If music were the food of love, John Phillips would provide a banquet.
“Harpsichords are a little like cuisine,” the Berkeley resident explains from his workshop on Ninth Street, where he builds reproductions of the keyboard instrument that dominated Western music from the early 16th to the mid 18th centuries.
There’s the Italian style, with a sound that is in some ways the simplest and purest and the German style, made to imitate the organ. Then there are French harpsichords, “Wonderful instruments, but very indulgent instruments, with a sound so big they can’t get out of their own way,” he says.
The average listener may give little thought to the harpsichord, beyond thinking of it as a sort of forerunner to the piano, the harpsichord being the one with plucked, rather than hammered, strings.
But if you’re a connoisseur of Baroque music, chances are good you’ve heard a John Phillips instrument. For nearly 30 years Phillips has built glorious reproductions of antique harpsichords for top performers around the world. His instruments can be heard on scores of recordings, played by such artists as the world-renowned Igor Kipnis. One of his harpsichords was heard last month at the Berkeley Music Festival in a concert with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia director Nicholas McGegan owns two Phillips harpsichords himself.
At 52, Phillips enjoys a reputation as one of the best in his field. “He’s excellent. He’s internationally sought after,” says local artist and keyboardist Janine Johnson, who paints and carves the sometimes opulently decorated harpsichords at Phillips’ studio. “I wouldn’t be interested in working for him if he wasn’t.”
A round-faced, slightly stocky man, Phillips has the muscular arms of a woodworker, which he is, and the erudite diction of a scholar, which he is as well. A genial, talkative man given to quips and witticisms, he says his ascent to the top of his craft is a result of “sheer dumb luck.”
He enjoyed building model trains as a boy, and when he fell in love with the music of Bach while an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s, he decided to try to build a harpsichord.
He built his first instrument from a kit in 1969. “It was godawful,” he said. “I hope (that kit) doesn’t exist anymore.”
He continued to pursue the hobby, building several more harpsichords while earning a masters in musicology at Berkeley in the early 1970s. Then a prominent harpsichordist, William Read, offered Phillips his first commission, giving him the confidence to open a workshop on his own in 1975. He was completely self-taught.
“I was just young enough and arrogant enough to think I could do it,” he says. Within five years, his career took off when one of his instruments gained international attention at the Festival of Flanders in Bruges, Belgium. Since that time, he’s never lacked for orders. The current waiting list for clients is about three years.
Phillips also benefited from getting his start during a remarkable moment in history: the period in the 1960s and 70s which saw a revival of interest both in early music and in handicraft. “It was one of those rare periods when educated people deigned to work with their hands,” he says. “ Lots of people dropped out of school to become potters or glass blowers – and it was seen as cool. And there was a ready market for it, people who were willing to pay for handmade things.”
Times have changed. Today Phillips says he sees a widening gulf between educated people and craftspersons. More than once, he’s had prospective clients talk down to him. “Usually they get their English corrected,” he says acidly.
In a world of mass-produced objects, Phillips is one of a handful of craftsmen who works slowly and painstakingly, using methods that date back as far as 400 years. “None of this is very instant,” he says, showing a visitor around his workshop, where wooden planks can be found soaking in water or wrapped around a form to dry over a period of weeks.
The work is painstaking – he turns out only four to six instruments a year. A self-described “character,” he has worked alone for most of his career, and knows that may continue to be the case. He would like to find an apprentice and pass on his craft, but finding the right person isn’t easy. “I guess I’m pretty demanding,” he says.
Phillips has visited museums around the world to study the construction and mechanism of the finest instruments from the Baroque period. He’s gained access to many rare and unusual examples, and has taken apart and reassembled perhaps 20 instruments in his quest to discover the secret of their special sound. “It’s detective work,” he says. “After a while, you can almost see the hand or hands that made the instrument, and how they did it.”
His most recent detective work has taken him to the former East Germany, where over the past two years he has studied the work of the Grabners, a family of harpsichord makers who built instruments for five generations in the 17th and 18th centuries. He tries to use the same materials that were used historically – poplar or basswood for cases, spruce or cypress for the soundboards. “It’s a bit of a time machine,” Phillips says of his work. “What we do is very weird; it’s anachronistic. We’re trying to recreate the sound of another century.”
Of three other centuries, to be more exact. And since the harpsichord evolved continually during that time, there’s a wide range to choose from. The antique prototypes Phillips uses are those he admires most for their musical sound. If a clients requests a copy of an instrument by a maker he doesn’t care for, he usually persuades the person to choose a better-sounding model from to the same time period. Of course when it comes to appearance, all bets are off. “Part of the aesthetic is that the harpsichord doesn’t just look like the piano, all black,” Phillips says.
The historical precedent is clear. Particularly in the 18th Century, harpsichord makers delighted in lavish ornamentation, often painting scenes inside the lid and soundboard, even over the body of the instrument itself. So if a client today wants a particular decoration on a harpsichord, Phillips will oblige.
One of Phillips’ most opulent creations is an Italian-style harpsichord built for Philharmonia Director Nicholas McGegan.
Fondly nicknamed “Goldilocks,” the instrument is covered with gold painted swirls on the outside. The owner has a fondness for pigs, so the interior lid displays a colorful pastoral scene of a boar hunt.
McGegan specified no blood, and that the boar should be winning, Phillips said. A couple of pigs are also displayed on the outside of the lid.
While his greatest delight is in providing harpsichords to professional musicians, who can truly appreciate the fine points of the instrument, Phillips also finds gratification in making harpsichords for dedicated amateurs.
Given the time and money involved, each of his clients ends up becoming quite a good friend, he says. “We’re in the business of selling dreams.”
He remembers a client who, upon first seeing her finished harpsichord, dissolved into happy tears.
Maybe it’s love after all.