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Farmer, Cline, & Campbell

Classically Speaking

Classical music in West Virginia and Beyond

Teller, Landowska, Bach

(Interviews) Permanent link   All Posts
By Skip Heller
 · February 23, 2010

To most, Teller is the silent half of the skeptical magic duo Penn & Teller. Offstage, he is as articulate as Penn Jillette is verbose, and is as charming a conversationalist as I've met. 

Also, he is an amateur keyboardist who finally bought a really nice harpsichord.

Pleyel Harpsichord
1937 Pleyel Harpsichord

"As exquisite as St. Matthew's Passion or the Mass in B Minor might be-- and they are -- I don't like music that asserts itself before it justifies itself. Firepower doesn't impress me. I'm much fonder of the small work. You're engaged by the net of counterpoint, then the emotional aspect of it is overwhelming, because you're so much closer to it in a smaller, more personal way, and that's powerful for me.  Much more so, in fact."
This is interesting talk coming from a guy whose professional life includes dumping a bunny into a woodchipper, but a second look at Teller's signature onstage moments brings it clearer. The cups and balls, sophisticated revamps of ancient card tricks, the shadow play with the rose -- these are small moments done with virtuosity and with a beautiful eccentricity that would -- to a Bach fan -- suggest Glenn Gould. And Teller is quite the fan of Glenn Gould.

"With Gould, there's the sense that either he has the best idea or the weirdest. His recordings of the partitas are my favorite, just for the way he unlocked the rhythmic power of that work. Certainly he understood what a jig is.

Penn & Teller
Penn & Teller

"[Gould] was himself a showman about himself as much as he was for much of the music he played, certainly, and there's an always an aspect of him that comes from 'This is Glenn Gould plays this work' as much as the work itself.  Which can certainly result in some performances that don't work so well, and one either loves or hates that about him. Gould is certainly the central fact of anything he plays."

(Don't be shocked that he knows this stuff.  I have an email correspondence with Teller where we discussed Art of the Fugue for a few weeks, and his assessment of the work and what Bach's intent for it was would make for a small and very lively, insightful book.)
If there is a North Star in Teller's Bach Heaven, it is Wanda Landowska. Her recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier (Book I cut for RCA Red Seal in 1951, Book II three years later) remains one of the benchmarks of baroque music, and the depth and vitality of her playing did much -- worlds, even -- to restore Bach's popularity as history's greatest composer. Her importance to Bach -- along with Pablo Casals'-- cannot possibly be overstated.

Landowska WTC album

I asked Teller if he grew up with her records. His hometown is Philadelphia, a city with a long and very amazing orchestral tradition.  His parents were artists, and they lived walking distance from the Academy of Music.

"No. I discovered Landowska in college, actually, at Amherst.

"I wasn't a good student. I was always behind in everything, and I had a final on the Iliad, in Greek. The night before the test, I just decided to plow through [the book] as much as I could, and I was exhausted and restless.

"I heard this music down the hall, coming from the room of my friend David Corcoran, and it was Landowska's recording of the WTC.  So I went to his room, and studied the Greek with Landowska in the background, until 4 a.m., at which point I was of course completely exhausted, and then I went back to my room, where for the next three hours, I would wake to this dream -- I was traumatized -- where Greek text was rolling past my eyes as Wanda played."

I forgot to ask if he passed. But the contrapuntal music switch was thrown.

"I absolutely pursued Landowska, of course, and -- at the same time -- it opened the Dangerous Door to Bach.

"Deep in my Landowska phase, I was a first year schoolteacher in a suburb of Trenton, NJ, and I read that there was going to be a harpsichord festival in Princeton, which was very close by. There were performers, films, including interviews with Landowska. I was thrilled that this was happening so close to home.

"I went, and Ralph Kirkpatrick was there, and he was very good. But Igor Kipnis blew me away.

Igor Kipnis
Igor Kipnis

"He had his Rutkowski & Robinette harpsichord, which was of course not period precise. The harpsichord of Bach's day was smaller and lighter. It wasn't designed to be shipped to recitals. Kipnis' harpsichord had a metal frame so it could withstand travel, and it had two manuals. Kipnis came out dressed in a red and purple velvet jacket, which wasn't exactly traditional concert dress, but it was his version of it, or at least his nod to it.

"He played two of the little pieces from [Bach's] Anna Magdalena notebooks, just clearly as a warmup, but it was ... These were beginner pieces, but he invested them with something that was just inspired.

"Then he spoke to the audience about the Goldberg Variations, which he was about to play, and he was articulate, and he had some jokes even, and I loved it and him for it, because he presented himself as a human being. As he was concluding his introduction of the work, he sat down, remarked on the virtuosity of the harpsichordist for whom it was named [Johann Gottlieb Goldberg], then turned to the audience with impeccable comic timing and said, 'And the snot was only fifteen!'

"Then he proceeded to play the Goldberg's so... Well, there's an old story about a competition of improvisers in Bach's day, and a theme is handed to each contestant and each contestant is to improvise a fugue. And the last contestant improvises his fugue, and the judge says, 'Either that was an angel from heaven, or it is JS Bach himself!', and that was Kipnis that day. He was transporting. At the end of it, the audience leaped to our feet because we had no choice.

"For an encore, he played the C minor prelude from Book I of the WTC, and he improvised a cadenza that was ... It was one of those evenings of music that becomes the standard you hold.  The only other performance up to that point that had that effect on me was a concert I saw at Amherst in 1969 by (percussionist) Olatunji."

Years after this performance, Teller and Kipnis became friends.

Also, Penn & Teller became, well, Penn & Teller.

Teller has a funny habit of depersonalizing any mention of his own wealth or fame. He never refers to "I" or "me" in this situation, but rather "one", and when I ask him how he came to acquire his new harpsichord, he says as follows:

"When one decides one has enough disposable income, one Googles 'Pleyel.'"

Pleyel Harpsichord - closeup
Not a bad Google search result...

The provenance for the harpsichord he finally bought last year is impressive. It was built in 1937 by Pleyel for pianist Arthur Shattuck.

"He'd loaned it to Wanda Landowska around 1942 until about 1945. She used it as a teaching instrument, apparently. Wanda was just a bully,” he laughs, "and suggested he 'donate' the instrument to her."

(The instrument is described as being in Landowska's apartment in Our Two Lives, Halina Rodzinski's memoir of her life with husband, conductor Artur Rodzinski.)

According to both the provenance and a few conversations with Landowska's life partner Denise Restout, Landowska was fond of this harpsichord and tried to reacquire the instrument more than once, and actually kept close tabs on it up until the end of her life. She never got it.  Shattuck donated it to the Appleton Conservatory in Appleton, WI.

Teller acquired it in February of  '09. I saw him a few months later, and he told me of his purchase all the glee of a high school baseball fan who had just acquired a Reggie Jackson game ball. I asked him how hard it was to care for the instrument in the desert heat.

"A harpsichord meets the Nevada desert with a mighty boom," he said with giddy gravity.

After several attempts to keep the studio room in his home adequately humid -- "I almost suffocated trying to keep the air sufficiently moist" -- he settled on a Dampp-Chaser instrumental humidifier system, which attaches to the underside of the soundboard.

"It keeps the humidity at the desired level with a system of pads that soak and evaporate. Daniel Enet, who tunes all the Penn and Teller keyboard instruments once a month, takes care of the more sensitive aspects of the instrument's care and feeding. He is an artist as very few are."

Pleyel Harpsichord Humification
"Fill the pitcher to the red line with water, add a cup full of pad treatment"

So what do you play on your new Pleyel?

"I've got the Kalmus books of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions and the WTC. I have the Vertag edition of the Anna Magdalena notebooks. I have one called Easier Piano Pieces. I prefer any edition that doesn't require I turn a page."

He laughs again, but he speaks with awe and reverence for the instrument itself.

"It's a substantial instrument, more than any I've ever even sat at before. It has seven pedals, and it's all so confusing to me that I actually made labels with the label gun to keep it straight.

Pleyel Harpsichord Pedals
The seven labeled pedals.

"The sound it makes is so much more satisfying than any keyboard instrument I've ever played before. It has a huge, masculine voice, and to play it and hear it come back at you is like plucking your own nerves. I've been playing -- slowly, of course, not sight reading anything at tempo, mind you -- through some of the three-part inventions, which I've never really tried to play through before, and it's like the skies opening up, every time I get through something.

"I feel like I'm cheating. This instrument is ... I'm starting with materials that are so rich. I'm not making anything from scratch. Even my atonal improvised noodling sounds amazing on this instrument."

Around this point, our conversation moves into a whole other phase, and we're soon enough discussing the Smothers Brothers with deep admiration. Then computers. It's the broad conversation we've had for years now. 

His acquisition of the Pleyel means that he'll have something new on which to report, whether it's the care and feeding of this incredible instrument, or even that he can play one of the Goldberg Variations at tempo. Then, of course, we'll debate as to what that would be, as Bach didn't leave much in the way of tempo markings....

Skip Heller is mostly a country singer, but is sometimes a jazz, guitarist, film/cartoon composer, music journalist, or chamber music composer.  His most recent release, The Long Way Home, will be available in March on the Tallulah label.

Thank you for inviting us to a glimpse of a fascinating conversation between friends. Teller, your descriptions very clearly evoke what you felt and heard and saw at the time. Thank you fir sharing.
Posted by: M P at 2/27/2010 5:14 AM

Oh my gosh, Teller is such a nerd! But I love him anyway! He's so adorable with his fat cheeks(:
Posted by: Raven at 2/28/2010 12:11 AM

Very nice read. I want more of both - I want more Teller, and I want more interviews from this fellah.

Posted by: Jeff Bowles at 3/1/2010 8:55 PM

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