Lego of Choice: Harpsichord

With the exception of the wire strings, this instrument is entirely constructed out of LEGO parts(…) approximate 150 lbs. weight, and an estimated 100,000 LEGO piece count (…) It’s taken two years of theorizing, designing, collecting parts, building, testing, and rebuilding.

I first knew of the Lego Harpsichord after an article in make magazine, and have been wanting to write about it since then. From my point of view, this project stands on its own not only because of the sheer amount of Lego blocks used, but because Henry Lim has overcome the very specific problems that arise when designing and building a music instrument, plus the added challenge of making every single part of it out of Lego (well, obviously not the strings), departing with no previous knowledge on the field!

It is true that, if you listen to the music sample in his site, some notes are not perfectly tuned and, above all, the key mechanism is noisy. However, the recording is a true performance. Let me stress this fact: what you are listening to is a performance of the beginning of the Goldberg variations, which in my opinion validates this harpsichord as a musical instrument, one that surely can be perfected, but definitely not just a toy. It is the first Lego harpsichord ever built, after all! I recently listened to a recording of a clavichord (not to be confused with the harpsichord: in the clavichord the strings are hit, while in the harpsichord they are plucked. The clavichord allows one to play loud or soft, while the harpsichord doesn’t), and you could hear the mechanism too… I don’t think that Henry will build another model, but I’m sure that if he did he would probably be able to refine the mechanism; of course, if he weren’t committed to making everything out of Lego he would have much less trouble.

Henry’s page on the Harpsichord is thorough and at the same time amusing, so at this point I recommend you that you read it if you haven’t yet. Still after I read it I had several doubts, some of them on the instrument and also, after the sentence “I was in my Bach phase”, on Henry himself. Actually I was wondering if he was a performer, so I wandered for a while around his site (is that a Lego G-clef? wow!) and I found out that besides -better: beyond- being a Lego enthusiast, Henry is a talented performer and composer. His piano sonatas (I would call them suites) are brilliant works by a very personal composer, able to deal with classic concepts in a way so that they sound fresh and devoid of empty rhetoric. I found particularly engaging the first movement of the first sonata and the first fugue of the third sonata. His playing is also very good, as clear and precise in the fugues as it is intense in said first sonata. Henry is a very nice person too, and he kindly answered several questions I made him. The first and obvious, since I couldn’t find information on him, was about his career and training as a musician, on which he writes the following:

I was born in 1972 in San Francisco. I grew up in Hacienda Heights (a suburb of Los Angeles). I got my bachelor’s degree in communications at UC San Diego and my master’s degree in library and information science at UCLA. I currently live in Redondo Beach and work at the UCLA Music Library. I have no formal art training.

I was amazed to read that he had no formal training, because his pieces show a broad and precise knowledge of Composition techniques (the same can be said of his playing). I was therefore curious to know more on this aspect, and here’s again his answer:

As for my informal training, I suppose, like the harpsichord, it’s mainly from reading books and catching advice from composer friends. I work at the UCLA Music Library so I’ve a wealth of material at my disposal. As well as access to instruments, students, and professors. It’s hard NOT to compose in such an environment.

Well, it can be hard, I tell you! 😛 You may notice that he says that “like the harpsichord, it’s mainly from reading books…”. I also asked him if he had any knowledge on instrument building techniques prior to making the harpsichord:

And no, I have no knowledge of instrument (making). Nevertheless, I read several books (they’re listed on my reference links). Also, my friend is an instrument maker and he gave me a lot of advice.

No wonder it took him two years to build the harpsichord! In his site he says that he first thought on a piano, but finally left it aside as the strings pull the frame too strongly. Still, I was wondering why he went for a harpsichord when he could have chosen a virginal or a spinet, which are smaller and probably less difficult to build:

I went with the next instrument in terms of complexity, the harpsichord. I wanted the challenge. A virginal or spinet would’ve been too easy 🙂

Finally, regarding technical matters, I asked him two things. First, I wanted to know how well the harpsichord keeps its tuning, which is vital to a useful instrument. I also suggested the idea that he could perhaps varnish the insides of the soundchamber to level them, thus improving the sound:

The harpsichord can keep its tuning. Not as well as the real instrument, but it can hold pretty good(…) I didn’t think of using a varnish. I tried to keep the materials strictly to LEGO. But that’s a good idea.

Talking about good ideas… since the harpsichord is, you know, sooo XVIII century… well, Henry, I hope that you some day have a Tangerine phase and amaze us again with, perhaps, a LEGO MiniMoog synthesizer!

One thought on “Lego of Choice: Harpsichord”

  1. Well it´s surprising the things that you can make with the LEGO:a harpsichord!!! .Will the puritans of Early Music admit this instrument in their schools? …after all , LEGO has a lot of years too.

    Regards to José Luis and my sincere congratulations to Henry


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