haven’t had ivory keys since the ’70s,
at least, when an international treaty banned the use of ivory
in an attempt to curtail ivory poaching and the slaughter of elephants.
But ivory is still a part of the instruments made by Willard Martin ’64
and restored by Richard Groman ’78, two men whose musical
passions are worlds apart yet oddly connected.
In personality, too, they couldn’t be more different—yet
an hour in their company leaves you with the same feeling, that
comets and pinwheels are whizzing through your brain from the amount
of knowledge that just pours out when they talk.
Willard Martin, an internationally known maker of harpsichords
and other early keyboard instruments, lives in a deconsecrated
Russian Orthodox church in South Bethlehem. His home since 1980,
it’s part living quarters, part workshop, part harpsichord
showroom: a gigantic magpie’s nest of personal effects, books,
crafts, assorted furniture, and ongoing projects. A terrarium with
a turtle sits on a tabletop; under it (the table, not the turtle)
is a 400-pound bell with an encrusted bronze finish from the church’s
original carillon. On a trampoline in the middle of the room is
a copy of the Kabbalah (medieval Jewish mystical writings) and
a new translation of the musical and astronomical theories of Johannes
Kepler, along with gadgets, pencils, a basket of telephone cords,
and a fiber-optic decorative object that looks like the kind of
bouquet a robot would give to his robotess.
In other words, if you put out your hand in any direction, who
knows what it might close on? Nothing dangerous, but lots of things,
each more fascinating than the next.
An interview with Willard is a journey through history, philosophy,
music, craftsmanship, theology, and the natural sciences. I ask
a question about ivory keys. “If you’re interested
in ivory, let me show you something,” he says and pulls an
elongated shoebox from an upper shelf in his workshop. Inside is
a splendid flute of rosewood with ivory stanchions and an ivory
coupler in the center where the two halves of the flute are joined.
The barrel is at least 2 inches in diameter; clearly, this is a
low-pitched instrument. It’s a modern copy of a much earlier
flute, made by a Russian instrument-maker with marital problems.
(Don’t go there.) As for the ivory, it has a strange sheen
and a slightly yellowish cast, like buttermilk. “Do you know
that there are tons of ivory lying around the world, free for the
taking?” he asks. “Yup. Mastodon ivory. Only problem
is, it’s all frozen in glaciers.” This flute has mastodon
ivory. Hence its special delicate color and finish, for ivory is
nothing more than the same cellulose-based stuff of human hair
and nails, just compressed a zillionfold to become hard as marble.
All that from one question, answered in three minutes.
The grandson of Moravian missionaries to the Caribbean, Willard
graduated from Moravian at an escalation point in the Vietnam War
and had but one career goal in mind: dodging the draft. He and
a friend, Deirdre Kehs [McKosky] ’70, had motorcycles, and
Willard wanted to meet Deirdre’s cousin Charles Fisk, a well-known
organ-builder. “We thought nothing of getting on our motorcycles
on the first day of March and visiting him in Gloucester, Massachusetts.” Deirdre
thought he made harpsichords, too, but she was wrong, and Fisk
told him: “Go visit my old friend from Harvard, Bill Dowd.” Now,
William Dowd is the most famous maker of harpsichords from the
beginning of the early-music renaissance. “He hired me, sight
unseen, because Charlie Fisk sent me,” says Willard. “I
went to work the day after Commencement.”