The Extraordinarily Broad & Comprehensive Knowledge of Multigenerational Interdisciplinary Artist R.P. Hale

Meet Concord’s own polymath, Renaissance man, compulsive master of many things and life-long explorer of knowledge
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R.P. Hale is playing the first harpsichord he ever built, which was completed in 1978. Behind him you can see the 22nd one, built a decade later. He numbers them in sequence, and has crafted a total of 47 to date.

Cultural historian Peter Burke argues in a recent book that a variety of Homo sapiens is facing extinction —a species of intellectual known as the polymath. Usually some combination of artist, scholar and scientist, polymaths have achieved mastery in multiple disciplines. Renaissance Italy furnished so many exemplars, including Leonardo da Vinci and Leon Battista Alberti, that in English we often use the term “Renaissance man” as a rough equivalent.

Polymaths continued to appear with remarkable frequency until the end of the 18th century, by which time we find American specimens such as Benjamin Franklin (writer, scientist, inventor, diplomat, printer and publisher, political philosopher) and Thomas Jefferson (architect, lawyer, musician, president of the United States, etc.). A rare but singularly impressive example of a 20th-century polymath was Albert Schweitzer, the Alsatian philosopher, theologian, organist, organ builder, musicologist, Bach biographer and physician. Schweitzer grew up speaking three languages, learned several others during the course of his education, and wrote highly regarded books on a breadth of subjects in two of them. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

Since the advent of the 19th century, however, the division of labor has decimated the ranks of polymaths. Of course, there’s room for discussion about what makes a polymath — which disciplines are worthy of their attention, for instance, and when does it become possible to speak of mastery? But no matter how we answer these questions, Burke’s basic claim holds true: Most educated people in the 21st century have become specialists. Even the exceptionally curious among us, who in an earlier age might have been drawn to the quest for universal knowledge, tend to be little more than dabblers when it comes to anything beyond our paid professions.

One morning last summer I went to see R.P. Hale, who is known around New Hampshire for his wide range of interests, at his home in Concord. Not 12 hours earlier, the solstice had ushered spring out the back door, and the long day ahead was shaping up to be a hot one. Even as he stood in his kitchen at the open freezer door, carefully breaking ice cubes into two glasses, beads of sweat gathered on my host’s forehead. The strains of a string quartet on the radio and the hum of an air conditioner filled the background.

Already I knew that trying to understand Hale in terms of anything so prosaic as a job description would be as unsatisfactory as trying to explain the solar system using Ptolemaic astronomy. When asked, he calls himself a “multigenerational interdisciplinary artist.” Such conciseness may work as a résumé headline, but for getting to know someone, it’s too vague. It sounds evasive. I wondered if “polymath,” though hardly a job description, might come closer — closer even than “Renaissance man,” because modern science is so central to Hale’s sense of his place in the world.

One of the reasons polymathy reached its apex in the 18th century and not during the Renaissance — when the ideal was certainly held in high regard — is that in the hundred or so years dividing the two eras, a radical development took place in the way intelligent people understood what it means to know something. Reason as an instrument of understanding had long been familiar to the learned, but in the 17th century Galileo, by using his telescope to give proof of Copernicus’ theories, demonstrated that reason backed by experiment could yield knowledge of an altogether different order. Science, in its modern sense, was born.

Galileo, whom he has been known to impersonate, is one of Hale’s personal heroes. So too are the 18th-century sibling team of musical astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, whom he calls his “patron saints.” All three were devoted in their own ways to the notion of the unity of knowledge, an idea that goes back at least as far as Aristotle (who, Hale points out, “was not a scientist”). Galileo, for instance, could trace his interest in physics and mathematics to the influence of his father, a lutenist who used nonlinear arithmetic to describe the relationship between string tension and pitch. And because there were no instruments suitable for his observational needs in the early 17th century, the younger Galileo had to rely on his own abilities as a glass grinder, engineer and illustrator. The Herschels, too, were brought up in a family of musicians, and it was William’s interest in harmonics that led him to reading in optics and astronomy and eventually to the construction, with the aid of his sister, of some of the most sophisticated telescopes of his age.

So, what is R.P. Hale? Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Here are a few of the ways Hale spends his days: In addition to occupying a seat on the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, he is a juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Resident organist and music minister at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, he is a touring musician as well, performing on the harpsichord, the clavichord and the hammered dulcimer, all three of which he also builds, restores and sells.

Hale has been an organist and teacher of both music and astronomy at St. Paul’s School and occasionally teaches these subjects along with physics, Spanish, U.S. history, and civics in other local schools. He was formerly a senior educator at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord and is a longtime student of solar, lunar and planetary astronomy, a member of the New Hampshire Astronomical Society, and an astronomical illustrator whose work has been commissioned by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He has an intense interest in archeoastronomy, with particular reference to the astronomical systems of the Maya and Aztec civilizations, in whose cultures, languages and mathematics he is well versed.

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For a calligraphy commission, Hale is blowing moisture on the gold leaf so he can work with it. This an example of raised gilding, a 3D form of lettering.

He is a professional medical illustrator, pen-and-ink artist, wood and copper engraver, letterpress printer, calligrapher and manuscript illuminator, and paper and fabric marbler. Much in demand for his historical reenactments, he can frequently be found traveling up and down the country sharing his many skills in workshops or, closer to home, playing in Celtic sessions at the Barley House in Concord.

In his late 60s, Hale has a pleasing, suitably baroque, stoutness about him. He is balding on top but has curly gray hair long enough to tie back in a short pony tail. He wears round spectacles and looks a little like Ben Franklin, a resemblance made stronger by his penchant for chuckling to himself after each of the witticisms he is frequently given to dispensing.

He met his wife Alice 41 years ago while touring New England as a harpsichordist from Arizona. “There were a lot of great things you could do in Tucson in 1980,” he says as he pours me a glass of iced tea. “Being a harpsichord player was not one of them.” After several more visits to the region, he moved East in 1982. Two years later, the couple bought the house they still live in. “When we were looking, I told the real estate agent that I didn’t want to see anything in Concord Heights,” Hale says, “because that meant suburbia.” He crosses his index fingers in front of his left temple as if to say, “Heaven forfend!” He is the kind of person who, given a choice between “heaven forbid” and “heaven forfend,” would choose the latter. As he likes to say, “I’m one of those obsolete types.”

Despite his arguably patrician tastes, Hale speaks in an unpretentious accent from somewhere west of the Appalachians, generously sprinkled with (presumably self-conscious) ain’ts and phrases in Sonoran Spanish. He likes to make it clear that he’s anti-elitist, public-school educated, and that the multigenerational nature of his skills has nothing to do with belonging to a hereditary aristocracy. His progressive politics shines through in the stinging cartoons he occasionally publishes in the Concord Monitor.

Hale first became aware of an affinity with the Baroque — that golden age of polymathy — as a kid in 1960s Tucson. “I was an unremarkable piano student,” he says. “However, my teacher figured me out. She found out I hated the 19th-century European repertory — that I didn’t like Liszt, could live without Chopin, and despised Wagner. She gave me a book of Handel pieces and said, ‘Try this.’ Well, that was that! Next, she baited me with a clavichord. She opened it up one day and played something. She told me later that when she turned around to look at me my mouth was hanging open. ‘Let’s have the lesson today on the clavichord,’ she said.”

His piano teacher introduced him to various harpsichordists, including one he later took classes from at the University of Arizona. “I had found my instrument,” Hale says. At the same time, he found his two musical specialties — improvised accompaniment, known in Baroque composition as basso continuo, and the Mexican Baroque. “You have to remember,” he explains, “that Mexico was invaded a hundred years before the [British] colonies were.”

Hale’s story, like that of Galileo and the Herschels, begins with the family he was born into. And Mexico plays a surprising role. When he first moved to Concord, his neighbors assumed he was from the area, Hale being a quintessential Yankee last name. (I can think of four New Hampshire notables without going to the encyclopedia.) So, when a Mexican tricolor went up the flagpole outside his house one day, everyone was perplexed. “What’s that about?” they asked. Es la bandera mexicana, he told them. Y yo soy mexicano. In reality, his English surname had been pronounced for generations like the first two syllables of “alleluia.”

An unremembered Hale ancestor is thought to have left England as an indentured servant and ended up in Mexico. In the early 1900s, Hale’s grandfather, Felipe, was deported from his native country for criticizing its government in print and landed just across the border in Tucson (which had been ceded to the U.S. by Mexico only half a century before as part of the Gadsen Purchase, in a treaty authorized by none other than New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce). Thanks to the presence of a large Mexican-American community there, he was able to launch a Spanish-language newspaper called El Mosquito. The paper’s motto was Pica, pero no hace roncha (“It bites, but it doesn’t leave a mark”). In addition to reporting and editorializing, Felipe Hale put to use his abilities as an engraver, printer and calligrapher. These skills, along with a certain relish for political provocation, would eventually pass down to his grandson, by way of his son (R.P.’s father), whom Hale describes as a “non-practicing artist.” Hale’s paternal grandmother, who never learned English, was an orphan and may have been of Mayan ancestry — a possibility that helped give rise to her grandson’s interest in ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

Hale grew up speaking Spanish alongside English (with a “cholo” accent when it was socially necessary) and listening to Mexican music on the radio. At about the same time as he began to take an interest in Baroque music, his father gave him his first telescope. Because of its clear, dark skies, Tucson is one of the world’s major centers for ground-based astronomical observation, and gazing up at the planets, the sun and the moon (he was less interested in stars) soon joined Hale’s growing list of enthusiasms.

He entered the University of Arizona as an art major but realized within two weeks that he had made a mistake. “This was at the time of what some of us sneeringly called the California style,” he explains with one of his chuckles, “the touchy-feely, just-do-it attitude. But I wanted to learn technique, so they saw me as a troublemaker. When they told me I was too realistic, I got up and left. I went straight to the administration office, and in 20 minutes I was a chemistry major.” He graduated with a major in organic chemistry and microbiology and a minor in medical illustration.

After graduation, he took a job with the university teaching scientific illustration and photography for several years before transitioning to touring the country as a harpsichordist. Meanwhile, he had developed an interest in building the instruments he spent so much time playing, and in 1978 he finished the first of the 47 harpsichords he has built since.

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Checking a proof block — just a once-over prior to printing.

“Let’s look at some instruments,” says Hale, when our iced tea is down to just ice. He leads me across the living room to a cluttered corner and begins clearing away books, assorted musical-instrument cases and other domestic detritus. “I have to deal with something called flat-surface syndrome,” he says. “I see a flat surface, I
put something on it.” This psychological condition is known as horror vacui (fear of the void) among art historians, who recognize its sporadic recurrence in the history of painting, architecture and even music, where it results in a tendency to crowd empty secondary space with detail.

It happens to be evident in much of Baroque art and has been variously interpreted as either a neurotic aversion to emptiness or as an aesthetic conviction that an ornamented surrounding enhances the main subject. The main subject here is “Number One,” or Hale’s first harpsichord.

“This is the one that started it,” he says hunching over the keyboard. “I do not guarantee the tuning, what with the weather we’ve just been having. We harpsichordists say we spend 90% of our time tuning and the other 10% playing off key.” Then he makes his fingertips skitter over the keys to produce a sound like thin plates of antique glass shattering into a well. He winces. “We are … out of tune. Oh, well.”

Instead of playing, he goes over some of the instrument’s technical specifications — a 61-note keyboard with ebony and bone keys, three choirs of strings made from historic alloys, a total weight of 85 pounds — then moves to the virginal, a smaller and earlier form of the harpsichord. It’s more or less in tune, so he strikes out a few bars of a bright, trotting dance that transports us briefly to a forgotten Mexico City salon and gives me a sudden urge to straighten my posture and reach for a powdered wig. Next, he slides a hidden clavichord out from underneath Number One: “This is the original portable keyboard — 22 pounds, and it never needs to be plugged in.”

The instruments keep coming; they’re stashed everywhere. “All in use,” he assures me. “If you ain’t gonna use it, don’t even talk to me. I hate collectors and I will not build for them.” He says his attitude has cost him a few sales, then unsheathes a tenor dulcimer from its case, hammers through some scales, riffs for a while on music theory, and finally tells me he’s recently begun studying the yangqin, the hammered dulcimer’s Chinese cousin. I ask him if he plans to build one and am surprised when he answers “no” — at least not for the moment.

The day is getting on, so I suggest we see some of his printing work. “I suppose we can take a brief trip to the catacomb,” he says, apologizing in advance for the “tumbled about” state of his basement shop while the furnace is being replaced. In the middle of his next sentence, which has something to do with the Persian santur, he steps into a closet without explanation. For a second, I think he’s gone to fetch out another musical instrument, but instead he disappears. I advance a step to investigate, push a hanging coat to one side, and spy a sliver of light from behind a secret door. “Come on down,” says my host’s voice from somewhere below.

In the basement Hale runs through another technical overview, this time of his four presses, wondering aloud for a moment about the force vectors of rotary presses versus platen presses. Drying prints hang in festoons overhead, but since everything is dismantled thanks to the ongoing furnace replacement, there will be no demonstration of the printing process today. He points out the darkroom in passing — nothing to see — and we begin our ascent to another workspace called the studio.

From the catacomb, two stories and a time warp take us to the scriptorium of a medieval monastery. Commemorative certificates bearing calligraphy are spread over a draftsman’s table. Hale picks up a heavy piece of paper announcing a new admission to the New Hampshire Bar. “Here I have to finish the illumination,” he says. Taking another sheet, he explains that he still has to lay the adhesive, or “size,” the first step in the gilding process. “Not a week goes by that I’m not doing calligraphy. It’s another one of those manual arts that’s obsolete but just won’t die.”

Next, he shows me a set of engraving tools called burins and explains how they are used to incise both wood and copper. After describing the intaglio printing process, his eyes are drawn to a binder on a nearby shelf. “Oh, yeah,” he says vaguely, his thoughts apparently drawn in a new direction. This looks like absent-mindedness but is actually an immersion in the interconnectedness of everything surrounding him. He extracts the binder and opens it. “This is a program I put together explaining light and color for art and physics students. They handle spectroscopes, and artists find out why white light isn’t all created equal.” Putting the binder away, he says, “That and the Mayan presentations are very popular in schools,” but his eyes keep ranging over the shelves. “Oh, yeah,” he says again, in the same faraway-seeming tone, “astronomical color filters. These will brighten up the same color and darken the opposite. This one’s a Mars filter.”

Then his eyes come to rest on a crinkly piece of transparent plastic sticking out from some papers. “A student brought this old wrapper in and wanted to know what it was. I took one look and said, ‘This is dichroic film!’” He holds it up to the light and asks me, “What do you see it reflecting?” I see green. “What’s it transmitting?” I see a light red. “Yes!” says Hale. “It reflects green and transmits its opposite, but if you turn it, you can see it shifting. It’s the same principle that makes soap bubbles work — refraction on thin films.” He snaps up a small glass cube lying nearby and says, “This will do the same thing.” The student made his day by giving him the wrapper. “Saved me the 150 bucks. You take your inspiration where you can get it!” All of this ends up in educational curricula he is constantly developing alongside his work as an artist.

In another binder, he shows me copies of his grandfather’s Spanish newspaper from 1922, commenting on news items and admiring the printing. When we’re about to head back downstairs, he pauses, picks up a boxwood engraving round, and weighs it in his palm. “You’re looking at about 600 years of growth here,” he says. “I haven’t found the image that’s worthy of this block yet.”

As we trundle down the steep staircase to the end of our visit, I ask Hale whether some overarching vision unifies his plurality of interests. He starts in on one of his favorite tropes: “Anybody educated in the 18th century would have …,” but I interrupt him.

“Is that all there is to it? Do you just have a fixation with the 18th century?”

“Not so much a fixation,” he says, “but I was brought up interdisciplinarily. So much of my artwork is applied physics. In the studio, it’s technique and color theory. There’s a crossing over.”

“Are you saying you’re drawn to the 18th century because it was a time before the arts and sciences were strictly divided?”

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An inked woodblock ready for printing. The image was inspired from a photograph that Hale’s daughter sent him. It took 30 hours of drawing and 50 hours of engraving. He uses a rotary letterpress that is about 100 years old. It is both rugged and finely constructed — a machine built for precision. He acquired it about 30 years ago by trading it for a dulcimer he built.

“Yes!” he says. “I think that divide was one of the worst things that ever happened. When you think of ancient cultures, or even more recent ones, where does 99% of the information we have about them come from? From their art. And sure, they didn’t have science, but they made observations, mostly in the name of religion. Every Egyptian temple to Amun-Ra was somehow oriented to the sun. Every religiously significant Mayan site is oriented to August 13, which was the new year, or its opposite. These things were astronomically based. Given enough time, prescientific cultures could devise an awful lot.”

Yet R.P. Hale considers himself a scientist, and the greatest of the polymaths lived just as this divide was happening. The scientific method, which so effectively multiplied our ability to make sense of the details of the world, was a product of polymathic minds. The technologies their discoveries spawned accelerated the pace of change to such a degree that by the 19th century, owing to the sheer quantity of knowledge available, it became almost impossible to imagine becoming a polymath. This is itself a paradox inherent to the life of the mind — that the more we know, the more aware we are of the limits of our own knowledge — but Peter Burke, the cultural historian, sees a second paradox rising out it: As more specialization leads to the further fragmentation of knowledge into increasingly closed fields, it becomes more vital than ever to have at least a
few people around who can still see the big picture.

There’s one more thing I want to ask Hale before I go. Burke remarks in his book that polymaths are almost always workaholics. Aware now of everything Hale does with his days, I ask him if he ever sleeps. He looks slightly puzzled, then says, “I always get a full night’s rest.” Earlier in the day he had said, “I don’t work. My work is my hobby. My hobby is my work.” Claims like these are sure to exasperate run-of-the-mill 21st-
century specialists who pride themselves on their work ethic, but I can’t help wondering whether this dignified sense of work and leisure as one is what really made a Leonardo, a Galileo, a Caroline or a William Herschel.

Since Hale is clearly not taking my bait, I politely but sincerely tell him I admire his ability to focus. “You have to have that,” he says. “When I’m doing my engraving, I’m not thinking about the energy I’m putting into it. I’m thinking about getting a result.” And it occurs to me that maybe another aspect of polymathy is this ceaseless pushing toward something beyond. Any given what is bound to lead to the more complex questions of how and why, the discovery of each of whose answers may necessitate the asking of a new what. Albert Schweitzer’s organ playing (the what) begat an interest in organ building (the how) and musical history (the why); his study of philosophy and theology motivated him to work out his own moral code, based on a generalized reverence for life, a profound understanding of which prompted him in turn to devote himself to the study and practice of medicine. Polymaths are driven forward by an unrelenting cycle of curiosity.

In the end, I doubt whether R.P. Hale truly qualifies as a polymath. Peter Burke, who is an authority on the subject, sets the bar so high that he can think of only two bona fide polymaths living today. What I do know is that in an age that often appears bent on fragmentation — a specialized workforce, a cultural obsession with exclusive and hyperspecific identities, each of us defending our own tiny corner of reality from everyone else, shrinking away from those who are different — there’s something refreshingly human about Hale’s complexity. It holds up a better mirror to the complexity of the world outside him.

R.P. Hale is just one human being living in an ordinary house in Concord, New Hampshire, but he contains multitudes. He is, in his own peculiar way, a microcosmos.

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