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Make Music -- and the Instrument

April 21, 1985|VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writer

The clavichord's sound is 'softer, clearer, cleaner' than a piano's. --Mario Gagnon, student

Richard Loucks' pale fingers touched the clavichord's ebony keys, sending tiny brass wedges upward against its harp-like array of strings.

The instrument responded in an ancient voice, crudely resonant and yet sweetly subdued, as Loucks played the stately melody and counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach's E major etude from "The Well-Tempered Clavier."

To Loucks, however, there is more to the clavichord than making music. There is also the making of the instrument itself.

For 16 years, Loucks, a 65-year-old Pomona College music professor, has been teaching undergraduate music students how to build the instruments on which Bach and other baroque masters composed.

"It's more a matter of spirit than intellect," said Loucks, a Claremont resident. "I don't think it's wrong to play Bach on the piano, but if people have a choice, I think they would find the clavichord or harpsichord better" for baroque and early classical music.

Mario Gagnon, 21, one of the two students enrolled in Loucks' course this semester, said he is attracted to the meditative quality of the clavichord's sound, which he described as "softer, clearer (and) cleaner" than that of the piano.

Loucks' class is not only small in numbers--a maximum of two students a semester--but also is unusual in format. Two experts contacted by The Times said Loucks may be the only college instructor in Southern California who teaches a course on how build two keyboard instruments that predate the modern piano.

Ray Giles, curator of the UCLA Music Museum, said that the re-creation of ancient instruments has customarily drawn limited attention. But he added that Loucks' course reflects a continuing interest in the United States and Europe in performing Renaissance, baroque and early classical music on instruments that are as close to the originals as possible.

Wm. Neil Roberts, a classical harpsichordist who is co-owner of a Los Angeles shop that sells his handcrafted harpsichords and clavichords, said he knows of no other college in the area that teaches students how to make clavichords.

Ancient instrument making first caught Loucks' fancy in 1963 when he went on sabbatical leave to study the 17th-Century pipe organs in Frankfurt, West Germany.

"Next to clocks and ships," he said, "organs were the most complicated machines of their day." But he said he soon lost interest after completing only three wooden pipes because he was overwhelmed by the mechanical and acoustical complexity of the project.

Building a clavichord, on the other hand, is comparatively easy, he said, because the instrument does not require cast iron parts and heavy furniture to hold high-tension strings in place, as does a piano. After starting his clavichord class in 1969 without any formal instruction, Loucks said he sharpened his skills by spending two sabbaticals studying the craft under John Barnes, former curator of the Russell Museum, which has one of Europe's finest collections of harpsichords and clavichords.

Alan Douglass, the other student in Loucks' class, will follow in his teacher's footsteps. Douglass said that next fall he will continue his biology studies in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, which owns the Russell Museum collection, and study clavichord and harpsichord making with Barnes through Pomona College's Study Abroad Program.

Douglass, a 19-year-old sophomore, said he dreams of becoming a master instrument maker. "This is what I love. If I could start a career, I would."

Using woods such as beech, cherry and spruce, students in Loucks' class build clavichords from kits or from scratch using plans Loucks has drawn from original 18th-Century European instruments. Proficiency at the piano is required of the students who take the course. Students also must pay a $100 fee each, which entitles them to keep the instrument they complete.

(By contrast, Roberts said his finished clavichords range in price from $800 to $3,000. Prefabricated clavichord kits cost as little as $400.)

College Supports It

Loucks, who also is chairman of the music department, said the college has provided him about $16,000 over the years for buying tools, kits and hardware for building clavichords, harpsichords, and most recently a Viennese piano, a copy of the 18th-Century style instrument played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporaries. Stanton Hales, associate dean of Pomona College, said the college gives strong support to Loucks' clavichord workshop.

"The effort to learn about the clavichord is marvelously instructive," Hales said. "Students learn a great deal about the history of music through the construction of a classical instrument. They also learn about the physics and technology of music."

The clavichord works on simple mechanical principles.

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