Mahan Esfahani is one of a kind. Firstly, because he plays the harpsichord. An instrument that — to some — often raises an eyebrow. Secondly, because he is on a mission to bring (or keep) the instrument back at the forefront of the keyboard family; alongside the piano and the synthesiser. And he is successful at it! Throughout his career, his focus seems to have been on finding a balance between tradition and innovation; anachronic music that reveals the connections between works and instruments that are centuries apart. His latest project, Musique?, released with Hyperion, focuses this time on the modern repertoire of the instrument.
Musique? is a potpourri of modern music for the harpsichord. No work is older than two centuries, and some of it has been commissioned by Esfahani for the project— namely Abbasi’s “Intertwined Distances”. While there are some obvious connections between the pieces — and the fact that all were purposely written for the instrument and are not arrangements — the album presents itself as a compilation of works that do not necessarily relate to each other; other than by the performer’s own tastes. The works are described as international; an array of nationalities and cultures, from the Japanese composer Takemitsu, to the Iranian composer Abbasi, the Finish Saariaho, the British Bryars, the French Ferrari, and the American — and oldest composer of the group — Cowell.
A central element of Musique?, is the invisible presence of Cage — notably in Bryar’s "After Handel’s Vesper'". A composer that influenced Esfahani on a philosophical level rather than musical. Here, the ideas of Cage are brought forward by a complete mix of elements that do not necessarily appeal to each other, for instance harpsichords and electronics. But with Saariaho’s spectralism and “Jardin Secret II” — through electro-acoustic sorcery — and Abbasi’s “Intertwined Distances” — based on electronic processes and filters — the marriage between both is evidently a success, as much as it is a revelation. The work of Ferrari here acts as a bonding element between musique concrète, electroacoustic music, electronic music and contemporary music for the harpsichord. Takemitsu used to say that he learned life from Cage, and through his ideas, Esfahani corrects our biases and teaches us a lesson about the instrument he loves.
The work that started it all for the performer is Cowell’s Set of Four, a selection of miniatures that Esfahani describes as putting tradition up against innovation. Modern sounds with conventional forms; rondo, ostinato, chorale, fugue. It is on this skeleton that the harpsichord is building his past and present encounter. There are five bodies of works in Musique?, some purely acoustic and some electronic, that one after the other challenge an instrument that is more than five centuries old and which time after time succeeds in claiming its necessity and relevance in the modern world.
I discovered Esfahani in 2015 with Time Present and Time Past, a project that brought together — amongst other genres — baroque and minimalism. A combination of delight that made me write a couple of years later the article Baroquism and explain how both music relate to each other. Esfahani is also a musicologist and his approach is dual, and clever. In Musique?, the performer compiles some modern and contemporary music that inspires him — he even mentions recording the works for his own pleasure, regardless of the success of the album. But the musicologist asks many questions; what is music? Where is the frontier between sound, noise and music? What is modern music? How to approach modern music? How do anachronic sounds coexist? What is the place of the harpsichord in today’s musical world? Questions that are simply answered by listening to the album.