In praise of the clavinet

It's 40 years since Stevie Wonder showed off the otherwordly range of this keyboard.

If you listen very closely to "Sweet Little Girl" from Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind album you can hear him mumble: “You know your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. It is certainly a song full of self-parody, but this is no mere joke because for him it was the ultimate compliment. The clavinet was the instrument that defined him and it was also, though few people recognise it, the instrument of a decade.

The notes made by this unobtrusive little rectangle sparkle through the 1970s like space dust falling on the disparate worlds of a musical galaxy. And 2012 is a double anniversary for the clavinet: 30 years since the German company Hohner ceased production and 40 years this month since the release of Wonder's "Superstition" in the US, the song for which it is best known and on which it was stretched to its fullest and most glorious extent.

From funk, soul, fusion and reggae and then to country rock, hard rock, disco and west coast AOR, this sonic will-o’-the wisp seemed somehow suited to whatever purpose it was applied. Originally created for classical music in European homes, the clicking, clucking, quacking noises it produced went on to make funk funkier, soul more soulful and rock darker and more decadent. But when the decade ended it too disappeared, superseded by new keyboards beside which it suddenly seemed tired and obsolete.

Before peering deeper into "Superstition" it’s worth looking at how the clavinet came to be made and how it generated such a unique sound. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Hohner – best known for harmonicas – had been experimenting with portable versions of familiar keyboard types. They produced the cimbalet, inspired by the harpsichord, in which strings are plucked, and various models of pianet, in which the keys activated a sticky pad that on release would vibrate a reed. In 1964 the first clavinet was produced, based on the venerable clavichord, an instrument with a 400-year pedigree that used blades called “tangents” to strike the strings. Clavichords were impractically quiet and a clavinet got round this by replacing the tangents with hammers that plunged down on to a string when a key was depressed. That string was pressed into a metal strip, or “anvil”, which made the string vibrate. The vibration reached magnetic pickups for a sound that could be fully amplified.

Not only did it produce a magical percussive twang across five octaves of 60 keys, but it was also dynamic, meaning notes could be sustained and pressed with lesser or greater force to vary volume and attack. The high notes were bright, the middle range punchy yet mellow and low notes had a visceral growl. Following a few false starts Hohner made the clavinet C in 1968, the keyboard Wonder used during his golden years. After a left turn with the L - triangular with reverse-colour keys and now as rare as a mountain leopard - in 1971 they introduced the more durable D6, the keyboard hundreds of bands relied on for the next 10 years.

Of course, most people recognise the clavinet best in the hands of one man and in the opening bars of one song. For Wonder it became not merely an accompaniment, but his second voice. In a most basic sense it meant he could play his own version of lead and rhythm guitars through a keyboard, but it developed into something much greater, allowing him to express his vision and emotions on a canvass painted from a palette all his own.

His clavinet first shows up, tellingly, as he began to grow as an artist of independent means through songs such as "I Don’t Know Why I Love You" and "You Met Your Match" in 1968 then again on his album of creative transition, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. Another famous early appearance is on the The Band’s "Up On Cripple Creek" in 1969, on which Garth Hudson plays it through a wah-wah pedal and makes it wobble like an electrified Jew’s harp. It was around this time that almost every major funk and soul act caught on to the edge the clavinet gave their sound.

In just a couple of years the Isley Brothers, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, The Commodores and countless others worked the clavinet into the fabric of popular music while in the more esoteric world of fusion it became a natural staple of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

The throaty pulse of the clavinet also reached Jamaica where it emerged on reggae. Bob Marley exploited both the higher and lower range to great effect, from his mainstream breakthrough on the Catch A Fire album in 1973 (played by the American sesssionman John “Rabbit” Bundrick) through to near the end of his life on 1980’s "Could You Be Loved".

Wonder was busy throughout the period creating his own distinct song cycle, leaning heavily on the clavinet and moog synthesisers, and much of the unity of his output is down to his innovative and technically minded producers, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff. The second album in his run of five consecutive masterpieces, Talking Book, is dripping with the sound of multiple clavinets – sometimes honeyed and at others venomous and mean.

Bands often talk about being “tight” and this is a concept that involves a lot more than technical ability. It requires an unfakeable simpatico. Wonder achieves a kind of other-worldly tightness on "Superstition" – at the age of 22 - by being in synch with himself. The syncopation of his percussive style of keyboard playing is so idiosyncratic that the only way for this track to work is for one person to play it all, including the drums. This is taken to a state of incandescent – almost absurd – virtuosity through the use of eight clavinet tracks in the recording. In a mix of 16 tracks, half were clavinet; the others being one for moog bass, three for the drums, two for his incredible vocals and two for horns (the only thing he did not play).

Syncopation – playing off the expected beat and putting stress on notes outside regular timing – is one of the keys to funk and to "Superstition". First you hear the shuffling drums and as a typical Motown drummer he makes them sound like a piano hitting the pavement from a 10th-storey window. Next comes the opening clavinet riff, which many people still assume is a guitar. On paper it is a relatively simple pentatonic run (black keys, basically) starting on E-flat around which is added layer after layer of the same keyboard, some doubling up and some syncopated slightly differently to the original). What makes the riffs sound so unusual are the extra touches Wonder makes around the core notes, sometimes called “ghost notes”. Cecil and Margouleff then add delay to two tracks to extend what you hear into a vast harmonic panorama. If grooves were deities, "Superstition"’s would be Zeus.

It is a tribute to the song that the clavinet became a shorthand for funk. Even the Goodies' 1975 novelty hit, "Funky Gibbon", predicated its “funkiness” entirely around a clavinet riff. But while the use of the keyboard was reaching a peak in quantity and quality a subtle contextual shift occurred. As it became synonymous with contemporary black music so, inevitably, a divergent number of white rock acts began to spread - and possibly dilute - its impact and whereas in funk it complemented the generally positive and uplifting feel, in rock it suggested something very different.

In the hands of rock bands it became the background noise to babylonian hedonism. It carries with it, even today, the implied grime, crime and menace of a decade and a culture in conflict. It conveys uncertainty and seediness - anxiety instead of optimism. The first instance of this I can discern is on The Rolling Stones’ 1973 album, Goats Head Soup, especially in the song "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)", which recounts police and criminal violence. Roxy Music’s "Casanova" in 1974 and Steely Dan’s "Kid Charlemagne" from 1976 – arguably the slinkiest record ever made – lay before us a noir-ish picture of nihilism, drugs and charlatans. In the hands of the sardonic Steely Dan the bass notes crackle like a brushfire in the night on the Californian hills.

Other big beasts of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin ("Trampled Under Foot" and "Custard Pie"), Pink Floyd ("Have A Cigar"), The Eagles ("Life In The Fast Lane") and Fleetwood Mac ("You Make Loving Fun") all used the clavinet in a way that evokes not funky exhilaration, but their own destructive excesses. Even David Bowie used it to add a soiled warmth to the languid soul of several tracks on Young Americans. Although still in use through the high watermark of disco it was beginning to feel dated despite Hohner's new models in 1977 and 1978.

In this way the instrument made a journey of its own through the years from novelty, then to joy and energy and ending in a slightly tawdry darkness. Fashion killed the clavinet and production was halted in 1982. Its successor as the defining sound of a generation was the first digital sampler and sequencer, the Fairlight, which, as if to prove a point, was sounding decidedly old hat by the late 1980s (Wonder himself was one of their first clients). You occasionally still hear the clavinet but it is always as if from a different country. If you want to play one now there is a decent sample to be found in every modern electric keyboard (the real ones sell for between £3,000-6,000). But to be sure of complete satisfaction you are better off reaching for track six of Talking Book and letting Stevie get to work.

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Stevie Wonder performing in October 1975 (Photograph: Getty Images)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain