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Modern music on the lute: Really?

May 5, 2011

This is a short post that is more a series of questions about playing new music on old instruments, and is directed to no one in particular.

There has been a growing level of interest among lutenists for composing and playing modern music on the lute. I have to admit to being guilty of the same practice, since I have both composed for and arranged bits of modern music for the lute. I’m just wondering in print whether it is really appropriate to the aesthetic of the instrument.

My questions:

Is superimposing a new harmonic language on a historical instrument worth the bother, when the reason most people are interested in the lute is its connection with music of the past?

Does the new harmonic language really capture and convey the special qualities of the old instrument to good advantage?

Does the use of an ancient instrument to produce modern sounds merely serve a a means to draw attention to the composer, whose compositional voice would otherwise be more conventional with a modern instrument, such as the guitar?

Are we subjecting the lute to the Pygmalion effect, hoping its sound will live up to what we imagine it is capable of, rather than allowing it to live comfortably in the sound world that suits it best?

As lutenists, we know it’s just not appropriate to play transparent music from the early 16th century on a 13-course baroque lute, which was designed to express a new harmonic language with a strong delineation between treble and bass. As a guitarist, I wouldn’t bother to try to get psychedelic Jimi Hendrix-like sounds out of my 19th century parlor guitar.

Just asking.

6 Comments
  1. Ned permalink

    A reasonable question, I think, and one for which I don’t pretend to have any definitive answers. I can say, however, that I’ve enjoyed listening to the music of some contemporary composers – Gilbert Isbin for one – played on the lute. I don’t know how Gilbert’s music would sound if composed for the guitar, but since I don’t play the guitar, I’m happy to have the music as written and published for the lute.

    Ned

  2. Mathias permalink

    It’s not so much about a new harmonic language IMO. Rather, it’s about playing techniques. You can see modern lutenists, playing their own new composistions with guitar or banjo techniques, e. g. finger-style picking. That is inappropiate IMO. But as long as you play lute technique, you’re free to playing whatever you like. My two cents.

  3. It might be important to differentiate between “modern” music and “newly composed” music in imitation of the style for which the instrument was used historically. The latter certainly respects the idiom of the instrument and the harmonic language for which the instrument was intended — so is there anything “wrong” with it?

  4. Thanks for making an astute point, Andrew. I suppose every time I make a new lute intabulation of 16th century part music, I am composing something ‘modern.’ In such a case, there is no question about the appropriateness of the harmonic language. Likewise, if a person were to compose a new piece that was firmly in the style of 16th century music and using the same harmonic (modal) language, l suppose there would be no question.

    I think the taste-meter is activated when bizarre effects are employed and modern chordal playing is used in an attempt to force a voice upon the lute that it was not intended to produce. At that point, the delicacy and transparency of the sound are sacrificed and the instrument just sounds like a poor excuse for a guitar.

    All that said, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG with playing any music one wishes to play on the lute. It comes down to a matter of taste. My questions and further comments were meant to provoke responses exactly like yours.

  5. Resource Dragon permalink

    Andrew Hartig raises a very valid point.

    That said, one of my reasons for learning to play the lute is that I don’t expect to be asked to play something that goes: plink plunk, squark,boink screech thunk.

  6. Having played and recorded modern music for ancient instruments I would ask slightly different questions.
    For me it’s not about “playing modern music on old instruments”. We are part of the modern world although we love the sound of the ancient instruments and the music composed for it. So it seems valid to transport some of the modern times through music for our instruments.
    I rather consider it a challenge for modern composers not to use rhetorics of the 21st century on the lute. A language developed for piano, violin or modern guitar seldom works for an instrument like the lute. On the other hand many modern compositions for the lute apply patterns known from other “modern” composers to the lute. Most of them copied from the guitar. The challange would be to use the unique possibilities of the lute to create it’s own modern language.

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