By Mark Gonzales
Tara Bailey might not have set out to be unconventional, but how else to describe this soprano immersed both in the worlds of Early Music and karate, who performs Monteverdi and then jams with Snoop Dogg on the ride home? Well, in fact, “smart,” “articulate,” “talented” all apply just as well.
A doctoral candidate in Early Music at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California (and a second degree black belt), Tara is also a happy owner of a Roland C-30 Digital Harpsichord. I had the opportunity recently to talk with Tara about her music, her life and her instrument. Learning about Early Music, a musical world unfamiliar to many of us, was the first topic on the agenda. I asked Tara to help me understand what is meant by the term “Early Music” and what drew her to this genre.
Finding a universally accepted definition of any musical genre is a challenge, but Tara thinks that a chronological approach is useful when describing Early Music. “The death of J.S. Bach in 1750 is thought of as the end, although you can find influences of Early Music in even present day music,” Tara explained. “There are three time periods within Early Music–Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque–in that order.”
There’s more to the concept of Early Music than just chronology, though. For example, Baroque music is often played as part of a standard repertoire on modern instruments. But Early Music embraces the “historically informed performance” to try to recreate the music as closely as possible to its original form, with period instruments, vocal style, even costuming. There are limitations to this striving for “authenticity,” though, as Tara points out. “We are performing period music in a modern context. Even the idea of a concert on a stage is a modern convention that you just wouldn’t have found in the 16th century.”
You also wouldn’t find a digital harpsichord. I wondered how such an instrument is accepted in a world populated by sackbuts and shawms 1, and where historical accuracy receives such emphasis. “Very well,” Tara told me. “In fact, the response is almost universally positive.” Do people realize this is a digital instrument?
“Well, anyone familiar with a harpsichord knows something is different because the C- 30 is so much smaller. Others may not know, but they all agree it’s beautiful and very cool.” Tara uses the C-30 in her personal ensemble “Natur” and in her frequent performances in area churches, as well as providing it for use in the Thornton Baroque Symphonia at USC. The portability of the instrument makes it all possible. “The keyboardist in Natur loves it, loves playing it. When I first got it, I set it up for rehearsal and surprised him. He was so excited!” You mean, you purchased an instrument you don’t play? “No,” Tara laughed. “I do play. I play it badly, but I do play. My primary instruments are voice and recorder. I wanted to buy an instrument for my group, and for other students to be able to use, too. Also, when I perform by myself, I need an accompanist and a portable instrument for him to play.” And portable it is. The C-30 can be easily folded and will fit in the backseat of a car.
It wasn’t just one thing that sold Tara on Early Music. A music history class she loved, performing period music for a friend’s doctoral recital and attending workshops and festivals all drew her in. Now she realizes her career goals, tastes and vocal style all fit perfectly with her choice.
The C-30 harpsichord also has proven to be a perfect fit for Tara’s performance needs. In comparing it to a traditional harpsichord, the first advantage Tara noted was “you can turn it up.” A traditional harpsichord is relatively quiet, and can easily be overwhelmed, especially in a concert setting. The internal amplification has proven sufficient so far, but “Of course, we haven’t played the Hollywood Bowl.” Yet.
Another feature of the instrument Tara and her groups have employed is the different tuning settings. A=440 Hz. has not always been the standard. The C-30 can easily and swiftly change that A tuning to one commonly used for a given musical period. Tara uses both the preset Baroque pitch, (415 Hz) and the Versailles (392 Hz). The same flexibility is true for temperament. Our modern equal temperament is, of course, a compromise to allow equal intonation in all keys, and is relatively new. By comparison, meantone tuning was used for about 400 years (1500-1900). It has its own set of limitations, but strengths as well. The C-30 has five available temperaments encompassing the historical progression of keyboard tuning2. What could be better for the “historically informed performance?”
In fact, the C-30 is a historical recreation of a period musical instrument in every conceivable detail. From the “click” action of the keyboard that accurately recreates the feeling (and sound) of the plucking of the strings, to case design inspired by the Flemish house of Ruckers, to the sampled sounds of actual historic harpsichords, the C-30 delivers a virtual musical time machine. For Tara and company, the C-30 is an invaluable tool in transporting their audiences through hundreds of years of music. For the educator, it’s both a wonderful instrument and a unique music history tool that brings abstract concepts to life. In the final analysis, Tara and the C-30 work so well together because they both strive for the same goal: to recreate an authentic musical experience that is both musically excellent and historically true. If it is ironic that the C-30 achieves these historical ends by employing the most modern technology, that is beside the point. When the magic of Hollywood transports us to a distant time and space, we don’t concern ourselves with how we got there – we’re just glad to have arrived. So, too, we hope to be lucky enough to have Tara and Natur and the Thornton Baroque Symphonia take us to the distant musical worlds of antiquity. I think I’ll slip into a pair of breeches and join them.
To learn more about the Roland C-30 Digital Harpsichord, visit:
To learn more about Early Music and the Thornton School of Music at USC visit: