Feathers versus Plastic

Up until now, the only argument for the use of feathers for plectra is that it was traditional.Some claim that they are easier to voice, and others state that the listener cannot tell the difference; but one thing struck me with great force when I was listening to Bob van Asperen’s recording on the magnificent Couchet instrument in the Rujksmuseum, and that was the great uniformity of the sound up and down the registers. When subsequently I read that it is quilled in delrin, I wondered whether that was the reason.

Some time ago I read an article by R. K. Lee about his methods for quality control in making delrin plectra. As I recall it, it was important to him that all the plectra were graduated in size from top to bottom, so as to promote uniformity along the register. (He cut them out from the strip like a comb.) It struck me that instruments that I have heard by those makers who stick to delrin have that same attribute.

By contrast, when one uses the traditional material of bird feathers one is dealing with a material that has little quality control. Feathers differ from bird to bird, even amog the same species, and the texture is not always regular along a single feather. One cannot cut two pieces of the same size off a single feather and guarantee that they will sound identical.

Does this matter? I dont think so – or rather, I do think so. When quilling, and particularly when replacing a single quill, one strives to make a pluck that fits in with those around it. This can be very challenging with feathers on occasion, though (amazingly) sometimes not so. At the very least, there is bound to be a slight difference in sound between, for instance, c’, c#’ and d’. Not only must this also have been the case in 1699, but I would suggest that when not too extreme it enhances the personality of the instrument.

The same is true of organ pipes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, builders used to match the sound of pipes and suppress “chiffs” by cutting nicks on the mouth of the pipes – they got very expert at doing this. But when in the second half of the last century builders came along and pointed out that this destroyed the character of the pipes and was not a baroque technique, and voiced pipes with chiffs, they were laughed at by some.

It may be that my impression was just an impression, and not an objective observation that can be generalised. I shall keep an open mind on this, and would be interested to know what others think.

David

An interesting post. Thank you. I long ago (over 20 years) moved over to bird quill on all my instruments, including those that I was responsible for that were played by students (at Berkeley).

I wouldn’t say that the “only argument” for quill was that it was historic and “traditional”. The principal argument from players who use quill has always been that it is better. But what does that mean in practice? Better for what?

Many of the arguments in either direction have turned out to be specious. Instruments badly voiced in bird quill will of course be less satisfactory than instruments beautifully voiced in delrin. But comparing like with like, one thing that strikes me strongly with quill (and real boar’s bristle for the springs) is the rapidity of the action. This is most in evidence in trills and other ornaments. It is less noticeable, perhaps, when playing a fugue by JSB; but playing Couperin’s Le Rossignol en amour takes a lot more effort on delrin than on quill. The fingers work less hard and the ornaments sound more fluid. It’s easier to integrate them into the main melodic line without them highjacking it. This leaves aside for the moment, and deliberately, all questions of preferred sound.

As for uniformity, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a virtue. I like David’s mention of organ pipes here, because voicing for uniformity for organs and harpsichords can indeed produce, for my taste, a very flat and boring overall sound. But that very sound, with all the character of blandness, has been specifically preferred at different historical moments.

Does anyone know how Dolmetsch voiced his harpsichords? Was it with a kind of voicing similar to that found in British organs (JW Walker, Hill, Norman and Beard, etc) around 1900? Did the Pleyel harpsichords of the 1880 sound like harpsichord equivalents of Cavaille-Coll organs?

Best wishes,

DM

This is mostly just a test of how the new platform works. But I’ll make a general comment: the main abiding difference between the music of the harpsichord era and its successors, and the main difference between earlier instruments and their successors is that machine-uniformity was never sought in the earlier practice. This does NOT mean that things were uncontrolled or random, only that the fetish of uniformity is alien to everything about that earlier culture, both artistic and physical. The trick is to have diversity but in an orderly manner. This is, I would argue, achievable with a nice smooth curve using good feathers, and with experience.

I changed from celcon to bird quill about 17 years ago and never looked back. As I have rarely heard anyone playing my instruments apart from myself, and that from the driver’s seat, or through microphones, I cannot judge the sound as a listener, but the feathers certainly feel good. I should clarify that my point about uniformity of sound in the Rijksmuseum’s Couchet was certainly not that it sounded bland and it certainly did not prevent BvA from an expressive variety of sound. It just sounded hyper-uniform. Admittedly, when voicing quill we try to achieve notes that do not stick out of the texture, or disappear into it; but thankfully that leaves some leeway.

But what I hear in some modern instruments that have been quilled in delrin or celcon and adjusted to a fare thee well is akin to the engine of a modern Rolls Royce or a Bentley. I enjoy driving, but one of the things that has happened as I have moved up to more high tech cars is a diminution of the impression of speed. Modern high performance cars move so smoothily that 70 mph (110 km/s) is no longer exciting, whereas driving at that speed in my old 1949 Riley, and other cars I have had that would not now pass the annual test, produced a definite thrill. Obviously this is not meant as an exact analogy, but I also recall playing organs,even those with nicked pipes, that had odd idiosyncracies, and yet delivered music if you knew how to coax it out of them…

As to Dolmetsch and Landowska, they were before the invention of delron (1960), so apart from leather, I do not know what they used. The Pleyel instruments had a large number of possible mechanical adjustments to achieve a uniform sound; those by Dolmetsch probably did not.

And a futher point about uniformity: wood wind instruments also do not demonstrate this. The different notes of my baroque-style recorders, all have their own character.

David

Gradually getting ready to migrate to web-based Discourse alone. but for now, an ordinary email ‘reply.’

On the matter of older aesthetics not cultivating machine uniformity. David P. mentions how period woodwind instruments do not demonstrate that compulsion to make sure that every note on the instrument sounds as identical to every other note as possible. This is a dramatic illustration. The entire evolution of woodwind instruments from the late Renaissance to the Romantic era has been the accretion of extraordinary levels of gimcrack trap-work specifically designed to eliminate organic character. You cannot illustrate this more compellingly than to show the difference between something like the after-Denner end-of-17th-century clarinet and the Boehme clarinet, that dominates modern clarinet practice (there are other possibly even MORE elaborate gimcrack ‘systems,’ though I never learned any of them).

My little ‘Denner’ clarinet had three keys, which, for its date, was, about two keys more than anything else had for another 75 years. It had quirks that gave it character. The throat register (between about open g’ and c”, which was where the main fingering resumed, but up a 12th, was distinctly different from the other registers. Bottom register and the one a 12th above were as different in tone as a tenor singer is from a mezzo-soprano, and c#” was notoriously dark and ‘special.’ Then a bit over a hundred years was devoted to eliminating as much of any of this as possible. And any small ways in which that uniformity still didn’t entirely manifest itself was pretty much viewed as a shortcoming and failure.

Dr. Moroney will possibly not remember the event, but at the Berkeley Early Music Festival one summer I attended an organ recital and presentation where he played a beautiful Spanish-style organ by Greg Harrold, at some sort of seminary way up at the top summit of the Berkeley Hills. There was this quite remarkable thing. First Dr. Moroney played a piece using the motor-driven, steady-air bellows (or possibly even fan thingy?), the modern default drive system for an organ in daily use in the 20th century, but then it turned out that Mr. Harrold had also provided a more traditional-style hand-operated bellows, I remember hearing the piece played again, this time with the organ-builder sweating like crazy in the summer heat and pumping the bellows like crazy. The variations in the air were not random or awkward; what we heard, other than the gasp of many audience members, was the sound of a living, breathing human being singing.

Compare and contrast.