Baroque and roll

“I’ve always hated the harpsichord, it reminds me of a sewing machine.” — John Cage

I went abroad. And on my travels, improbably, the subject of the harpsichord came up in conversation with a friend. The harpsichord. Mainstay of Bach’s œuvre; acoustic precursor to Stevie Wonder’s fruity Clavinet; humble plucker of strings mated to a keyboard. The friend was not best pleased.

I didn’t take issue with her judgment at the time, but what she said got me thinking. I’d always found Bach a tough sell—better in principle than in practice. He was very much of his time in terms of complexity, polyrhythms and the like, but his music, for me at least, was to admire rather than love. And he wrote thirteen concertos for harpsichord(s).

There are plenty of harpsichord-haters. But I doubt they’ve thought much about Vampire Weekend’s “M79”. This was the first song by the Eastern seaboarders I heard, and four years on it still sounds witty, unfussy and bright. Yes, there are curlicues of string quartet, a modern take on ostinato bass, and lashings of lyrical pretension. But from the moment it sets off on its memorable motif, played on a harpsichord, right up to the outro’s rearrangement of that same motif for strings, it never loses sight of the fun.

They’ve probably not heard Tortoise’s “Prepare Your Coffin”, which thrust the seminal post-rockers back into the universe I feared they had disowned, only a year after the Vampire Weekend album. Here, a gutsy, gently ring-modulated guitar intro cedes effortlessly into a harpsichord-led verse. This maligned instrument, often given to ornamentation, is instead given a sense of backbone and balls. It’s only there for half the song, really, but the structure it lends to the song—even in the bare-bones muscular bass of the second verse—means it is the first thing I associate the song with.

So take that, Young Turks. Baroque might not have been up to much, but its most recognisable instrument found a new home in at least two great songs. And now I’d best get back to shoehorning descriptions of disparate songs into short essays.


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