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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 an 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 as 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 attempt to get psychedelic Jimi Hendrix-like sounds out of my 19th century parlor guitar.

Just asking.

UPDATE – July 19, 2014

There is an additional blog post that offers more discussion on some of the remarks above, and may be accessed here.

UPDATE – September 3, 2017

In revisiting this blog post, I find my original questions still stand.  The years that have passed since first posing these questions have only strengthened my belief that the historical lute and its music go hand in hand, and while much of the new music for the instrument that has reached my ears demonstrates a rich variety and employs an interesting palette of sounds, I am of the opinion that the original music composed for the lute is and will remain far superior in terms of suitability.

My primary justification for these remarks is that today’s composers simply don’t grasp the immense importance of silence and use the spaces between the notes as a defining aesthetic and spiritual element of the music.  Early composers understood silence and embraced the whisper-like quiet of the the lute as a means of drawing the listener into the music.  Modern composers are accustomed to the constant din of modern life and are uniformly preoccupied with projecting the sound outward.  Add to this the modern composer’s irrepressible desire to add bizarre effects and jarring dissonance; the instrument typically reacts badly to such treatment.

While there are some exceptions, including some composer’s sparse and sensitive setting of traditional tunes that do not overpower the resources of the lute, in the end, the lute ends up sounding like a poor excuse for a guitar, and that is what many non-specialist listeners seem to think.

I believe we should acknowledge the examples of the original composers of music for the lute and avoid imprinting ill-fitting modern sounds on our “closet” instrument.


  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.


  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.

    • Aisa permalink

      Hi! Im a guitarist and I´m learning to play the lute. I´m very interested in your recordings since it´s so dificult to find good recordings on the internet… just small samples and Midi sounds….

  7. Being relatively new to the actual playing of a lute and a long time listener to the lute’s music (thank god for Pandora) I am finding that listening to the classical use of a lute either Renaissance or Baroque is a satisfying alternative many times to the modern incantations of classical music into new age twists.

    However: Two points to consider:

    1: The use of modern music for the lute is a bit like trying to ride a horse the same way you ride a bicycle. (there is a plethora of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters for Lute, Oud, Chinese Pipa, and even harp on YouTube).

    They really are two different things and behave differently. The real crux is that the music of today is set for the contemporary stringing of particular instruments and a crossover to another instrument becomes a bit problematic.

    2: That the current system of notation and tune are specific for contemporary tastes and styles. The lute follows different musical rules than modern pop, hip-hop, rock, even show tunes. The structure of the music is much different to begin with.

    Then the counter:

    1: That creating “new” material is IMO perfectly legitimate. Why not? What rule, what concept, what commandment has been written that such is not allowed.

    2: Such arguments are also akin to the deliberate non-use of modern techniques to make wine or beer. It is a fine thing to have wine made without sulfates or “yeast nutrient”, but it is also an acquired taste for those use to modern Merlots. They TASTE different.

    But I personally feel that there is not only room, but even perhaps a rebirth of the use of classical instruments because some seek the “organic” side to music vs. the electric “fast food” of contemporary flair.
    the use of a Chitarron or Baroque mandolin or guitar would be a welcome change from the constant drumbeat of electrical Bass.

    Bring it and let the public decide which wind they will follow.

  8. While there are certainly [those] who exclusively employ extended, pointalistic, or spectral techniques in modern composition (of which the merit should be decided on a piece-by-piece basis, as with any compositional technique), there are a good many who do not. In fact, modern composers run the gamut, and there is not one particular style, compositional process, or musical ideology that can summarize what is currently happening. Statements such as “today’s composers simply don’t grasp the immense importance of silence and use the spaces between the notes” lead me to believe that there is a specific subset of modern music with which the authors are familiar. It is my guess that the authors may have more experience with composers from the mid-to-late 20th century than with current composers.

    As a composer, I promise you that, while we may often ignore the conventions of your instrument’s history (informal plural you, of course – we ignore everyone equally!), we (I would say much more) often take it into consideration. For instance – writing for violin. Violin has such a rich and deep background of repertoire (solos, concerti, etc.) that (for me, anyway) we have to make sure that whatever we are creating is adding to that. Sort of the Brahms feelings towards Beethoven symphonies – I want to make sure that whatever I’m saying is contributing to the collective human artistic statement, regardless of the medium.

    You never know when someone may create a piece for the lute that really captures the spirit while also illuminating another part of what the instrument can communicate.

    To address your original statements:

    1. Composers have always been superimposing new harmonic language on older instruments; it is inherent to what we do. All harmonic language was once new, and once seemed strange.

    2. Harmonic language cannot be the only musical factor to consider here; pacing of a piece is the most important aspect. There is no ‘one’ harmonic language, and so this question must be asked on an individual piece-to-piece basis.

    3. This is not really artistically-oriented, but more a question about motivations for a composer. Of course, as we all know, composer motivation is a murky thing on the best of days, and it’s likely hard to actually answer this question, and certainly not in any general way.

    4. There is something to be said for using an instrument the way it was intended, as is using it the way it was not. For me personally, if I use an instrument the way it was not intended to be used, I try to make it sound like that use DOES belong. So, not just creating wacky sounds to create wacky sounds, but to make the instrument sound like it was made to create wacky sounds.

    Anyway, I hope this doesn’t come off as confrontational at all. Just throwing a composer’s opinion into the mix, hopefully bringing a viewpoint to the discussion that contributes!

    • Thanks for your comments, which we appreciate very much. The fact is, we have several friends in the lute world who have composed new music for the lute, and even I (RA) have composed new music for the lute. You’re right in pointing out that each composer has his or her own voice, and I’m aware that making sweeping generalizations can only serve to undermine one’s argument. But I have my reasons.

      Having spent so much time immersed in a very broad sampling of old music for the lute, I arrived at my personal opinions after having made a conscious effort to understand the context of the original music for the lute. Cultural norms from a particular age define the musical context of that age, and I have found that much of the modern music I have heard bears the stamp of our modern age, which is replete with constant mechanical background noise, a distinct lack of spiritual dimension, the inescapable imprint of the clock and the timetable, an unfortunate and ever-growing reliance on electronic devices and the constraints of databases rather than a tactile understanding of the human experience, and a very short collective attention span.

      I believe one must make an effort, however temporal, to step outside of the above defining characteristics of modern life to really understand the quiet nobility of the lute and the spiritual dimension of its original music before forcing modern music upon the unsuspecting instrument.

      Qualification: Of course there was simple historical dance music written for the lute, but my personal taste leads me toward the more interesting historical music rooted in vocal polyphony.

      What I have to say here is just an amplification of what I have said elsewhere, particularly in a post from 2014, which you can find here.


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