What defines blackletter, exactly?
Is it the medieval, pointy hackles, reminiscent of Chartres Cathedral’s spiky spires straining heavenward? Or perhaps it’s the diamond feet, akin to the silver studs adorning a scruffy metalhead’s well-worn battle vest? Or is it the sense of texture and darkness as the black ink interweaves with and overpowers the pale flesh of the animal whose skin serves as the substrate?
To my eyes, it’s all of the above, but mostly the latter. Rule number one, as emphasized repeatedly by my teacher, master scribe and self-described thug Ward Dunham, is that the Gothic script is engaged in an eternal battle between black and white on the page, and white must never be allowed to win.
Rule number one.
So when I saw DJR’s second effort at a blackletter,1 released on Hallowe’en, no less, my first reaction was one of stunned horror. This, a blackletter? How dare he release this emaciated mockery on the most Gothic of holidays, All Hallows’ Eve, that liminal time when the realm of Darkness intersects with our own?
Yet I was strangely fascinated by this well-crafted, frilly antagonist to the usual muscular, well-fed Frakturs. I couldn’t stop staring, like a rude ogler on the subway, captivated by this lean, lanky revival.
Clavichord has a pedigree. Based on an 1800s Textura cast by the Besley Type Foundry called “Italian Text”, it was first shown in an 1860 specimen book.2 Subsequently, it was shown by MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan as “Cuneiform”.
In an era when Napoleon’s armies were returning from Egypt with coffers full of looted antiquities, most anything with real or imaginary ties to the Middle or Near East would sell. Typefounders were not oblivious to this trend, and baptized their new releases with these orientalist visions of the exotic.3 It’s also possible that MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan saw some distant resemblance to the five thousand-year-old writing system created by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into moist clay.4
In any case, DJR had his work cut out for him when he decided to revive this unusual specimen. There are few known surviving words set in the original versions, so he had to extrapolate. Most of the letterforms appear to have been modeled after a traditional Gothic Textura character set, although the upper case perhaps owes more to roman skeleton forms than it does to Fraktur. The chisel-edged pen is gone, but not completely forgotten, in the structure of these letterforms.
Clavichord reminds me somewhat of that odd bird Unger-Fraktur Mager, with its squared off n and u and its unwaisted, spindly vertical strokes. But while Unger-Fraktur is relatively spartan and unadorned, Clavichord looks tarted up like a scrawny Christmas tree weighed down with a multitude of frills, swashes, flourishes, and ball terminals like so many garish and pendulous ornaments.
Sounds godawful, doesn’t it? Yet the more I look, the more I like, despite all my efforts to resist.
Although I’ve moved beyond my initial revulsion, I do have one complaint (besides the 8, which to my eyes looks identical to a blackletter S), which lies with the forked ascenders and descenders. They all lilt to the side, like flowers starting to droop. I find myself wanting to slap them awake, or add some more water to their vase, or just hang them upside down and dry them out until they’re straight again. This is a change that DJR made from the 1800s showings I’ve seen, and I do question the need for it. However, for the most part, DJR has done a masterful job with the technical aspects of this revival, as usual.5
Now, the burning question: How to best use this spindly text? Blackletter is still somewhat of a niche, so let’s look at those options first.
Despite the spikes, it’s not imposing enough for most metal bands (although some progressive death metal groups like Opeth have used similar scripts for their logos, so I wouldn’t rule it out completely). It’s too lean for a tattoo (although at least it wouldn’t hurt much) and it’s definitely not Satanic. What to do?
According to Wikipedia, the clavichord, a relative of the harpsichord, “despite its many (serious) limitations … has considerable expressive power”, which also sums up this typeface quite nicely. Clavichord the typeface also has expressive power, and its chilly diamonds and icicles dripping down like frozen stalactites make it totally appropriate for the winter holiday season.
One real-life example I’ve seen used Clavichord to letter the side of a frosty Oktoberfest beer stein! Beatrice Warde’s crystal goblet it ain’t, but in this case, the type seemed perfect for the task.
Pass the pretzels and the Clavichord, please!
- His first, Bradley, was released in 2018, and I reviewed that as well. I swear I’m not stalking DJR’s typefaces (well, maybe a little).⤴
- The name “Italian Text” may relate to other reverse-contrast types, or typefaces wherein the “usual” contrast between thick and thin strokes is reversed. Two of DJR’s typefaces, Megabase and Tortellini, are also in this category.⤴
- Later “Egyptian” examples would be Memphis, Cairo, and Karnak, named in the tradition of “Egyptian” or Slab Serif typefaces.⤴
- In fact, the name “Clavichord” had me stumped as well. I could only imagine that it derived from the etymology of the word and the typeface’s resemblance to it. In Latin, clavus means nail, and chorda means string, perhaps indicating the type’s resemblance to the high-tension strings of that instrument, wrapped around metal nuts, or the fact that the clavichord has its origins in Germany, a country best known for its history with blackletter. Unfortunately for my imagination, DJR says the name was not chosen for any of these reasons; rather, it was based on a cacophonous style of Baroque music often played with that instrument.⤴
- And of course, because he’s DJR, he had to make a variable version. You can make those hairline strokes go from thin to nearly invisible! To what end, we have yet to discover.⤴