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Saturday morning quotes 4.10: New music for lute

July 19, 2014

Now in its fourth year, Unquiet Thoughts was and is primarily an outlet for musings on music for the lute and how it does or does not fit into the aesthetics of modern life. In our ever-growing archive of essays, one of the more frequently visited posts posed a handful of questions that asked whether the lute was an appropriate medium for modern sounds.

Originally designed to convey quiet and intimate music for ears that could hear detail and nuance that would be disturbed by the sound of a mouse, the lute still likes quiet music and does not respond well to the force necessary to be audible to modern ears.  But quiet, subtle music that demands a tiny bit of concentrated listening offers our modern ears a moment of respite from the constant mechanical or electronic din that is so much a part of life that it seems normal.  We could do with less background noise and more music for lute.

There are currently several composers actively crafting new music for the lute, and a few web sites that link to individuals who have music on offer. Lynda Sayce and Susan King have a site that has a comprehensive list of composers and their works. Peter Croton hosts a more recently compiled listing of composers including the prolific Brian Wright. Gilbert Isbin is also a very active composer and, like Brian Wright, has published quite a bit of his of his music through the Lute Society (UK). Ronn McFarlane –  whose original lute solos were published by Mignarda Editions and are now available through the Lute Society (UK) –  regularly performs his own music with his ensemble Ayreheart.

Nearly every professional lutenist active today started out playing the lute’s modern relative, the guitar. So it’s no wonder that much new music for the lute bears the stamp of this more universally known and accepted instrument.  It is very difficult to shake off the influences of 400 years of changing musical style and instrumental techniques that have intervened since the lute was in its heyday.  But the lute has particular characteristics that don’t always transfer from the sound and playing techniques specific to the guitar.

We are involved in our own project of composing modern lute songs, and below is a short summary of personal observations that point towards effective use of the resources of the lute in this medium.

1. Resonance. The lute responds to the resonance of open strings and this resource should be used as often as possible.  Cross-string resonance that allows dissonant intervals to mingle gently is a particularly pleasant characteristic of the instrument, and the relative quiet volume of the lute does not create the jangly jarring dissonance that one expects from the more robust guitar.

2. Polyphony. The lute loves transparent lines and sounds better when there is more than one audible part.  Dense counterpoint is more difficult to manage on the lute than on keyboard instruments but it is surprising just how well it can work.  Music for the baroque lute is more akin to later music for guitar with a treble and bass texture, but music for the old tuning on a lighter instrument can handle clear polyphony in two or more parts if attention is paid to intelligent fingerings and use of open strings.

3. Range and keys. Renaissance lute tuning favors the keys of G and C and the flat keys (F, B-flat, E-flat) and their relative minors.  Music in sharp keys typical to guitar can be managed but the resonance disappears when playing in closed positions: Typically, a lutenist will simply transpose guitar music to lute-friendly keys that produce similar fingerings.  Ideally, the higher positions are used sparingly, again because the resonance disappears.  The higher frets of the lute are glued to the top of the instrument and touching the top reduces volume.

4. Style. Spiky, jangly angular music does not charm the ear. Why not compose that sort of music for other instruments that can handle those effects?  The lute invites the listener into the sound-world rather than projecting outward.  When listeners make themselves vulnerable by entering that quiet sound-world, why not give them a positive experience?

This last item leads us to today’s quote by composer, John David Lamb, who has not to our knowledge composed any music specifically for lute, but has such an intelligent and appealing approach to composing that we are compelled to share his words.

As artists we can choose to be accessible or we can choose to be prickly, or even sometimes one and sometimes the other.  I do not believe that being accessible is the same as pandering.  Nor do I believe that a prickly piece is necessarily more sophisticated, profound, or content-laden because it is obscure.  The important thing is that the content should bear some relationship to the amount of effort required to get at it.  If a work demands that a listener quarry every last ounce of meaning, then the meaning had better be worth the struggle.  I think audiences respond well to art when they are given some reason to believe that the artist actually has something to say, and it is up to the artist to give them that reason.

I try to keep in mind that at the same time that I am an artist, I am also an entertainer whose art requires that the consumer sit quietly for a while.  This is a considerable responsibility, and as I write I have in the back of my mind, is this really worth sitting still for? This is often a sobering thought, and it has caused me to throw away many a page that at first glance seemed acceptable, if not actually good.  Future audiences will be grateful! I like to think the pages I have saved can stand on their own merits and that they will give pleasure to performers and listeners alike.

– John David Lamb, from the essay, Why I Write The Way I Do (Summer, 1997)


This blog post was composed hurriedly and, while not meant to include a comprehensive list of modern composers for the lute, overlooked mentioning one of the more prolific contributors, Roman Turovsky.

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