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Art History and Fine Arts

Making as Inquiry: The Many Creations of AUP Fine Arts Professor Stéphane Treilhou


When AUP Fine Arts Professor Stéphane Treilhou wants to understand something, he makes it.

The many artistic disciplines he works in–including painting, printmaking, jewelry making, and music–afford him a wealth of knowledge and skills with which to do so. The AUP community recently had the opportunity to see many of Treilhou’s capacities converge in one of his greatest passions: building musical instruments.

Treilhou is one of few makers worldwide of the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument that fits conveniently on a tabletop. A precursor to the piano, but with a much softer sound, it became popular as a home instrument in Europe from the late Medieval period and remained through the Classical era.

Treilhou’s enthusiasm for the clavichord began in his early years as a working professional in Paris. He imagined indulging his refined taste for Baroque music with a keyboard, but a piano would have been ill-suited to his tiny flat; the clavichord presented itself as a practical alternative, but at that time cost “something around €15,000,” he says.

Naturally, “I decided to make one.” With his background as a researcher, he went to the Cité de la Musique, Paris’s library of musical instruments, and read extensively. He spent the next two summers building it with DIY tools and materials from the hardware store. What was the prototype like? “It was enough satisfying and enough frustrating to want to make a second one that worked.”

At a February 26 event at the Monttessuy Center for the Arts, Treilhou unveiled a clavichord he built just by looking at a painting from the wall of a chapel. The commune of St-Bonnet-le Château in the Loire region is renowned for its extraordinary murals depicting musical instruments–including, Treilhou says, the oldest known rendition of a clavichord. Medieval art historian Dr. Yuko Katsutani studies these images and asked Treilhou to recreate the clavichord as part of a project to bring the instruments to life.

Treilhou integrated many degrees of art and science into the challenge. There were infinite factors to discern from the painting: proportions, materials, acoustics, and tuning, and even how the clavichord would be played in relation to other instruments. “When you look at all this iconography, you can see that this was played with a musical ensemble. Here’s a bagpipe and its deadly noisy, but that gives us an anesthetic idea that this clavichord cannot have such tiny sounds because it has to sound also with the rest of instruments.”

He says, “The center of my research is the idea of reconstitution, and how it can be a source of knowledge.” This applies to everyone–historians and practitioners. “One of the most interesting subjects for students is to understand different materials and how they can take control of them to make their own art, and not to be linked to the industrial production of supply.”

The event featured a presentation by Katsutani and Treihou, and–finally–a performance, featuring music from the Robertsbridge Codex (1360), a 14th century music manuscript that contains the earliest surviving music written for keyboard. Next, Treilhou is looking forward to restoring a historic Spanish clavichord, building a new clavicymbalum (an ancestor of the harpsichord) and completing the restoration of the portrait of Olivia de Havilland, namesake of the Monttessuy Center’s theater and a former trustee of AUP’s Board of Trustees.

Across his work, Treilhou is embedded and finds fertile ground for collaboration in AUP’s artistic ecosystem. “Monttessuy has become my second studio. I very often meet the students outside of class. We exchange a lot and work together in studios on our respective projects.” He runs a printmaking club on Tuesdays. Treilhou also encourages AUP’s budding performing arts activities; in addition to the clavichord concert, he hosted the inaugural concert of the recently donated Monttessuy Harpsichord and looks forward to doing more. “These different activities create a certain complicity and participation in the life of the art center.”