Local Artist Profiles
Nine profiles of local artists
(page 7 of 9)
Engineered for Sound
By Ilene Wolff // Photographs by Cybelle Codish
If you were in the market for a 18th-century style fortepiano like the ones Mozart and Beethoven used, you could book a flight to Europe. Or you could hop on I-275 and take the Six Mile Road exit to Christopher Brodersen’s Northville studio.
Brodersen, 64, returned to his passion of crafting historical keyboards after his “nonstop stress” job as an engineer for corporate exhibits was cut in 2009. He started building the fortepiano last year; he’d already made harpsichords and a clavichord.
One of his double-manual keyboard harpsichords sits in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, and another is in a private home in Bloomfield Hills. Currently, Brodersen is crafting a commissioned harpsichord in the 758-square-foot workshop he built in 2010 next to the home he shares with his wife, Regina, and their cats, Ralph and Finn.
“I don’t call myself an ‘artist’ because instrument making is really a totally separate world from art,” says Brodersen, a lanky man dressed in a checked shirt, khakis, and Birkenstocks with socks. “They may look great and all that, but the ultimate goal is to make music.”
Artist or not, Brodersen composes his pieces using spruce for the soundboards from a sustainable Swiss forest. European Spruce is ideal for the best stringed instruments. “It’s the most important wood in an instrument,” he says. “That’s the wood that was used since day one by European builders.”
Brodersen has a music history degree from the University of Michigan and can play oboe, bassoon, and English horn. He learned the basics of his craft during an apprenticeship with an organ builder and then through a job with a harpsichord craftsman, both in Germany. He lugged his German hand tools home, bought some power tools, and set up shop for a few years in the late ’70s and early ’80s. His first piece was a large French double-manual harpsichord for a pianist who lived in Palmer Woods.
But then for the next 26 years, Brodersen worked in the corporate exhibits world, while staying in touch with his instrumental passion over the years. He attended a fortepiano recital at the Detroit Institute of Arts that eventually inspired him to build the one he recently completed. In 1984, he and Regina, who also plays oboe, went on a museum trek to see a fortepiano built by 18th-century instrument maker Johann Stein. In 1986, they visited the Vienna art history museum, and Brodersen was allowed to disassemble and examine their fortepianos, a privilege the Smithsonian also allowed him in 2012 at one of its storage buildings in Maryland. The Brodersens had to pass an armed guard to get in.
“They don’t let just anyone do this,” he says. “You have to show them you’re serious.”
So how does a craftsman of historical keyboard instruments relax? Brodersen writes for serious music magazines, and he and Regina are in a wind octet.