June 2002

New for Old

by Angus Smith


Speaking as a singer, it is easy to imagine that it becomes harder and harder for composers to come up with genuinely original work. Perhaps for this reason, it seems that there is a growing interest in creating new music out of old materials –
re-workings of original scores, basing new pieces of extracts or particular features of older music, or in some more general sense being inspired by a facet of history, art or literature.

With the Orlando Consort we having been working with composers to bring back to life pieces from the Middle Ages that have almost but not quite survived the ravages of the centuries. Libraries throughout the UK, and indeed abroad, have many examples of manuscripts where the music is nearly all there but crucial bits are missing: the opening or closing bars might have been torn off, or a ‘part’ might have been lost in its entirety. Our objective has not been to restore these pieces to their original state, but rather to give them a new voice suitable for the beginning of the 21st century.

We would not claim any special credit for this. Other ensembles, notably Fretwork and the Hilliard Ensemble, have trodden this same path, while composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Sir Harrison Birtwistle have found excellent source material amongst medieval repertoire. So where might one look for these interesting ‘building blocks’? The recommended place to start would be your nearest university library. Once there we would suggest rooting out music from the following periods / styles / composers:

The Ars Subtilior.
French and Italian music form a bizarre and short-lived period at the end of the 14th century. Harmonically weird, rhythmically absolutely bonkers. Mostly three-part pieces, with the different parts frequently in different time schemes.

One of the great composers of all time but so much neglected. Layered music (single pieces can sometimes be performed as 2, 3 or 4 part pieces) with ‘scrunchy’ harmonies that defy textbook recommendations.

One of the main foundations of religious music of the Middle Ages. Repeated ‘ostinato’ patterns (but fragmented) that provide the supporting structures for the more virtuosic high-flying parts above. Can be compared to the great pillars of gothic cathedrals.

Medieval composers loved canons. For fine and intricate examples see The Old Hall Manuscript (English, 15th century) or Ockeghem (Missa Prolacionem, where the voices start at the same time but sing at different speeds, or Prenez sur moy where the 2nd voice starts a 4th higher than the 1st, and the 3rd starts a 4th higher than the 2nd.).

There are of course many other individual composers to consider: Perotin, Josquin, Dufay, Brumel, any from the Eton Choirbook etc.

We have now twice asked composers from the spnm shortlist to create new works for us to perform based on medieval fragments. At the Huddersfield Festival in November 2000 we performed six new works, and you can hear four new works at St. Stephen Walbrook on 27 June, as part of the City of London Festival’s Angel series. It has been fascinating to see how different composers can take the same starting point and yet come up with such totally different results.

Angus Smith sings with the Orlando Consort

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Previous articles:

April 2002
In Search of Kurtag

March 2002
Back to School

January 2002
spnm in 2002

December 2001
There's no word in Finnish for workshop

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
from start to finish - composing for dance

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
The end of the season

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
The ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
Into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor

July 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano

June 1999
Hoxton New Music Days

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!