Are composers who use early music techniques writing new music?



Elodie Lauten

An important point to understand about The Deus Ex Machina Cycle, a work written for two sopranos (with the addition of a baritone in two pieces) and Baroque ensemble, is that it is by no means a “pastiche” of Baroque style. The ensemble, fairly typical of Baroque music, includes string quartet, harpsichord, Baroque flute/alto flute, and viola d’amore, but that’s pretty much where the Baroque connection stops. At the time I started this project it seemed a new and rather daring idea and at first no one I approached wanted to do it. It started with a small group including two sopranos and a flutist, the rest of the parts being performed via midi playback.  It grew from that point, and five years later, after the release of the double CD set, the originality of the work is being noticed in some enthusiastic reviews.  My whole life and livelihood was literally poured into this project during those years, funding being unavailable, because of the oddity of the project.

As far as Baroque compositional style is concerned, I don’t use typical theme-development or counterpoint schemes. The only Baroque style quote is a brief harpsichord cadenza in “Fear,” contrasting with an otherwise organic, chromatic piece without themes. In particular, the harpsichord parts are much more developed than the continuo parts that accompany singing in Baroque opera.  They are very rhythmic and driving; they have their own life, so to speak. The tonalities are linear, with no progression to the dominant; they are modal or bi-tonal and the dynamic spring relates to a freedom of form which has more to do with jazz. To be noted is the experiment in horizontal/vertical harmonic writing in the instrumental titled “The Fold.” The modal structure is C,D,E,F,G,A,B (modal C); there are absolutely no alterations, and this structure works both melodically and harmonically, so the piece folds onto itself (good old Deleuze still has a trick or two to show us).

One the whole, The Deus Ex Machina Cycle is actually new music with a Baroque sound. What I love in Baroque music is the period instruments, the tunings and temperaments, and the clarity of the arrangements. Those are the general elements I relate to in The Deus Ex Machina Cycle. It is easier to work with alternative tunings/temperaments — which is an important element in my approach to music—in the context of harpsichord music; in this case, we used Vallotti temperament and my earth-tone reference pitch at C#=136.1 (or A=432, 8 cycles below A=440, which is still much higher than the Baroque pitch at A=415).  I was also motivated by the fact that making new music for Baroque instruments has not been done too often, possibly because most early music ensembles shy away from working with living composers. I must thank harpsichordist Elaine Comparone, flutist Andrew Bolotowsky and violist David Cerruti for their enthusiasm for my music and their involvement, as well as Robert Buecker, whose creation, a bass continuo harpsichord nicknamed “Moby Dick,” was an inspiration to the project. I hope more early music ensembles will convert to playing new music in the future, but at this point in time, making really new music in the context of classical music institutions still feels like undertaking missionary work.