The harpsichord is not an instrument one expects to hear playing modern music. It’s been mostly relegated to the realm of historical reenactment, used to perform pieces from several centuries in the past. But Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani is doing fascinating work bringing the instrument into the 21st century (or at least the 20th), particularly on his latest album, Musique?
His first album, Byrd Bach Ligeti, was a live recording that bridged present and past, beginning with 14 pieces by Renaissance-era English composer William Byrd, followed by three pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, and concluding with three by György Ligeti. He’s also recorded an entire album of works by 18th century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, J.S. Bach‘s Goldberg Variations, and a set of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach‘s Württemberg Sonatas. On his 2015 album Time Present and Time Past, he again drew connections between eras, pairing Baroque works by Alessandro Scarlatti and Francesco Geminiani with more music by both Bachs and modern pieces — Henryk Górecki‘s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra and Steve Reich‘s Piano Phase for Two Pianos. The latter piece is both monumental, at nearly 17 minutes, and mind-frying, the already somewhat pitch-bent sound of the harpsichord driven to almost psychedelic extremes by the doubling and phasing effect, as well as the intensely repetitive nature of the music. It may enrapture you; it may send you screaming out of the room.
Musique? is Esfahani’s first solo album of nothing but modern compositions. (In 2015, he recorded UK DK, a collection of 20th century pieces by British and Danish composers, performed in duo with recorder player Michala Petri.) It’s also his first album to feature a work by an Iranian composer — Intertwined Distances, by Anahita Abbasi. The disc also includes pieces by Tōru Takemitsu, Henry Cowell, Gavin Bryars, Luc Ferrari, and Kaija Saariaho.
The album begins somewhat cautiously, as though luring you in. Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming is as soothing and beautiful as that title suggests, though there are occasional disruptive moments. Cowell’s Set of Four is a quartet of short pieces that have a classicist quality — he’s clearly interrogating the past, in a somewhat ironic manner, and it winds up sounding like something you’d hear on the soundtrack to a Stanley Kubrick movie.
Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II is where things start to get weird. It’s scored for harpsichord and electronics, and Esfahani’s high-speed keyboard runs, which frequently sound like someone pounding on an electric organ and also occasionally have the nerve-jangling quality of silent movie soundtracks played on a tack piano, are surrounded and bolstered by hisses, high-pitched hums, and vocal sounds including rhythmic exhalations and guttural mutters like the last sound you hear as a Japanese ghost girl crawls out of a dank drainpipe right behind you. It’s genuinely frightening stuff.
Intertwined Distances also combines harpsichord and electronics, but in a much less creepy way. Here, they mostly consist of distant background sounds, like sand blowing in the desert or echoes of creaking metal deep within a nearly empty factory. At least, at first. Later, it sounds like Esfahani is playing an early ’70s synth, and the way he’s punishing the harpsichord it seems ready to tear itself apart entirely. Eventually, in the piece’s final moments, it sounds like he’s destroyed it, and is slapping at dead keys, producing no actual resonant sound.
This is a fascinating, at times breathtaking collection of music. It travels through a broad range of moods, sometimes approaching the intensity of free jazz — at his most forceful, Esfahani can bring to mind pianists like Dave Burrell, Don Pullen or Bobby Few. At the same time, the combination of the ancient-sounding harpsichord and the hisses and hums of electronics creates a time-warping effect that can disorient the listener in the best way. It’s like nothing else I’ve heard this year.