Music and art meet in a harpsichord studio

Sunday May 13, 2012

Special to The Eagle


The heyday of the harpsichord ended sometime in the 18th century. But for one enterprising couple here, the instrument has provided an unexpected livelihood, one combining engineering smarts and artistic inclinations.

From a converted garage in this quiet town, Carl Dudash crafts custom-ordered harpsichords by hand. Next door in their home, his wife, Marilee, paints distinctive artwork onto the instruments’ soundboards, cases and lids.

The result is a series of gorgeous instruments, built almost entirely from wood, that evoke the sound of a long-past era.

"The intent of the old builders was that it should be pleasing to the eye and to the ear," Carl Dudash says, and he and his wife seem to be succeeding on both counts.

He’s become an expert in the different historical varieties of the instruments, with German, Flemish, English, French and Italian offshoots among the major forms. (Different types have varying numbers of keys, slightly different shapes and tended to have different styles of decoration.)

Marilee Dudash has toured the harpsichord collections of Europe extensively, visiting Munich, Venice, London and Brussels (among other locations) to get a close-up view at the different styles of ornamental art.

Whether it’s a historically accurate design painted onto the case of the instrument or a fully realized, wholly original landscape painted in vivid color under the lid, she aims to translate her lifelong interest in visual art into something that fits with the period of the particular instrument, but serves the desire of the client as well.

One customer wanted a landscape painting depicting a mountain he had climbed with his wife; another wanted a rural scene featuring goats. Yet another specified that sheep be in the scene, but no sign of mankind.

"When you’re up close, you can really see the design. It doesn’t always show up in the pictures," she says of the motive behind her travels. "Sometimes, depending on how the light hits it, you can really see what was there."

On a recent afternoon, Carl Dudash is working on an instrument with birds (local to the region, as per the request of the client) painted onto the soundboard, across which dozens of strings are stretched.

Whereas the strings of a piano are struck by hammers -- enabling the musician to play each note at varying volumes -- those of a harpsichord are plucked by tiny quills. Typically, he uses a type of nylon, though sometimes there’s a request for the once-standard crows’ quills.

"We feed the crows here in the yard, and they graciously leave me feathers every once in a while," he says, explaining his source for this item. "The tail feathers and larger flight feathers are good, but the little downy kinds of feathers don’t work."

With a pocket knife he scrapes at a crow feather, showing the black spine carved out for each wooden rod (called jacks) that slide into the soundboard and are then triggered by the instrument’s keys. With each depression of a key, the user can feel the tension of the string against the quill, and the resulting plucking sensation.

Though the instrument is arranged in a way similar to the newer piano that eventually displaced it, in its creation of sound it is more like a mechanical lute.

Uses variety of woods

The shop is outfitted like any woodworking shop might be, with tools like a table saw, thickness planer, and bandsaw at the ready. Carl uses a variety of woods for his instruments (a recent model’s different components were fashioned from aspen, western red cedar, white spruce, European syca more and walnut) and Marilee utilizes oil-based paints.

Carl Dudash estimates there are perhaps 50 other master harpsichord artisans in the United States.

His path to that status led him first through an initial career as a design engineer for Pratt & Whitney in the 1970s, building various systems for airplanes.

(He had graduated from Catholic University’s department of space science and applied physics, now folded into the school’s mechanical engineering department, he says.)

After seeing a photo of a harpsichord on a colleague’s desk, he ended up sending away for a make-your-own kit. It wasn’t a far jump from there for this hands-on engineer to start plotting his own designs and then even take the leap into starting his own small business around them.

Can play keyboard

He’s had no formal musical training, but can play keyboards well enough for his own enjoyment, to test his harpsichords and to understand the sort of action a musician wants from an instrument.

By studying historic designs, he’s discovered how it used to be done, as well as uncovering design flaws to be improved upon.

It was in the early 1980s that he asked at an art-supply store for a suggestion for someone who could provide his instruments’ decorations and artwork. Marilee was recommended, and they worked together on several instruments.

The partnership clicked.

"Then we hit it off and got married besides," he says with a chuckle. (The two were married in 1984.)

Their customers range from concert musicians specializing in Renaissance and baroque music to hobbyists who just enjoy the distinctive sound of the instrument and admire its presence.

Universities also are interested in new harpsichords for instructional purposes as well as concert use; Yale University, Wesleyan University and Wellesley College are recent clients.

A small, portable harpsichord with minimal decoration could run a buyer about $6,000; for a double-keyboard model featuring gold leaf, extensive decorations and a lid painting, the price could ex ceed $40,000.

Other interests

Though the painstaking pro cess of building the instruments takes up much of their time (each one requires several months of work), Marilee Dudash is an avid equestrian and her husband finds time to work under the hood of his 1969 Corvette and other cars, which he races casually.

The Lebanon (N.Y.) Valley Speedway is a frequent destination for the two, as are old car shows.

Though they each apply the lessons of history to their harpsichords, Carl Dudash says it’s the intangible elements that ultimately determine a given instrument’s sound. Study and planning can only take you so far, he says.

"There are things that science and engineering can teach you," he says with respect for his forbears in the artisan trade, "and then there are things that defy analysis."


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