Architect John Körmeling and maverick musician Charlemagne Palestine collaborate on a whole new system of music.
A famous English conductor said that the harpsichord sounded like “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”. An instrument that was once the basis of every orchestra and chamber ensemble was long ago replaced by the stronger and, for some, sweeter sounding piano. Now the harpsichord is very much the preserve of specialists and early-music supporters and has seen very little progress in design. Enter architect and musical philosopher John Körmeling. In addition to designing utopian public spaces like the “Happy Street” which served as the Dutch pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010, and the “Straight Road” artwork which played with the mismatch between the curvature of the earth and our need to see life in two dimensions, Körmeling has devised a system of music that sets aside familiar Western tuning and is based instead on square roots, areas and volumes.
In order to realise this music, he turned back to the harpsichord and adapted its jangling sound to an intonation that literally plays Pythagorean ratios. Remember Pythagoras from high school? Take a right angled triangle: a²+b²=c² . . . or play with the square roots of 1, 2, 3. Körmeling made it possible to hear ratios and proportions that we usually only encounter on the pages of a maths book. They don’t sound . . . normal, but being mathematical they very quickly sound logical.
Körmeling now had his instrument, but who would have the imagination and vision to play it. He turned to the veteran rule-breaker Charlemagne Palestine, pioneer of long-form improvisations on harpsichord, harmonium and other neglected keyboard instruments. The idea of “playing a triangle” immediately appealed. Responding to the invitation from Körmeling, he said that “thiss Pythagoriann harpsichordd was just upp myy alley,,,,,,,,,”. (He writes like he plays: his own way.) Palestine saw the new instrument and named it the Frogsichord after its colour. A new limited edition staalplaat double LP Frogsichord documents performances on the Frogsichord made in Brussels, Rotterdam and in Cappadocia, Turkey. The sound is strange, perhaps even estranging, but Palestine has made it his own, and created a music that is rich and detailed, not simply “exotic”. It’s no longer a question of “Western” tonality colliding with “non-European” harmonic systems. Here is music that taps into the universal language of mathematics, one that we are all programmed, however unwillingly, to understand. Meet the Frogsichord. It will change how you listen to music. It might even help you with maths. And it doesn’t sound like skeletons at all, but full of life . . .