Monday, July 30, 2007
So what’s “Real Quill”?
Like others in this business, I tend to separate the instruments of the baroque band into three general types: blowers (winds), scrapers (strings) and pluckers (harpsichords, lutes, harps et al). We pluckers need some means of plucking our strings, and that’s where bird quill enters the picture.
The harpsichord’s mechanism is very simple. When depressed, a key makes a wooden jack rise and pass by a metal string. Attached to that jack is a little thing called a plectrum that plucks the string. Releasing the key causes a bit of felt at the top of the jack to damp the string, so that the “ring” of one string won’t interfere with the plucking of the next one.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, all plectrum were made of bird quill, just like old-fashioned writing pens except a much smaller piece of same. When the harpsichord was revived in the 20th century, builders thought they could do better with a plastic substance known as delrin, which mimics the characteristics of real quill but lasts longer. Only recently have leading builders and players decided that the real stuff is actually better: more musical, less prone to brittleness, and it even feels better underneath the fingers!
And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a recent convert. The three harpsichords in Houston I use most often — all built by John Phillips of Berkeley, CA — all now have real quill: turkey vulture and Canadian goose, to be exact. Have a look at his website for more information on the instruments: www.jph.us
So when you’re in a park or stretch of wilderness that’s frequented by big flyers (no sparrows or robins, please), gather up a few sturdy feathers and give them to a harpsichordist!