Gavin Black, the son of two law professors, claims that he is “a bit of an anarchist.” Director of the new Princeton Early Keyboard Center, Black expresses the anarchism in his teaching style. “I like a teaching situation where there is no agenda in advance,” he says in a telephone interview from his North Brunswick home, “where it is possible for teacher and student to work out in every detail what the student wants. At the Keyboard Center we have some traditional students who have weekly lessons. But I’m happy to have students who come every four months, and take long lessons. We’ve had a couple of composers who came only once and wanted to learn about the harpsichord so they could incorporate it into their music.
“People can practice at the center,” he continues, “without taking any lessons at all. I like the flexibility of being able to offer to anybody what they want or what they can fit into their lives. We have no rules: no pre-set curriculum, no degrees, and no certificates. That increases the number of circumstances in which we can do something useful for students.”
The Early Keyboard Center, at 323 Witherspoon Street, provides instruments from various periods and various countries. Typically, it houses six or seven harpsichords and two clavichords. “Having available a variety of instruments that are first-rate acoustically, and come from several different national schools, is a great resource for exploring lots of different kinds of music,” Black says. “A main purpose of the center is to make a variety of instruments available to anybody who wants to use them.” The harpsichords are of German, Flemish, and Italian origin. They include antique instruments, as well as modern copies.
Both clavichords are old. Black’s description of them accentuates their special musical qualities. “One clavichord dates from the late 16th or early 17th century. It’s small and has a very pungent, reedy sound. The other, from the 1780s, is a very late baroque or early classical instrument. It’s bigger, has more notes, more strings, and a softer, warmer sound.”
Black attributes an irresistible acoustic quality to fine harpsichords. Among his favorites at the Early Keyboard Center are a late 17th century Italian instrument and a 1731 spinet from London. “The most notable thing about both is their extraordinary sound,” he says. “Reactions to the sound are subjective, but unmistakable. If I’m playing one of those instruments, someone coming into the building finds it impossible to avoid investigating. These instruments have that quality more than any others that I know. From my own listening, I suspect that almost 100 percent of harpsichords with an exceptional sound draw you in, even without considering any musical aspects. The color of their sound is so interesting that music played on them is compelling and exciting. Much harpsichord playing is improvisational; and improvising is inspiring on such instruments.”
In addition to being an educational facility, during the 2007-’08 season, the Early Keyboard Center will present a total of eight concerts, consisting of four components. All performances take place at Christ Congregation, 50 Walnut Lane, Sundays at 4 p.m. The first component, given by the Practitioners of Musick, starts on Sunday, October 7, offering a three-concert survey of chamber music of the Baroque period, favoring compositions calling for recorders. Performers include John Burkhalter, recorders; David Black, cello; and Gavin Black, harpsichord. The group was founded by Burkhalter and the late Eugene Roan. Cellist David Black and the anarchical Gavin Black are brothers. In addition to the October 7 event, the Practitioners of Musick perform also on Sundays, December 9 and March 2.
Two single-concert events are planned in 2008. Harpsichordist George Hazelrigg joins Gavin Black for a two-harpsichord version of the complete “Art of the Fugue” by Johann Sebastian Bach on April 27. On May 11, the brothers Black play a recital of accompanied and unaccompanied music for cello.
Gavin Black contributes three harpsichord recitals surveying music for the instrument prior to 1750. The first takes place Sunday, November 4. Black’s harpsichord recitals are also scheduled for February 10 and March 30. Black will use at least half a dozen harpsichords during his three concerts.
The instruments to be used are a determining factor in Black’s programming, which he had not yet settled on at the time of our conversation. “Any harpsichord concert ends up being programmed around the instrument,” he says. “To me, the big divide is between earlier music, from 1590 to1670, and later music, from 1670 to 1750. It sounds bad to try to play Bach, Handel, or Scarlatti on earlier instruments. And Frescobaldi and Sweelinck sound bad on a later harpsichord. I’ll first decide on the instruments, and then decide on the program.”
Just as he gives priority to the instrument in planning a concert program, Black gives priority to the sound of a particular instrument as a teaching tool. “You learn about the music from the instruments,” he says. “Each harpsichord creates a certain kind of sound or a choice of two or three sounds that cannot be changed in the act of playing. The harpsichord sound is very different from one instrument to another. Once the stops [i.e. sound settings] have been chosen, your fingers cannot change the sound. With piano, your fingers can change the volume. With other instruments, it is possible to change, not only the volume, but the pitch and the timbre. With the harpsichord, once the key is depressed, the instrument will do what the instrument-maker intended. The shape of the sound, in other words, the way in which the sound grows and decays with a particular instrument, gives the player input about the possibilities for performance.
“Sitting at a really good, aesthetically appropriate instrument will teach you about the range of possibilities in a piece. If you’re using an instrument similar to the one that the composer used, the feedback from that instrument will tell you what the composer wanted.”
According to Black, the number of students at the center hovers around a dozen. “It’s a small and specialized enterprise. The regular faculty consists entirely of me.” The center opened in January, 2001. Since the center has only three rooms, only three instruments can be played at a time.
“Harpsichord is more in demand than clavichord,” Black says. “Very few people walk in the door knowing that they’re interested in clavichord. Clavichord is not a public performance instrument. It’s almost inaudible if you’re just a few yards away. Concertgoers hear harpsichord from time to time in chamber music. But you can go for decades without encountering a clavichord unless you seek it out. It’s never used in chamber music; the other instruments would drown it out.
“Almost everyone who comes in the door interested in harpsichord ends up spending time with clavichord. One student played for two years mostly on the big clavichord, though her primary interest was harpsichord. Another student, a record producer and jazz pianist, recorded passages on the Renaissance clavichord and mixed them in with his playing. It was unexpected and completely new. The opportunity arose because we have all those instruments sitting there and because of the improvisatory nature of our instruction. It couldn’t have been planned.”
Born in 1957, Black grew up New Haven. His father, a member of the Yale law school faculty, was also a published poet. When he was growing up, his mother was topping off her law degree with graduate studies in history. She is now on the faculty at Columbia Law School, where she was the dean for a time. “Neither of my parents was a musician as such,” Black says.
Cellist David Black, born in 1959, is Gavin’s younger brother. “We grew up together and have played music together a lot over the years,” Gavin says. Their younger sister, Robin, publishes short stories and is working on novel.
A member of Princeton’s Class of 1979, Gavin Black was associate university organist from 1977 to 1979. He holds a master’s degree in organ performance from Westminster Choir College of Rider University. He studied organ and harpsichord with Paul Jordan and Eugene Roan. He has taught organ, harpsichord, clavichord, and continuo-playing, primarily at the Westminster Conservatory of Music since 1985. He was organist and senior choir director at Hillsborough Reformed Church in Millstone from 1988 to 1994. His recording of the harpsichord music of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was recently released by Centaur records.
The idea for the Early Keyboard Center grew out of Black’s observations during casual conversations. “I had noticed that most pianists and organists who I talked to informally said they were intrigued by the harpsichord but had nowhere to practice and didn’t know how to get into it. I wanted to establish a place where those interested could play harpsichord. I thought about it in a focused way since the 1990s.”
The center is non-profit, 501 C3 tax deductible entity, Black says, with a board of directors. “It’s not a big money deal. People pay for lessons. But like most educational or artistic entities, it’s not likely to bring in the big bucks.”
Black’s family is based in North Brunswick. His wife, Laurie Schafer, practices psychiatry in Princeton. Their daughter, Rebecca, is a senior at Swarthmore. Their son, Robert, is a junior at Rutgers Preparatory School. “What we listen to at home may not be what people might expect,” Black says. “We listen to a small amount of baroque. All of us are huge Jethro Tull fans.”
Imagine the family iPods and compare them with Black’s free-wheeling pedagogical style. Think of shuffling 17th century music intermingled with progressive rock. Eclectic, certainly. Anarchic, maybe so.
The Practitioners of Musick, Sunday, October 7, 4 p.m. Princeton Early Keyboard Center, Christ Congregation, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton. John Burkhalter, recorders; David Black, cello; and Gavin Black, harpsichord. $15. 732-599-0392.
Sunday, November 4, 4 p.m. Harpsichord concert. $15.
Sunday, December 9, 4 p.m. The Practitioners of Musick in a Baroque concert. $15.