Mabel Kwan Credit: Aleksandr Karjaka

The clavichord is an odd little keyboard popular in Europe from the 16th till the 18th century. It was designed as a practice instrument, and it didn’t produce enough volume for the typical concert experience. Its sound isn’t far from that of a harpsichord: little metal blades called tangents strike strings of either brass or iron. Most folks have heard a modern iteration of the clavichord called the Clavinet, popular in 70s pop music, that used a magnetic pickup to amplify the sounds. Stevie Wonder has probably been that instrument’s most important adherent.

Chicago classical pianist Mabel Kwan has become fascinated with the clavichord in recent years, but she’s not especially interested in working through the Baroque or Renaissance pieces that it’s frequently used to master. Instead she’s enlisted contemporary composers to create works that exploit unusual timbres and textures the keyboard can produce. This weekend she celebrates the release of Inventions, a collaboration with San Francisco composer Danny Clay that uses extended clavichord techniques as source material for electronically processed and arranged movements—or “builds,” as Clay has dubbed them. The project is being released by local cassette imprint Parlour Tapes, and Kwan will perform at a release concert at Saki on Saturday at 5 PM.

The "Lépante" fretted clavichord, Musée de la Musique, Paris
The “Lépante” fretted clavichord, Musée de la Musique, ParisCredit: Gérard Janot/Galerie

Clay wrote a series of sketches for Kwan, many of which used sounds well outside the clavichord’s comfort zone—unpitched percussive hammering, note-bent plucks, discordant clusters—in addition to conventionally played passages. After Kwan recorded them, Clay built terse little collages from her work, most around two minutes long, as a way of cataloguing the various techniques and sounds. On the cassette version—the album is also available as a download—side two features an extended 19-minute piece (“Build 9”) that more radically transforms the source material into a gorgeous extended composition. Electronic processing and collaging create hovering, mesmerizing long tones interrupted by ringing chords, somber melodic passages, spiky dissonance, jagged single-note runs, resonant strums, and rustling turbulence. Below you can hear the album’s short opening movement, the percussive “Build 1,” which blends muted struck keys, kaleidoscopic harmonies, and plucked and strummed strings.
Earlier this year Kwan released One Poetic Switch (Milk Factory Productions), a terrific solo album featuring work composed for a variety of keyboards. The title piece, written for her by Santiago Díez Fischer, requires her to scrape and thwack the innards of a standard piano with bracing aggression. “Between Clouds” by Chicago composer Eliza Brown is another gem, its meditative sparseness evoking the negative space in a not-quite-sunny sky. Below you can check out another piece from the album, composed by Chicagoan Fredrick Gifford: “Hinge With Filament,” which uses prepared piano and slightly more conventional clavichord sounds, though they’re arrayed with manic intensity and a wonderfully harrowing structural sensibility. At Saki on Saturday, Kwan will play Gifford’s work, Bach’s Prelude in B Minor BWV 923, and a live take on Clay’s “Build 10” (which is not on Inventions) that will feature the composer and keyboardist building a sonic collage in real time.
Today’s playlist:

Arne Deforce, Iannis Xenakis: Complete Cello Works (Aeon)
Shirley Collins, Sweet England (Topic)
Gloria Cheng & Calder Quartet, Messiaen/Saariaho: The Edge of Light (Harmonia Mundi)
George Braith, Laughing Soul (Prestige, Japan)
Badland, The Society of the Spectacle (Emanem)