Harpsichord 10/10 Year of the Plague
I rented in Brooklyn right off the Brooklyn Bridge. And every Thursday night was my “Salon”. For years I had Thursday night events. They were “open” – from the beginning. Meaning I didn’t have a guest list. I never wanted to invest the energy needed each week contacting people. Sometimes 10 showed up and sometimes nobody. My regulars were the Stonybrook crowd/Brooklyn.

We always had instruments and grass and played and danced and ate. Those days were my champagne days. Pommery was less than $8. I hadn’t moved up to great reds – I wasn’t old enuf and had no cellar. Or we had my father’s wines. Big bottles. Always interesting, faultless – seasonal fruits, even mead. And free.

In my office I would post invitations for these salons. My students were always encouraged to come. And they often did. There were always grad students working with me for several years and becoming part of my life. And Seif’s crowd, him with a cello and Alan – he needed a piano – the Stonybrook math crowd and a sometimes a flute. I almost never communicated and arranged – hit and miss. A Thursday open salon habit I’ve kept over the years – always surprised who showed up.

Mostly we played music. Seif at the cello, 2 violins. I grew up in a home with a piano and an organ. A bit much for young apartment dwellers – how do you move a piano around. The stairs to the second floor were not to code. And every gathering can use a piano. Bach, Vivaldi – they always have a version, an adaptation available including keyboard.

Zuckerman harpsichords had the answer. I’m handy. I had made a few bookcases for friends. And sanded floors for my parents. So I’ll build a harpsichord from a kit. I can’t imagine how I found out about Zuckerman. Zuckerman was probably in the yellow pages under harpsichords. Only in NYC. I forget how I got a catalog but I decided on the smallest – just one keyboard. Called a virginal.

Harpsichords came a couple century s before pianos. The next step after lutes or guitars (probably). They pluck the strings don’t hammer them like a piano. You press the key and a string is mechanically plucked. There is no soft or loud plucking – just one column. Bigger harpsichords have 2 keyboards and you control the volume by playing on one or two keyboards.

Only in NYC – I was able to get on a subway and go up to Zukerman and get a harpsichord kit. The box was about 6 feet long and weighed less than 100 pounds. It looked like a surf board could fit inside but it was several pieces of high-grade plywood. And lots of small pieces. And wire for the strings. I was able to take it home on the subway and carry it up the stairs.

I spent weeks with several fancy woodworking tools. I would fall asleep with the instruction book on my chest. The coffin shaped box and the keyboard – sand the pear wood keys. What looks like a large harp is glued onto the sound board. I knew enuf about instruments to know that “sounding” an instrument made it good or not. That involved cutting and gluing the harp shape then attaching the strings. The strings go from pegs which turn for tuning to pegs near the pluckers – powered by the keyboard. I hired the young guy who took care of the harpsichords at Lincoln Center to do this work. Sounding the instrument takes experience – it ain’t carpentry. Good move and he enjoyed the job.

It took about ½ year to get a playing instrument. A fine instrument. Nice pear wood keyboard. Light wood. A box about the size and shape of a thin coffin – not like a grand piano – called a Virginal. Now our Salon was keyboard centered. Quite a gathering – tinkle tinkle.

But the harpsichord was an unpainted wood box.

Now Bob McCormick was my MMC buddy. He was the chair of the Art Dept. I was a young prof when his career at MMC was winding down. There was a 7 foot nude bronze colored clay statue of his 60 year old aunt at the main entrance to Great Hall between its two grand staircases. Bob was a Cornell MFA. A fine academic artist and a serious member of the Art Student League where he learned painting faux stone surfaces. He was successful. His paintings and painted furniture sold quickly to several patrons. His own style was bold muscular erotic male nude.

MMC was so much to me. An 8 story building filled with young ladies. Philip Berrigan chaplain. Rudy Perez dance resident. Ellen Zwilich Pulitzer prize music teacher. This kid from Philly was where you would go if you wanted this side of paradise. I was so open to it all.

I danced for Rudy (see dance101) and posed for Bob. And he painted and distressed my harpsichord. Around the box he painted the story of two doves meeting and courting and nesting. In light blue with silver leaf wings on butterflies. Distressed (scratched up) to look old. The cover is faux lapis lazuli framed with silver leaf. And on the opened 6 foot long cover is a nude Eros (me) with wings – Mt. Olympus in the distance. He also finished a Japan Red bench.