A Conversation with Jeremy Adams
By Josiah Fisk
Jeremy Adams and I met at his workshop on September 8, 2016. We talked for nearly two hours, the topics ranging from reminiscences, to "shop talk" about harpsichord and organ construction, to aesthetic and philosophical views.
Your career as an instrument maker began with your time working for Bill Dowd in Cambridge. What was his approach to harpsichord building?
At Dowd’s, the party line was that the soundboard was all that mattered. But then Dowd saw the Taskin in the Yale Collection [a harpsichord built in 1770 by Pascal Taskin, harpsichord maker to Louis XV], and how carefully the entire instrument was made, and how wonderful that instrument sounded, and he realized it wasn’t true. Everyone was still learning in those days. No one had built harpsichords, truly authentic ones, for 160 years. There was a lot of lost knowledge to recover, and the way you did it was to look at the instruments, the best examples that had survived.
A harpsichord, even an organ, is like a big cello or violin. Every part of the construction matters, how it’s made and what it’s made out of. If you put a stethoscope on the bottom board of a harpsichord, the underside, and that part has been made of plywood, you’ll hear that the plywood transmits higher frequencies. Whereas if it’s solid wood it transmits lower frequencies. An instrument that is built like that, with solid wood, will have a sound more like an antique one.
Is there a difference between how old and modern instruments sound — say, a very well-made replica of a historic instrument compared to the original?
That’s a hard question to answer. But it’s well-known among builders that harpsichords change over time, especially in the first month. Pianos and guitars as well. And it’s not just age. In the 1960’s, [British harpsichord maker] Hugh Gough came across a late-18th century French harpsichord that had never been strung. It was apparently unfinished at the time of the Revolution, and had been set aside. Somehow it wasn’t destroyed, which is what happened to a lot of French harpsichords, and it was never completed either. Gough strung it, and to his amazement it sounded like a new instrument.
Instruments continue to change after the first month, but more slowly. Dowd made a copy of a [1730 Nicolas] Blanchet for the Smithsonian, and it sounded new. But a year later, he went to check up on it, and he noticed that it sounded a lot more like the original.
No one knows why this happens. But it’s fun not to know everything!
How did you get started as an instrument maker?
I got interested in the sound first. Bach and Scarlatti are fine on the piano, but they become something a little different from Bach and Scarlatti. At Longy, Melville Smith had a 1770 Kirkman. [Smith was head of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge from 1942 to 1962.] Melville taught me how to listen. He’d say, “How are you going to exercise your bon gout if you don’t have any?”
As a teenager, I played and took lessons on a Casavant [pipe organ] built in 1920. I became interested in the organ but I wanted to hear other types. I pulled stops and turned pages for Melville at concerts, and I learned a lot from that. He experimented constantly with sonorities, combinations of sounds, often as a way to bring out inner voices.
Once at the Busch [the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard], as part of the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Concerts, Melville was playing something by de Grigny. The cantus was an inner voice and he wanted to bring it out. He’d figured out a way where he could play the other parts on an upper keyboard, and reach down with his thumbs to play this inner melody on a lower keyboard, which he’d set up to be louder. But it was awkward to do and he couldn’t quite make it work. He ended up having me play it, reaching around from one side, so in effect it was a three-hand performance. Afterwards I remember Melville joking, with some glee, “Biggs will never know how I managed to do that.”
Melville Smith and E. Power Biggs both were interested in European organs at that time.
That’s right. Melville made those recordings at Marmoutier [on the 1710 organ by the Alsatian builder Andreas Silbermann]. They were a real ear opener. And Biggs was bringing back recordings of old music on old organs all over Europe. There were interesting sounds, but the main thing was that they revealed the music.
No one knew about trackers [organs with mechanical key action] at the time. There were lots of them around, of course, but nobody thought anything about them. There was a Hutchings organ I played for children’s services in Lincoln. It had a heavy action, was very hard to play. You practically had to stand on the pedal notes to get them to play. But I could feel the music happening under my fingers, in a way I couldn’t with an electric action organ.
I became interested in the organ as an instrument and I wanted to know how it worked. I went out an ordered a copy of Audsley [George Ashdown Audsley’s “The Art of Organ Building], which was very expensive, something like $60 at the time. And I started looking inside organs when I was there to play them. There was a little Hook organ down the street from the Hutchings in Lincoln, I used to play that too. One night, there was a pipe in the Oboe stop that wouldn’t play. It was about 9:00 p.m., and by about 2:00 a.m., the pipe was playing again. Now I know it was just a little dirt in the reed, which takes about 30 seconds to fix.
How long did you stay at Bill Dowd’s shop?
I was there for 6 ½ years. It was time to move on. I’d learned everything I could learn there, including voicing. I’d met a couple of people who were working at the Fisk shop, and they wanted to talk about harpsichords. One of them, Doug Brown, wanted to make an English harpsichord as a spare time project. So I thought, why not move to Gloucester?
At the Fisk shop I did a lot of reed voicing, also cabinetwork. I worked on the organ for Harvard, the original one that’s not there now. At that time, I also made a little harpsichord, on my own, that people liked. I lent it out, and that generated an order, which meant I needed to work on it full time. So I left, after two years, and set up my own shop, over at the Beacon Marine Basin in East Gloucester. That was 1969.
How did you decide what types of harpsichord you wanted to build?
Harpsichords are all different. It’s sort of like regional cooking. The French style allows you to hear the different voices but also gives you big chords. The English style has multiple sets of strings but they’re not so distinct in sound. There are two 8’ stops that are similar, and the 4’ stop sounds as if you’ve doubled the 8’ stops an octave higher. With a French harpsichord, when you add the 4’, it’s like you pulled on the trumpet stop on an organ. This bright, grand, festive sound.
I tend to like the sounds Italian harpsichords produce. They’re quieter, and sweeter. I once tuned a couple of notes on the Ruckers harpsichord at Yale. I liked the sound. That led to building a Flemish single, which is currently at the Annisquam Village Church.
I discovered that the German and Scandinavian builders made double bentsides [harpsichords with an S-shaped side]. These instruments still have the Ruckers sound, just a different shape. Some modern builders create the bentside by sawing it out of a single piece of wood. But it’s not as strong. The traditional way is to steam the wood and bend it. You have to work fast when you take the wood out of the steam box. You sometimes hear people talk about the similarities between harpsichord building and boatbuilding. That’s an example. One day Bill Dowd and I were in Essex and we visited Burnham’s boat yard, and there they were, putting a steamed piece of wood on the boat and bending it to make a curve.
You recently worked on a Pleyel harpsichord, similar to the one Wanda Landowska made her recordings on. What was it like to work on an instrument that in aesthetic and construction is the absolute antithesis of your own work?
The first thing I came to realize was that an enormous amount of work had gone into these things. They’re beautifully made. They’re incredibly heavy, too, as heavy as a baby grand. Pleyel was a piano maker so cast iron frames were just what you did. Of course historical harpsichords had nothing like that. One Pleyel probably weighs more than the last ten harpsichords of mine.
No one will ever know how a Pleyel sounded when they came out of the shop in Paris, because the plectra [the parts that pluck the strings] were made of leather, which does not make for a very loud sound to begin with, and the more you play it the softer it gets. Whereas the traditional material, crow quill, is tougher and lasts much longer. People always think a Pleyel was loud, because it sounds loud on the Landowska recordings, but those recordings were miked very close, which you can tell from the amount of mechanical noise.
In essence, I tried to re-imagine the instrument a bit. Some parts of the design just didn’t work well. I tried to think of different ways to tackle the problem that were in the same spirit as the original work, but that functioned better. And I used modern Delrin plectra instead of leather. So the sound is different, and the action is lighter, but it’s still a Pleyel, which is as it should be.
One of your mentors was Roland Dumas, who was a master pipemaker, particularly of French-style reed pipes. What do you feel you learned from him?
I mentioned earlier that Melville Smith taught me how to listen. Roland taught me how to make the sounds I wanted to hear. That may sound strange, because he was a pipemaker, not a voicer, and it’s the voicer whose job is to get the right sound out of the pipes. But there wasn’t anything about getting the right sound that Roland didn’t know.
One thing he taught me was to make a lot of sample pipes before you decided on what you wanted. Just from making a single middle C pipe, you can learn a lot. A middle C pipe is a manageable size, you don’t need a lot of metal to make one. Roland always made lots of samples. From that one pipe, in the middle of the keyboard, I can imagine what the entire stop would be like. That’s especially important with a small instrument, because in a small instrument every stop needs to have an interesting sound. Sort of like flavors and spices in food.
While it’s common for organ and harpsichord builders to make furniture for themselves, you appear to be the only person ever to work professionally building both of those instruments and furniture as well. How did this happen?
It’s true that harpsichords and organs exist as furniture, and that you need to have a furniture maker’s skills to make them. But when I’m building an instrument, I want to put the money into the sound, not the decoration. Cupids and angels don’t really do it for me. So that’s part of it, wanting projects where the furniture aspect can develop on its own. Also it allowed me to explore different design concepts.
The other part is that I started making furniture because we needed some at home. Eventually people saw it and that led to commissions.
I’m inspired by some furniture makers. For example, the Seymours [John and Thomas, English/American late 18th century cabinetmakers]. Their pieces at the MFA – everywhere you look everything is nice and crisp. Sometimes it’ll be something I see in an instrument. The keyboards on the Yale Taskin are just beautifully made. Whoever made them sharpened his tools.
If you copy an antique piece – and you have to do that several times to know what it’s saying – you learn something. Once you’ve done that, you can take what you learned in a different direction. With furniture it’s easier to explore a range of influences.
Sometimes I study things I don’t even like. I got a book about [the French 20th century architect] Corbusier. I didn’t like the stuff, but I wanted to understand it. One thing is that it doesn’t age well. All this old concrete. There’s a Corbusier building in Paris, but when you look at it, what you notice is that somehow the tenements that are nearby look just fine, even though they’re pretty run-down, while the modern building is what actually looks old and shabby. That thought made me want to know more about Baron Haussmann and Beaux Arts architecture. There’s always so much to look at. Must get back to Paris!
Josiah Fisk has written about classical music for numerous publications and is editor of Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings (Northeastern University Press, 1997). He worked as an organbuilder with John Brombaugh, A. David Moore, and with his father, Charles Fisk. He is founder and president of More Carrot, a communications company.