It’s relatively rare for students and staff of the Norwegian Academy of Music to take a break from their busy schedules to investigate where beautiful music is coming from. They’re too accustomed to music flowing out of various rooms for that. But whenever harpsichordist Christian Kjos and his wife, soprano Ditte Marie Bræin, wheel out a magnificent harpsichord and position it in the middle of the corridor in honour of the photographer to perform an aria from the cantata Chi rapì la pace al core, people do actually leave their offices to listen.
Handel the extemporiser
The corridors resound to the strains of George Frideric Handel, as well as a fair share of Christian Kjos. Because this is precisely what this research fellow is tackling in his project: how much scope for improvisation and composition is there in the accompaniment to Handel’s cantatas? To be more precise, Kjos is researching into the figured bass part (or basso continuo) in Handel’s cantatas for one voice with figured bass accompaniment. He explains:
“The art is to play from the figuring. I work with the figured bass. A jazzpianist tends to have some chords; I have the bass line. Sometimes chords in the bass line are written in figures; other times there is no figuring whatsoever, and I have to find the harmonies embedded in the music.”
So that leaves the player a great deal of freedom?
“A huge amount. There’sno one single way of doing it.I can do it in many different ways, and vouch for the result,”Kjossays. He has dubbed the project “Releasing the Loudie”.
Excuse my ignorance, but “loudie”is not the first thing that comes to mind when I see a harpsichord...
“No, right?There are various schools of accompaniment on the harpsichord. There are two extremes: ‘loudies’, an extremely unofficial name for those who use full-bodied chords, for a richer playing style. On the other hand you have the ‘softies’, those who are more discreet and cautious in their style of accompanying,”Kjos explains.
His background is from Basel in Switzerland, from the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis academy, which has focused on early music since the 1930s.
“This loudie playing is cultivated there. It is based on historical works that describe figured bass accompaniment.”
And now for the rest of the title: Releasing...
“Release in the sense that you can liberate something, really just let it go.”
When Kjos lets himself go, he chooses more melodic solutions.
“The figured bass voice is the bass line with chords on top, but I opt to get away slightly from the chordal and introduces lightly more melodious features. I try to imitate motifs and things that are happening in the vocalpart. There are a number of sources that say you can do that,” the harpsichordist says.
Improvisation may not be what is most associated with Handel.
“Handel was a great improviser!” Kjos corrects me enthusiastically: “In the Baroque, of course, composers would often be performers, composers and improvisers. It was all sort of one and the same thing. They tended to master one or more instruments, and composing was, if anything, writing down an idea conceived as an improvisation and then honing it. They were capable of constructing larger things, but I believe they also did quite incredible things on the improvisation front too.”