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The troublemaker at the harpsichord

Christian Kjos thinks more people ought to take the discipline of accompaniment seriously and become familiar with all its ins and outs. There will then be scope for improvisation, compositionand playing.

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.”

“Handelwas a great improviser!”

Christian Kjos Harpsichordist

Hands-on science

However, the ability to do this—really let go and flesh out Handel’s figured basspart—takes insight, skill and practice.

“This is more sophisticated figured bass playing. It’s not ABC; rather, it’s the end of the alphabet. Once you’ve mastered everything, you can try being a bit more of a composer at the instrument, not just playing the rough, harmonic outline but trying, as it were, to compose something. It can be planned, but also done spontaneously.”

The “Releasing the Loudie” project is now two years old. Before he finishes, Christian Kjos will be taking some paternity leave for his second baby. He plans to complete the project some time in 2020.

Why have you chosen to research the accompaniment part when you embark on such a large project?

“For a harpsichordist, accompaniment is one of the things you do most. Very few ever become soloists. You tend to play in orchestras of all sizes, in ensembles and with singers. But the discipline of accompaniment is not taken altogether seriously, ”Kjos feels.

“Anyone can rattle off a few chords, but you really have to immerse yourself in the subject, because being able to handle a figured bass is a science. It’s about knowing all the labyrinthine ins and outs. Anyone can learn a little, but knowing all the possibilities and then working out how to use them when it comes down to it in a live version, that’s the important thing.”

So you go for a slightly more practical route?

“Yes, you could say that. My feeling is that not so many people bother about the details. The way an accompaniment evolves can be a bit random, but I want to try and have as much control as possible over the various components involved.”

From craft to art

Christian Kjo shas been playing the piano since he was 11. When he started playing the church organ a couple of years later, he quickly discovered the Baroque, primarily Bach, and then more and more. But his interest takes in more than the music.

“There’s something about the historical aspect that fascinates me: construction, instruments. The information we have about the 1700s is such fun to piece together to see if we can manage to form a picture. There are conflicting views on some things, broad agreement on others. It’s fascinating how different things used to be, how society has evolved. Child-rearing, schooling, how people learned, craft traditions.”

Here too, the music creeps in – almost as a matter of course.

“Think of Bach, who came from a family of musicians in which music was a craft. That bit has been slightly lost nowadays. Now it’s all about art. But craft is important: the act of shaping something, and being able to do it well enough to make fine art from it.”

Do you think of your musicas art or craft?

“Craft forms the base, but it’s when you manage to rise above ... It’s difficult, and I don’t always think I manage it, but trying to take one step at a time, that’s where art enters the picture: when the theory in the back of your mind is applied, when you can manipulate the theory and fiddle around with it, that’s when the art materialises, I think.”

Kjos goes quiet for a moment.

“I sometimes think ‘Now I’m on to something’, but it’s difficult to define the very concept of art.”

Important works

It’s far from coincidental that Handel’s cantatas made it into Christian Kjos’s project.

“The sources state that this type of playing is easiest to accomplish if you accompany just one person playing solo or one singer. Handel wrote some seventy such Italian cantatas – secular, nothing religious – during his three-year stay in Italy when he was in his early twenties. It really was a musical education for him. A great deal of the material he composed while he was there would serve him for the rest of his life. He really wasn’t ashamed of his early compositions.”

We can recognise many of the cantatas – and other music Handel composed during his stay in Italy – in great oratorios and operas. Either the idea or whole arias.

“The cantatasare not played that much, among all Handel’s splendid music. So it’s good to be able to focus on something that still gets slightly forgotten among his great works like The Messiah and the operas.”

What are you doing with the cantatas now?

“There’ll be a number of concerts along the way, and recordings on Simax, which are part of my final output. Then there’ll be a final concert and these musings, my experiences and thoughts about the whole thing.”

Can you say a little about those musings even now?

“I’ve pondered the challenges a great deal: why is no one doing this? And then I think that maybe there’s a reason, as it’s very difficult to make this playing into something cohesive that actually has an inner structure and logic,” Kjos admits.

“That’s what I’m trying to achieve with a lot of my playing—being able to follow some lines, a line of thought, melodic or harmonic, and to have what I start off playing take on consequences for the way the phrases develop.”

Are there any aspects of your musings you think will come as a surprise?

“I hope so. I won’t pinpoint what it is; that will have to be up to those reading them, their background, and how they approach them and relate to the music. But the improvisatory aspect is important, obviously. That’s something I’m trying to work on, though it can easily turn into sitting there composing.”

There has to be a balance. But it can be subtle.

“I do have this bass part to relate to after all, and the vocal line. And where I operate is somewhere in between. I don’t invent. I don’t create a new piece. Interestingly, it’s called Handel, even though it’s completely random which notes people choose to include in their working-out of the figured bass, how to solve it chordally.”

Kjos explains in more detail:

“Because a bass note is given there, but it doesn’t say how many extra notes you’re supposed to include. Should you position yourself high up? Low down? You have carte blanche, but it is music by Handel. It’s an interesting one, also as regards copyright. These days I can copyright my arrangement, my way of realising what is not written.”

"When you can manipulate the theory and fiddle around with it, that’s when the art materialises.”

Christian Kjos Harpsichordist

The gain from interacting

Have you yourself been surprised along the way in your work on “Releasing the Loudie”?

“Yes. There are so many possibilities. Even if I decide on some absolutely clear parameters, there are terribly many possibilities. Almost a bit too many at times. There may be 12, 15 or 20 more possibilities. What shall I choose?”

And what should you discard?

“Yes, exactly. And that has a bit to do with the libretto in the music, the character of the music. You can highlight or negate some of the information that may be contained there.”

How much do the singers contribute to your interpretations?

“One thing is to figure out whether I can operate the way I envisage. Does what I’m engaged in work in purely chamber music terms? And then I feel that as long as the singers sense that I’m with them, don’t cross them or get in their way, there’s a huge amount of latitude and leeway.”

When 2020 comes around, what will you have brought to the music with your project?

“I often think the cantatas can be a bit anaemic, with simple, discreet playing. That makes it a bit empty. They benefit from more interaction between harpsichordist and singer. You can also include a cello, lute or theorbo, but I’ve elected not to do that in order to get as close as possible to the chamber music aspect. I’ve chosen to pare it right down to the bone.”

Wants to play around more

Kjos tells me about big gaps between what the sources tell us about how people performed in practice and how harpsichordists play today.

“Different practice, different styles, different personalities have always existed, that’s for sure, but I believe there was slightly broader consensus in the 18th century that the craft has such a strong presence in this country or town that it guides the eventual outcome.”

How important is it to play historically correctly?

“We can’t prove authenticity. There’s so much interesting information out there which a great many people choose not to make use of, or don’t know exists. You play the way your teacher played; and that’s all well and good, but the knowledge ... I’m curious to find out more about this. What do we know and what do we not know? And where we don’t know, we have to speculate and use our unbridled imagination and play around a lot. You can play around as much as you like and play however you care to, but I think it’s interesting to use the information given there and see what comes of it.”

Do you make active use of this information?

“Yes, and it’s perfectly possible that I go too far and make too big a deal out of one thing in terms of the mix ratio between all the elements of the music, that I play too much melody or do too much imitation compared to what Handel would have done. But I think it’s fun to mess around with the building bricks that were available to him, and I try to put it together to make something meaningful. And I’m positive I don’t do it the same way as him!”

But perhaps that doesn’t matter too much.

“No, for me my project is all about acquiring a type of language, a musical language within which I feel I can be free. When you learn a new language, you can say something from the outset after all, but you feel limited. The more you learn, the more you can finesse, put things into words, and say things in different ways.”

That’s Christian Kjos’s aim once he has properly emancipated the loudie in himself.

“The point is that I’m trying to step out of the chordal accompanying roles lightly, to take a somewhat more compositional part in the performance.”

Where do you draw the line at what can be done?

“A boundary is purely technical. What do I accomplish? And mentally, what do I manage to think and conjure up as I’m playing? The balance between what is prepared and what happens spontaneously in concert. The spontaneous is where it can get tricky. That’s where I feel that the greater the freedom, the more familiar I am with the language and the larger the repertoire of possibilities, the more I can play around.”

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