Everything Old Is New Again

Baroque instruments…are lost technology…There’s hardly a minute to acknowledge the value of an object before it’s replaced. It’s rare to embrace a lost technology,” says Deborah Artman, the librettist of Lost Objects.

Maybe not so rare anymore… In a number of recent works, Sir John Tavener and Julia Wolfe have embraced the lost technology of period instruments by writing for the Academy of Ancient Music and Concerto Köln. Early music vocal ensembles like the Hilliard Ensemble, Anonymous 4, Lionheart, and Ensemble Project Ars Nova have captured the attention of Wolfe, Richard Einhorn, and Robert Kyr, composers who have been attracted to the vocal agility and vibrato-less tone of early music singers – yet another form of lost technology.

Wolfe, one of the co-founders of the Bang On A Can collective, has written in myriad styles for ensembles of every conceivable size and shape. Two of her recent pieces were written for early music performers. The first, Lost Objects, is a collaborative effort by Wolfe and BOAC’s other co-founders, Michael Gordon and David Lang. The work is performed by vocal soloists and Concerto Köln, one of Europe’s premiere period instrument ensembles. You’d think Lost Objects was a recording of a Handel oratorio—Artman even alludes to the oratorio tradition in her notes—but for the addition of DJ Spooky‘s mixing and editing technology and the Bang On A Can Lost Objects Ensemble, comprised of electric instruments.

Wolfe has also written Keeper for Lionheart, an a cappella men’s vocal sextet whose core repertoire focuses on music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. “Julia had long been a fan of ours and early music,” says Lionheart’s Jeffrey Johnson. “We talked with her about how Lionheart formed and our working ethos, and she was very intrigued by that: how we share responsibilities and walk ‘the a cappella tightrope’ together… She created Keeper not only around us according to our specific musical abilities, but about us as individuals and as a group.” Lionheart was also part of the technology Wolfe used, “We did several hours of personal interviews, which she recorded and prepared the tape into a kind of accompaniment which we sing over live. The theme of our responses and the text center around the biblical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Einhorn’s Voices of Light, an opera/oratorio inspired by Carl Dreyer‘s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, uses the most traditional of musical technologies—the modern symphony orchestra. Einhorn sets the voices of the early music ensemble Anonymous 4—together singing the voice of Joan—against the texture of the large orchestra. Einhorn juggles the old and the new throughout the work, and the libretto is drawn from the writings of female Medieval mystics. A final dash of period authenticity was worked into the piece when Einhorn traveled to Domremy—the birthplace of Joan—and recorded the sound of the town’s church bell.

Working with a living composer is a big change for early music performers. “At first we thought, ‘Oh my God, a composer is going to answer back,’ ” says Susan Hellauer of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, the most popular of all early music groups. “In each of the cases where we’ve worked with a living composer [Einhorn, Steve Reich, and Tavener], each one listened to our suggestions without difficulties and accommodated them, or at least reacted positively. This is a more old-fashioned way to work, probably like what it was like in Bach’s day where a composer had to write something every Sunday and get it done. If the singer says, ‘Sorry, this is unsingable,’ you don’t jump up and down, you finish the score. The attitudes of all three composers have been very old-fashioned in this sense.”

The old-fashioned collaborative effort is working well for British composer John Tavener. He has been writing music for vocalists associated with the early music movement for a number of years. There are excellent recordings of his music by the Tallis Scholars and the Taverner Choir. Tavener strikes that delicate balance between the past and present; his music sounds old but is really quite contemporary. More recently he has been exploring the sound of period instruments. His 1997 composition, Eternity’s Sunrise, was commissioned by the Academy of Ancient Music, an English period instrument orchestra. The work makes the most of the ensemble’s piquant tonal color and cleanly articulated sound. Tavener continues to explore this style, and in 1999 he wrote Total Eclipse, a work for saxophone, countertenor, tenor, chorus, and period instrument orchestra.

The works by Wolfe and Tavener are not going to show up on the Academy of Ancient Music or Anonymous 4′s regular concert schedule. The unusual combination of performers and the programming time constraints associated with these works prohibits them from being performed on the same bill as say, a program of Hildegard von Bingen‘s music. But one ensemble that is mixing contemporary and Baroque repertoire on the same program is American Baroque. A glance at some of the ensemble’s programs reveals the usual suspects—Couperin, Corelli, and Handel—but with some fascinating additions. Most telling is a program called Traditions, which mixes works by the contemporary composers Dan Becker, John Thow, and Belinda Reynolds with works by Marco Uccellini, Vivaldi, and Telemann. The contemporary works mirror and expand the Baroque style. Becker’s Tamper Resistant is a humorous reworking of Telemann’s G-major quartet, while Thow’s To Invoke the Clouds uses digital processing of the Baroque flute.

What do early music performers think the fascination is for contemporary composers? “Early music is such a wonderful mystery,” says Johnson. “Maybe it has to do with the fundamental elements that make up Medieval and Renaissance music: clear modal melodies and harmonies, with a cappella singing, a kind of very direct human expression unencumbered by a lot of bombast.”

“Some of it is tied to the death of the academic composer, writing music in an ivory tower with a slide rule and the university as patron,” says Hellauer. “Other patronage, hard as it is to get, is having a huge influence. Some of that patronage is record sales; people have to buy them and pay the way. Early music has been something of a hot ticket and some of the interest might be a marketing eye. Of course that’s not new, it’s something quite old.”

From Everything Old Is New Again
by Craig Zeichner
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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