By Emily Gordis
The front room of John Phillips’ West Berkeley workshop on Grayson Street is crowded with an Italian-style harpsichord in for repairs from Virginia and a French-style instrument, waiting to be delivered to its new owner in El Cerrito. In the next room, his assistant, Janine Johnson, is working on another French harpsichord which was commissioned by a client in Rome.
Phillips has built an international reputation as a harpsichord maker and restorer, but he stumbled into what became his lifelong pursuit. One class away from his degree in German at UC Santa Cruz, John Phillips was drafted into the army. During his six months of service, he came to a conclusion: what he really wanted to do was study music. A music lover all his life, Phillips had taken a class which deepened his understanding of Bach and sparked an interest in the harpsichord.
“Where else would a cop, coming to the door to ask about a stolen car, look at a harpsichord and actually know a brand?”
He built his first harpsichord from a kit. But it wasn’t enough for him. “In a kit you’re handed a box of parts and a drawing and it’s a little bit like a model airplane, that you put together. You don’t really need to understand why you put it together.” With a Masters degree in musicology and his first order in hand, he moved to Berkeley in 1973 and began building harpsichords from scratch.
“I had been living in the Santa Cruz Mountains and never lived in a big city before, so this was a wide-eyed culture shock,” recalls Phillips. “I found a room in a house on La Loma, just above campus. And I answered the door one night and found myself looking at the belt buckle of a Berkeley cop. He asked about a car that was parked across the street that had been stolen and did I know anything about it. I didn’t. He asked to come in, of course. And then he saw the harpsichord. And he goes, ‘Oh, is that a Neupert?’ So where else would a cop, coming to the door to ask about a stolen car, look at a harpsichord and actually know a brand?”
Phillips’ craft requires a wide range of skills, but as he explains it, the work always starts with the wood.
“From lumber yard to music room is the path,” he says, explaining the need to use aged wood, so that it has time to expand and shrink before becoming an instrument. “This French instrument is made entirely out of basswood, with some oak and some spruce in it. This Italian instrument right here is made out of spruce, cottonwood, basswood, there’s some cedar in it and Italian Cyprus.”
Even using carefully chosen, aged wood, Phillips says that instruments take time to mature. “A new instrument — as we say, ‘fresh out of the box’ — is… terrible is the wrong word but maybe not completely. They sound very, very new and undeveloped. The wood still thinks it’s just a piece of wood and the wire that you put on it has just been pulled up to tension. None of it has gone through the changes that it will when it’s fully activated. So basically, you’re going to shake it. Just play it and play it and play it. I like to keep new instruments for a minimum of a month after I’m happy with their basic setup.” Phillips regularly invites local harpsichordists to his shop to help play in his instruments.
In addition to his new instruments, Phillips restores old harpsichords. “The process is different in that if I make a mistake in a new instrument, I throw the piece away. If I make a mistake on an antique I… well, I can’t make a mistake. You’re working as a conservationist. The object is to preserve the artifact. You have to document everything you do. All these things are critical because the responsibility you have towards the cultural legacy that that represents is huge.”
The responsibility he feels results in a deep concern about authenticity. “The act of authenticity is in doing something. So when you encounter an old instrument, you’re performing tasks on it that aren’t the same as analogous tasks on a new instrument, but you’re fixing things. You’re fixing mistakes, you’re fixing accidents, stupid things that other people have done… we spend a lot of time fixing stupid things other people have done. And I’m sure that the next person will wonder about what stupid things I’ve done,” he laughs.
When I ask Phillips whether he plays, the college student who fell in love with harpsichords emerges. “Yes, I do play. Can someone make one without knowing how to play? There are people who do. It’s the hardest way, because you have to have some idea of what’s going on. And besides, they’re missing out on the fun.”
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