Searching for the New in the Old

Despite my passion for new music, I’m a real aficionado of older things. I treasure walking through ruins and drinking in old taverns. Rummaging through antique shops has resulted in the acquisition of countless recordings, as you probably would have expected, but also old telephones and even a few old ceiling light fixtures. I love to immerse myself in all these relics from bygone eras, perhaps in part because of their differences with the objects of our own time. They are a constant reminder that there are many possibilities out there, not just the ones to which we’ve been acculturated. In the same way, I suppose, it’s the possibility that I’ll hear something in a new piece of music that I’ve never heard before that excites me about it. What attracts me to new things is ultimately the same thing that attracts me to old things: an escape from the ordinary.

And yet there’s a clear separation between the old and the new, one which is in some degree an impenetrable chasm. For me the idea that old music being performed today is somehow new because it’s being newly performed is an historical disconnect. What is interesting about old music is that it is old and is, therefore, something that will always be distant from us—in a world in which telecommunications have eroded most cultural barriers, the only remaining barrier is chronological. Of course, this is predicated on the assumption that no one will ever invent a time machine that works. I actually listen to quite a bit of old music at home, perhaps as much as new music, but hearing new work back-to-back with old work on a concert program, e.g. an orchestra subscription concert, has never seemed to me to be an ideal way of experiencing either the new music or the old music.

The same holds true in other media. A few years ago I visited the then newly-opened Getty Museum in Los Angeles and saw an American abstract expressionist painting hanging alongside a series of representational paintings by European old masters. It was supposed to allow viewers to look at both the old and the new in a new way, but I just found it disorienting. Similarly, much as I admire I.M. Pei’s glass pyramids at the Louvre in their own right as individual architectural creations, I’m not sure they work with the Louvre—the anachronism feels jarring.

All of which I bring up as a preamble to talking about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s concert I attended at Carnegie Hall which juxtaposed the notions of old and new in quite an unusual way. The concert featured only one truly old piece (Haydn’s Symphony No. 6), two 20th century works (Stravinsky and Piazzolla), and a world premiere by Melinda Wagner, which is what brought me there. But the weird thing is that with the exception of the Haydn, the three other works were all tropes on the past, so in that sense the Haydn piece was the only really “new” work. The music for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite is largely a reworking of concertos by a little-known Dutch composer, Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766)—which at the time had been wrongly attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires is a tango-infused take on Vivaldi’s ubiquitous tetralogy which frequently quotes famous passages from said work to sometimes comic effect. And Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead, the latest in Orpheus’s “New Brandenburgs” series of commissions, is directly inspired by J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. But although the old and new Brandenburg 4s each sport three movements and are scored for a small orchestra with a solo group of two flutes and violin plus the obligatory harpsichord, other direct parallels are not so obvious. While the textures seem more transparent and the overall impact is more immediate than is usual in her work, Melinda Wagner has in no way abandoned her signature atonal language in exchange for something more Baroque sounding. Rather than attempting to conform to what was normative about that music, she zeroed in on what was unique to it: the viability of each individual musical line and that wacko solo group of two flutes and a violin. She even backs up the harpsichord at times with a celesta, an instrument that wasn’t invented until 1886. As a result, her alternative history of the 18th century presents a music that never happened and could only happen now.

Looking backward for inspiration (in this case listening backward) has been a viable way to mine new ideas for centuries—long before Stravinsky’s encounter with those fake Pergolesi manuscripts led him to develop a highly influential 20th-century musical style, the Florentine Camerata, thinking they were reviving ancient Greek theatre, wound up inventing opera. So looking for what has been somehow forgotten or is otherwise unfamiliar in what has come before us might prove to be a far more effective way of dealing with the past in the present than trying to make things from the past and the present conform to one another, because they probably can’t.

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