...

SIEGEL: (Laughter) OK.

ESFAHANI: ...Which is that it's old and which it is not enormously popular. I think these things would only matter to Americans. As long as there's a place for sundials and gardening and beautiful things, there's a place for the harpsichord. I completely reject the idea that harpsichord is old. And I reject the idea that something old is therefore not good or not popular. Lots of things are old. Lots of traditions are old - cooking, art. I like it because it's beautiful.

SIEGEL: But were you, at some point, at a fork in the road where you were either to be a pianist or harpsichordist?

ESFAHANI: Not really, no. I mean, I played piano. I've always liked piano. My father played piano. Actually, to be fair, the sound of the harpsichord did annoy him a bit, and I thought, how can I annoy Dad? I'll play the harpsichord.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

ESFAHANI: So, you know, it was a little bit of sort of teenage rebellion. And I'm being serious about that actually. But the harpsichord, I just always had a love for.

SIEGEL: Well, the music that we heard a moment ago was by Scarlatti. It's the first track on the album "Time Present And Time Past," and that's one of the Baroque pieces. But then we have, for example, this bit by Steve Reich, an adaptation of his piece "Piano Phase For Two Pianos." It's adapted for harpsichord, obviously.


SIEGEL: It sounds a little bit like an electric guitar right there.

ESFAHANI: Well, harpsichord is kind of a big guitar, isn't it? I mean, it is plucked, after all.


ESFAHANI: I had a good time recording this piece. I think it's fabulous. I think Steve Reich completely redefined musical language.

SIEGEL: You've talked about your love of both Baroque music and minimalist music and of finding something in common between the two. How do you express that?

ESFAHANI: When I say that there's commonality, I mean more in terms of the sort of techniques by which we perceive Baroque and minimalist music rather than the techniques used to compose them. I know that's being sort of overly complicated. But I think in Baroque music, especially in the case of Bach, what really transformed Bach's musical language, what changed it for him was hearing Vivaldi, hearing the sort of manipulation of small cells of information and patterns in order to generate sort of huge blocks of harmony.

SIEGEL: You also include a composition by Henryk Gorecki in this album.

ESFAHANI: Yes, Gorecki, you know, there's a kind of personal thing there for me. I had, you know, kind of become obsessed with that sort of Soviet Bloc period. And actually, a lot of composers in the Soviet Bloc - Gorecki's not the only one - are writing for the harpsichord as a sort of reaction against enforced Soviet realism, expressionism, sort of enforced modernism. The harpsichord was actually ideologically considered a very questionable instrument in that period, much like I think it's ideologically considered suspect today in some circles.

SIEGEL: Why? Was the idea that it was associated with the aristocracy in that time, in a pre-modern time, was that the problem for the harpsichord?

ESFAHANI: I think that was a big issue. I mean, already in the French Revolution, the harpsichord becomes identified with the aristocracy, with the ancien regime. Plus, hey, you know, I mean, harpsichord is a really easy target, isn't it? I mean, it's - it's just how it is.

SIEGEL: I thought the problem with the harpsichord was also that it lacked a dynamic range, that you couldn't...

ESFAHANI: Is it? I didn't know that. I wasn't aware of that.

SIEGEL: ...Make notes louder or softer. That was the problem.

ESFAHANI: Is that - is that...

SIEGEL: Well, that's what I've heard.

ESFAHANI: Is that the problem?

SIEGEL: I'm not speaking as a musician, Mahan.

ESFAHANI: Oh OK, I mean...

SIEGEL: But that's the rumor I've heard, yes.

ESFAHANI: You know, there's a lot of misinformation. I mean, there are still people who think that the earth is flat, you know? I mean, all of the...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

ESFAHANI: ...Evidence that we can bring to light that there was evolution and that the earth is round still hasn't convinced some people. You know, look, I mean to me, the harpsichord has a huge dynamic range. And I always say to people, come and listen to it. You know, come and listen. Come and actually experience this and realize there's good harpsichord playing, there's bad harpsichord playing. By the way, I am fun outside of this context (laughter).


SIEGEL: I know.

ESFAHANI: Don't worry, man.

SIEGEL: You're fun in this context, also. I'm not - I'm having a fine time. But can you - just to explain - can you play a note on the harpsichord so that it's pianissimo and so that it's, you know, fortissimo?

ESFAHANI: Well, within a phrase. And with a series of phrases, you can certainly create the effect of diminuendo and crescendo, no question.


ESFAHANI: One of the tracks that I have is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - by the way, that's Bach's second son - Emanuel Bach's variations on "Le Folie." You'll definitely hear - I mean, I think if we listen to, say, the last couple of minutes of that track, there's a wide range of colors that the harpsichord is capable of. And I think, you know, that gives lie to the assumption that it doesn't have that kind of variety. And I think it very much speaks for itself.


SIEGEL: Are you finding composers writing for harpsichord today?

ESFAHANI: Absolutely. It's really thrilling, actually. I think, you know, for someone who does play, let's say, old music or, you know, Baroque music or Renaissance music - and you know, and I do play a lot of that, obviously - engaging with new composers, engaging with young composers, is really exciting because it makes me look at people of the past in a very different way that they are also living, that there was a lot of subjectivity in the decisions that they were making. And it totally has transformed my relationship with someone like, say, Bach. You know, Bach is born 330 years ago but, you know, gosh, he really is alive.


SIEGEL: The last piece on "Time Present And Time Past" is Johann Sebastian Bach's "Harpsichord Concerto." You've said you've arrived at a new relationship with Bach. Tell me more about that as we hear this piece.

ESFAHANI: You know, Bach, of course, was my first love. He still is. I mean, he's the man of my life, that's for sure. And when I say that there's been a re-evaluation, look, to be perfectly honest, I think I have a re-evaluation of my relationship with Bach probably every day, and that will never stop. And that's probably why I still get up in the morning and I do this.


SIEGEL: Mahan Esfahani, thank you very much for talking with us about your album and about your instrument.

ESFAHANI: It's been a great pleasure, and I say to people, keep your ears and your minds open.

SIEGEL: And let me say that I personally have nothing against the harpsichord.

ESFAHANI: (Laughter) Hey, it makes one of us (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.