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The Middle Register

An Interview with Carey Beebe

Last June, just before the Boston Early Music Festival, I was visited by Carey Beebe, the representative for Zuckermann Harpsichords in Australia. Every two years Carey comes to Boston for the Festival; but he usually precedes it with a four to six week odyssey, visiting instruments, museums and builders all over the world, as well as Zuckermann agents in this country. Thus, although isolated much of the time from the mainstream of contemporary harpsichord building, he manages to see more instruments and keep himself more up to date than most of us who live here in the thick of it.

I enjoyed Carey’s three-day stay in Iowa City. We talked early keyboards and spent some time looking at pictures of antiques from my slide collection. I also took him to some of the local tourist attractions, such as the Amana Colonies and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Before he left we sat down with a tape recorder and talked about his life down under. His story is interesting, and if nothing else provides a lesson in how hard work, a good business sense and an historical awareness have combined to provide an opportunity for him to sell and service instruments all over his part of the world.

EK: Carey, let me begin by asking you how you got to be the Zuckermann agent in Australia.
CB: I was doing a degree in piano performance at the Sydney Conservatorium, but got more and more interested in harpsichords. The only way I could get an instrument was to build one from a Zuckermann kit. Shortly after that John Norman, who was the Zuckermann agent in Canberra, moved back to England to retire and asked me if I would like to take over the agency.

EK: Had you been working with him?
CB: No, but by that time I’d built a French double and a clavichord, and whenever I was in Canberra I’d pop in and see the instruments he was building.

EK: Mr. Norman must have spoken very highly to David Way [the owner of Zuckermann Harpsichords] about your work if you were allowed to take over as Zuckermann agent in Australia.
CB: I was approved by David, and the following summer I came to the States and spent several months in Stonington [Connecticut, the location of Zuckermann Harpsichords] to see how things worked there.

EK: How long have you been an Agent?
CB: Since March of ’82, so it’s been a little over eleven years.

EK: You’ve showed me pictures of your set-up in Australia. You have a very professional-looking and business-like shop, show room and office. Did you build it yourself or move into an existing structure?
CB: It’s part of a brand-new factory complex, with thirty-seven businesses—it’s a bit like a condo over here. Each person owns one thirty-seventh of the land and the building.

EK: I know you travel around a great deal. How often do you take these long trips, and for what purpose?
CB: Well, the primary purpose of my trips has always been to attend the Boston Early Music Festival, which takes place every other year; but I also want to meet with other builders and to see what’s what. Australia is far from everywhere, so it’s very handy to be able to come to a festival like Boston and see so many instruments in one location. But once in the States I take the opportunity to stop at different places. Over the years I’ve visited Zuckermann agents in Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, San Antonio and now Iowa City. I’ve managed to meet most of the East Coast agents as well. I’ve also visited makers who aren’t necessarily from the Zuckermann clan. I spent a comfortable night on top of Willard Martin’s spray booth many years ago, and I’ve visited other makers’ workshops including those of Dowd and Hubbard.

EK: What were you doing on top of Willard Martin’s spray booth?
CB: Sleeping!

EK: Well, you’ve certainly been around. I know that you’ve been to Europe several times and have visited many museums.
CB: When I get this far from home it’s just as easy to go all the way around the world instead of back-tracking through America. But also, we don’t have many historical instruments in Australia, and I think there’s much to be learned from looking at the old instruments. It’s partly an educative process, and because of the travel I’ve been able to build up a formidable library of slides which have come in handy to present lectures, or just to check minor details of construction and decoration. I certainly wouldn’t want to think that just because I live in an obscure region of the world I should be ignorant.

EK: Tell me something about your activities in Australia. You build, of course, but what else?
CB: I get quite busy with hire work: I have five instruments that I hire out for concerts and recordings, and I’ve got a strong, fibreglass flight case to zoom them all over Australia, by air or by road if necessary, if I can’t move them to the location by myself. And there’s a great deal of repair and maintenance, which I likewise do all over the country.

EK: All over the country?
CB: Yes. The land mass of Australia is about the same as the continental United States, but instead of two hundred fifty million people we have only eighteen million, and this service is very important.

EK: Do you do it on some sort of schedule, or do you just go out on demand?
CB: I try to get to each capital city at least once every two years. It’s a fair amount of travel, but I enjoy it and I’ve met some really marvelous people.

EK: Do you contact these people and tell them you’re coming?
CB: I send them a card and they have to give me a buzz if they want their instruments serviced. I’m also starting to look at Southeast Asia: earlier this year I spent a month in Hong Kong—especially at Hong Kong University, doing repair and restoration of their five or six keyboard instruments. Hong Kong is going to be a regular stop for me now, and I’m trying to build up a similar connection in Singapore.

EK: You mentioned the word “restoration.” Does Hong Kong University have antique harpsichords?
CB: Not harpsichords, but they have two early pianos which had been “restored” in Europe probably thirty years ago, before they were shipped to Hong Kong. They were unplayable when I found them, but I managed to put them into pretty good shape.

EK: Are you aware of any harpsichord activity on mainland China?
CB: While in Hong Kong I met up with Dr. Joyce Lindorff, who came from New York and now teaches at Hong Kong Baptist College. She’s a very keen harpsichordist and is teaching harpsichord and performance practice in Hong Kong. She was a visiting professor at the conservatory in Shanghai for a year. She said there was a lot of interest in Western music in China. Violin and piano are big, but harpsichord has not yet passed the novelty stage.

EK: Do you know what China has in the way of instruments?
CB: They have a World War II-vintage Neupert, and the symphony owns an instrument by a Japanese maker. Some years ago Edward Turner from Vancouver went over and finished an instrument in Beijing. To my knowledge, those are the only harpsichords in China; of course, there may well be others. But there’s a big population there, just waiting to buy harpsichords.

EK: Let’s talk about harpsichord building in Australia. How much activity is there?
CB: A fair amount. Mars McMillan, in Melbourne, was one of the first Australian builders and is still quite active. Alastair McAllister is another, and he and Mars McMillan worked together for a while as “Harpsichord Makers of Melbourne”. Another builder, Marc Nobel worked very closely with them, and they and a few others became known as the “Clifton Hill” School, after the suburb they congregated in. Alan Todd, another young builder, works just outside Melbourne. In Adelaide there’s Richard Schaumloffel, who’s been working exclusively with fortepianos for the last couple of years and has done a number of fine Walther copies. Hubbard has an agency is Brisbane called Stevens of Brisbane, run by two semi-retired air-traffic controllers. There’s also a gentleman outside of Brisbane call Warren Roff-Marsh, who’s been working more in the European factory tradition, using a very technological jack design with plectra of silicone-impregnated leather. There’s Bill Bright who’s worked for many years in New South Wales and who studied with Rainer Schütze. In Sydney there’s myself and Hugh Jones, who builds harps as well as harpsichords and is also an organ maker. Then there’s Ken Tyrrell, a retired fireman who’s active in the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers, and there’s Gillian Alcock in Canberra. Her specialty is hammer dulcimers, but she also builds harpsichords.

EK: About how many people does this add up to?
CB: There are about twelve or thirteen people who call themselves full-time professional harpsichord makers, which is quite extraordinary in a country with only eighteen million people.

EK: Your isolation from Europe and the United States must create problems, but you seem to have surmounted them fairly easily.
CB: I try to surmount them. I think the travel helps me keep abreast of what’s happening, and I think that’s given me a bit of an edge over my colleagues in Australia.

EK: I’m sure it has; in fact, it’s probably given you a bit of an edge over a lot of other builders, too.
CB: Well, the harpsichord makers I’ve met have been a very friendly and open lot, and wherever I’ve gone I’ve found a tremendous willingness to share resources and ideas. I think this cross-fertilization has benefited all makers. Instead of a group of people sort of stabbing in the dark and making slow step-by step-progress we have all learned from each other. As a result we see higher-quality instruments spread all over the globe.

EK: The quality of harpsichord building has certainly risen dramatically in the last 20 years.
CB: That’s been really noticeable to me, coming to the Boston Festival each time. It’s been a tremendous thing to see.

EK: Carey, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

Article by Ed Kottick
Continuo (Canada) April 1994

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