Goska Isphording
© Monika Rokicka
Goska Isphording specialises in contemporary music played on the harpsichord. A chamber musician and solo performer, she teaches contemporary harpsichord techniques at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Having premiered over a hundred solo and chamber music compositions, many of which were written specifically for her, she is the co-founder of The Roentgen Connection, an ensemble that performs contemporary music on baroque instruments and is also a member of The Riot Ensemble in London. As a soloist, she is invited and appears at the most prestigious festivals for contemporary music.

I was born in Poland and I have the most beautiful memories of white winters. Especially the sensation of setting the first steps into the virgin surface of the snow. I get the same, sublime feeling from reading and preparing a new composition for its first performance: and it is this that I would want to wish to all my musician friends – not only harpsichordists.

We tend to relate the harpsichord to its historic period. Its 20th-century presence is often spoken in a single breath through the names of Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and two works by Manuel de Falla (Harpsichord Concerto) and Francis Poulenc (Concert champêtre). If we are lucky, a few more names are added after that – György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki and Iannis Xenakis. But although one might think that all the possibilities of the harpsichord have been explored, today’s composers are still attracted to this instrument and have not stopped redefining its potential, as they take upon themselves the discovery of new sounds.

The heritage of the 20th-century harpsichord is huge. In the 1950s Landowska’s students – Sylvia Marlow, Ralph Kirkpartick, Antoinette Vischer and Mariolina de Robertis – were responsible for many commissions of new harpsichord works and set the foundations for what is now considered the modern repertoire. Yet after nearly 100 years of the harpsichord’s presence in modern music and despite many generations of outstanding performers and a collection of thousands of compositions by some of the most recognised composers, this instrument is still known and appreciated by only a few within selected musical circles.

Goska Isphording plays Suite II for harpsichord & tape from Elżbieta Sikora

Recent developments in historically informed practice have made the harpsichord popular again, but at the same time have increased the gap between old and new, as the historical movement often imposes its own criteria and measures of quality on modern practice. Composer and scholar Bogusław Schaeffer said that the activities of contemporary composers cannot be assessed by the standards of previous centuries, and I could not agree more. The traditions and procedures of composition were not absorbed by composers, but created by them. This attitude, which made their art immortal, can also guarantee a future for the harpsichord, by embracing the qualities that arise from an unconventional attitude to the music of today and to the instrument itself.

One such manifesto for the contemporary harpsichord is Elisabeth Chojnacka’s record Clavecin 2000, released in the1970s by Philips in its “Prospective 21e Siècle” series, announcing thus the “music of the future.” On this record we can find works by Ligeti, Aldo Clementi, Luciano Berio, Antoine Tisné, Franco Donatoni and others. Yet despite Chojnacka’s attempts, the developmental directions of the harpsichord idiom set out on this album have not found their full reflection in present times.

Goska Isphording and Karlheinz Essl perform Sequitur XII

The new century has brought so many exciting explorations. Electronics, video and live sound processing in combination with an acoustic instrument have launched the harpsichord into a completely new musical universe, one that places the instrument on equal terms with the other instruments in modern music and the contemporary arts in general.

Representative of this latest direction are compositions like Pentacle by Jean-Claude Risset, a work for harpsichord and digital sound augmentation; Sequitur XII, by Karlheinz Essl making use of live electronics and MIDI controllers; multimedia works incorporating video, electronics and scenic action like Lesson in Anatomy no. 1 by Pierre Jodlowski; or works like PONG by Arnoud Noordegraaf, which are accompanied by short films.

What strikes me is the overwhelming variety of approaches composers have taken. We can see a truly rich kaleidoscope of musical styles, compositional techniques, national characteristics and even choices of instrument that cannot be subject to any generalisation. All of these reveal the harpsichord’s qualities across a broad scope, making use of its resonant and singing potential as much as its percussiveness.

Goska Isphording on a performance
© Michiel Hatenburg

Yet the most significant change we can observe in the last two decades has been the genuine interest of composers in the instrument itself. No parts of the harpsichord and its mechanism have been left unexplored, giving new musical meaning to elements of the instrument that are not traditionally heard (such as handstops, tuning pins, lid, casing, etc).

We can discover the smallest expressive qualities of the keyboard’s keys in Evan Johnson’s recent concerto, Linke hand eines Apostels, in which the composer not only splits one key attack across different registers, but also indicates in his notation the depression and release of the keys in various dynamics and articulations, and creates a very striking percussive effect by “playing” the key up, rather than down. Or we can find their magnification, as in Andrzej Kwieciński’s Concerto Re.Maggiore, which projects big performative gestures onto the external casing of the instrument, enlarging the playable area to the whole body of the harpsichord.

A fragment from Evan Johnson’s score Linke hand eines Apostels

Naturally, as a residue from the experiments of the previous centuries, microtonality, multitonality and the use of different temperaments are also represented in new harpsichord works, ranging from tuning being applied for the whole instrument, to one keyboard, to just a certain range or selected notes. External devices, such as live sound processing, are also modifying the existing tunings.

The range of available harpsichord articulation has also been expanded from over-accentuated, deliberately hammered, or ultra-short notes to sustained, prolonged ones made possible by the use of external weights on the keyboard keys or by placing e-bows on the strings which create sustained sounds that last as long as the corresponding key is pressed down. This technique is used beautifully in H. Morales Murguia’s plektrôn and M. Srnka’s Triggering.

Le Clavecin illuminé by Roderik de Man

We can also observe a great deal of democracy concerning the use of instruments, where both historical and revival harpsichords may be present on one concert programme and seen not as rivals but used by composers as exemplifying different sound qualities.

Another tendency that we can mention is that most contemporary harpsichord works are full of emotional references and the personal experiences of their creators. In this way, contemporary attitudes towards composing for the harpsichord often maximise the expressive values ​​contained in the work, which are a direct transmission of the artist's experiences in combination with those of the performers. Music in the 21st century, as always, remains the domain of feelings and emotions. Beautiful examples of this range from virtuosic, expansive works such as Hanna Kulenty’s GG Concerto and Cembalo Uno, to monochromatic, fluid works by Justé Janulyté, like Harp is a Chord .

Hanna Kulenty’s GG Concerto

As an harpsichordist who has premiered more than a hundred works, I have seen the main changes and transformations the modern instrument has gone through. I am very open to the challenges that composers set and to the journey that starts when we leave behind our safe experiences and begin to challenge ourself at levels we didn’t know we had. I see the same urge in my students in Amsterdam. My students come from Japan to Canada and we are exploring what is happening in this field worldwide. The modern harpsichord scene is very active and composers and performers in Poland, Austria, Spain, the UK, Iceland and the United States are responsible for a great deal of new commissions and recordings.

Unfortunately, these are only known and presented locally. For this reason, I am thinking of ways to combine our efforts in the form of co-commissions, to give new works the international exposure and attention they deserve.

The contemporary harpsichord has so much to offer and there is still so much to be discovered when we look at this instrument's potentialities instead of its limitations. From this point of view, as a performer, you are challenged to transcend yourself in order to achieve new, unique experiences and to show to the listener the values that are ​​shared between you and the composer.

Click here for Goska Isphording's future concerts.