|Clearer Tone, Fuller Sound|
|Solving Sonic Problems|
|Possible Future Innovations|
Clearer Tone, Fuller Sound
The Newly-Developed Zither of Klemens Kleitsch
by Daniel Herrmann
Translated by Jane Curtis
From Saitenspiel Volume 2 2004
Zither makers are remarkably inventive. Klemens Kleitsch has combined several ideas in designing his Zithers.
Daniel Hermann's website is http://www.zitherinbayern.de/.
Jane Curtis is a Zither player, composer, and teacher working in the Washington DC area. She conducts twice-yearly Zither seminars that are challenging yet fun and instructive. Ms. Curtis is a frequent contributor to Saitenspiel, the monthly publication of the Deutsche Zithermusik-Bund e.V.
Seven years ago Klemens Kleitsch met with Professor Sadlo of the Münchner Musikhochschule at the Richard Strauss Conservatory to turn over a specially-modified tenor hackbrett. At this very moment zither instructor Georg Glasl happened to pass by. A short time before, while visiting hackbrett instructor Birgit Stolzenburg, he had heard the contra hackbrett newly developed by Kleitsch for the composer Peter Kiesewetter. Georg Glasl, delighted with the clear and carrying sound of the instrument, asked the instrument maker if he thought that the bass zither could also sound like this. This moment was the beginning of a new development for the zither. "I would never have gotten the idea myself to make a zither," says Klemens Kleitsch thinking back, "because I always thought the zither had a set standard of quality."
Kleitsch already suspected during the conversation that developing a zither would become appreciably more complicated than developing a hackbrett, since the zither is basically two instruments in one: the fretboard, similar to a guitar, and the open strings.
What had to be corrected in relation to the traditional zither quickly became apparent: the unclear sound of the bass strings needed to be changed into a clear distinctive sound with a good keynote. This is his concern with all the instruments that he builds: harpsichords, virginals, clavichords, hackbretts. His goal is for his instruments to play polyphonic music so well that each voice is independently perceptible. His starting point is the harpsichord, with which he has worked the most.
It may also be an advantage for him that he never really studied instrument making. "Those who have studied perhaps have it harder, for they have to leave their old ways. I, on the other hand, didn't know a thing about tooting and blowing and so could take the matter up without preconceptions", he says. A secondary school teacher of mathematics and music, he was already 27 years old when he sought an apprenticeship as a prospective instrument maker. For three months he was apprenticed to an organ maker, the only "real" training he had in this field. While studying to be a teacher, however, he had supported himself as a piano tuner and had disassembled, cleaned, and rebuilt clarinets and pianos. In 1985 he bought himself his first and last set of harpsichord tools and in the course of time took a few more courses. And then he began to build harpsichords and virginals, then finally hackbretts.
But getting back to the zither: The cause of all its sound problems was, in his opinion, the bridge, which he believed to be located in the wrong place; for no other stringed instrument except the scheitholt had its bridge on the edge of the instrument. This is also obvious, since only when the bridge sits on the resonating surface can it transfer the vibrations directly to the resonating surface and onward into the air.
Thus the bridge had to be moved away from the edge and placed on the resonating surface. In addition the zither had to be designed large enough that a sensible string length could be achieved for the contrabasses. And of course this newly-to-be-designed instrument had to be playable and portable like a normal zither.
To ensure acceptance of the new zither, Kleitsch adopted the dimensions of the fretboard from Ernst Volkmann's zither in psalter form, which has been accepted as standard. After initial attempts with guitar fret wire, he now uses, like Franz Riedl, 3-millimeter extra hard astragal, which gives a height of 2.5 millimeters over the fretboard in order to guarantee depth of stroke as desired by the player. The result: a comfortably playable fretboard.
The size of the body, as with historic keyboard instruments, should be determined according to the proportions of the human body. It should be possible for one person to tune the instrument, for which reason the most distant tuning pin must not be farther than the distance between the point where the left hand turns the tuning pins and the location where the right hand strikes the strings.
In order to prevent the indirect creation of tones via the resonance table, it was necessary to attach the bridge to the resonance surface in such a way that it could vibrate freely. While on the fretboard only the righthand bridge could be "freed" [from the edge], the problem for the open strings took a much more difficult form. In the open strings both variants are theoretically feasible, and Kleitsch tried them both. Even though a freely vibrating bridge on the right side would be much easier to build, there are still two disadvantages. On the one hand, the bridges of fretboard and open strings would be the same, and the accompaniment strings would thereby sound like a piano without damping; and on the other hand, the bridge on the left side could be appreciably longer and thereby the pressure dispersed over a greater surface, which would be good for the zither. On the whole "the sound of the Zither would be much more beautiful if it had only ten accompaniment strings", groans this ambitious stickler for detail.
The form developed from these requirements should be not modernistic but functional, without any kind of unnecessary flourishes.
Another tedious problem was the question of stringing. Looking back, Kleitsch says: "My starting point was the hackbrett, and for purposes of sound I strung the zither with steel strings [Translator's Note: Apparently steel-core strings are meant here], thereby getting off onto the wrong track for a long time." For three problems arose with steel-core strings on the zither: The zither was very bright sounding, thus amplifying incidental noises in particular. Second, there were tuning problems because of the fairly long length of the front edge. And third, the string very soon produced "false" overtones. The problem was finally solved by using zither strings with nylon core-but correspondingly longer. The stringmaker Lenzner offered him complete support. All of the open strings are wound; the winding is set off from the thickness by one millimeter.
The development of the zither has cost him the most trouble of all the instruments he has built to date. He would still like very much to do more development, but as the father of a family he could not undertake such an energy-demanding project again; he had to develop four generations of instruments in order to reach one that satisfied him. But meanwhile the framework has been laid down and a basic design established. Only a few fine points remain [to be worked out].
But the tireless stickler for detail is not satisfied himself. "There is still much to be cleared up. In order to make progress it would be necessary to do a series of specially aimed tests, to change the top and bottom surfaces and investigate the best vibration conditions. A resonance chamber is a very complex thing."
Another idea of the ambitious musician is to integrate a damping mechanism into the zither, as with the hackbrett, thus requiring a correspondingly higher body. Damping from beneath is impossible because of the small distance of the strings from the right edge, as in this case all strings could not be damped equally. It might be possible to damp near the bridge, but this would have an effect on the sound-and that means back to details, details, details. Moreover he regrets that the zither is the only instrument that he has made heavier and larger. "The harpsichord, the hackbrett, and the virginals-I made all of them lighter. An inflatable rubber zither would be ideal."
"My zithers are not particularly designed for modern music, as the tonal qualities that give my instruments a clear distinctive keynote are heard primarily in Musica Antiqua and folk music." And even if his instrument does not correspond to the traditional sound expectations, he believes that it is absolutely suited to folk music, since it blends better. "The guitar and the diatonic [instruments] are often very good in folk music groups, while hackbrett and zither usually don't sound as good."