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More on modern music

May 7, 2011

In our last blog post, I raised some questions – and possibly some hackles – about whether it was appropriate to imprint modern harmonic language on the lute.  While there are several capable composers today writing very vital and idiomatic music for the lute, I continue to question whether we are forcing the instrument to conform to a sound world that is slightly awkward for its natural voice.  An analogy may be the image of an accomplished and dignified elderly gentleman dressed in hip-hop clothes.

Polymath, Roman Turovsky shared some very insightful comments on the lute list, reproduced below:

Jazz-influenced sonorities work well on lutes, as [evidenced] by Edin’s renditions of Monk for example, or Ivano Zanenghi’s own compositions. As to purely [modernist] sound – it is utterly inappropriate for all lutes in general, and the baroque lute in particular, as the acoustical  properties of the instrument tolerate absolutely no gratuitous dissonance and/or non-traditional methods of producing sound …

Only one modernist idiom has some real potential on lutes, and that is Minimalism, due to its adherence to consonance and rhythmic interest.

Composer, lutenist, and guitarist Gilbert Isbin also commented:

Such discussion leads…to the idea of doing things better. I have been very much involved in studying polyphonic music lately, so  for my next compositions this wonderful [polyphonic] approach will be featured more…

And, of course, Ronn McFarlane is very active in performing his own brand of new music for the lute.

In the interest of disclosure, I mentioned that I am guilty of writing modern music for the lute, and feel obliged to share at least a bit to demonstrate that I’m not entirely against the idea.  I’m just wondering whether it works as well as the music that was new when the instrument was in its aesthetic prime.  The piece is my setting of Sonnet XXX by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Love is not all (click on highlighted title to listen).  The unfinished, unreleased and utterly natural recording was done in a fairly dry acoustic, but we want to show that we’re not complete Luddites – and even indulge in the occasional gratuitous dissonance.

  1. Betsy Small permalink

    like your setting very much!

    As I see it, modern music for lute can be as wonderful (or as dull) as the music originally written for it. It all depends on the piece. I am currently learning Ronn McFarlane’s “Cathedral Cave,” which is as transcendently lovely as could hope for in a piece of music! So I see no need to compare the old with the new.

    (please delete my last comment, which had a spelling error in it!)

  2. Betsy Small permalink

    Oh, and one more idea to add: I don’t “Cathedral Cave” would work as well on any other instrument as it does on the lute.
    And another example of modern music that I feel wouldn’t work as well on an instrument other than the lute is Frank Wallace’s “Woman of the Water.”

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