New Music on Old Instruments, Part II: The Baroque Time Machine

Brett Campbell on September 26, 2017
New Vintage Baroque

Baroque is back. Once the province of period instrument orchestras that sought to replicate the sound of 16th-18th-century European court and church music, Baroque music is enjoying the latest in a series of revivals. Some of today’s leading composers are using the instruments and sometimes even the forms of Baroque music to create 21st-century sounds that appeal to broader and younger audiences than most contemporary compositions can reach — and in America, the Bay Area is leading the way.

As we noted last month, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra exemplifies the trend with its New Music for Old Instruments initiative, which debuts this month, and its simultaneous premiere of a new oratorio by leading British composer Sally Beamish. Last year, the San Francisco Symphony premiered Mason Bates’s Auditorium, which combined modern orchestra with processed recordings of a baroque ensemble, with the electronic part composed of original neo-Baroque music recorded on period instruments. “Auditorium rises out of my love for 18th-century music, which I’d not delved into until recently,” Bates told SFCV’s Lou Fancher. “Baroque instruments weren’t powerhouses of engineering. It required effort to create particular sounds, which makes them sound scared, vulnerable … but man, there’s a whole lot more energy with which musicians had to play. It’s like pre-bluegrass.”

A few weeks later, PBO performed a new work, Red, Red Rose, commissioned from Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw. Then San Francisco Choral Artists and Galax Quartet joined forces to perform classics by Henry Purcell and J. S. Bach alongside premieres by Ted Allen, Veronika Krausas, Robinson McClellan, Roy Whelden, John Kelley, and Shawn Crouch, and composer Sheli Nan presented An Oratorio for Our Time — Last Stop Cafe at the Berkeley Fringe Festival. Just last December, Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill performed a concert of music imbued by that quintessential Baroque form, the Chaconne, including a new work by Bay Area composer Daniel Clay.

PBO co-commissioned director Christopher Alden’s “reimagining” of Handel’s 1708 dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with added video, sound design, and new electronic music (during the recitatives) by Mark Grey. This summer’s premiere at New York’s National Sawdust featured period instrument ensemble Ruckus and opera singers.

International Phenomenon

Markku Luolajan-Mikkola

Last spring, the same venue premiered Orphic Moments, a production that paired a new cantata by one of America’s hottest young composers, Matthew Aucoin, with an old Gluck opera. Around the same time, New York composer David Chesky issued a new album called Orchestra Of The 21st Century: The Venetian Concertos, with new music based on the Italian concerto grosso form. Celebrated New York new music violist Nadia Sirota even produced an album of music by some of today’s hottest young composers called simply Baroque.

Of course, Europe — birthplace of Baroque music and the 1960s historically informed performance movement, has its own contemporary Baroque movement. Last year, the Reykjavík early-music quartet Nordic Affect addressed that country’s lack of actual Baroque music by commissioning scores for their period instruments, sometimes augmented with electronics.

Finnish Baroque cellist and viola da gamba player Markku Luolajan-Mikkola and young harpsichordists Christopher D. Lewis (who studied at San Francisco Conservatory) and Stanford graduate Mahan Esfahani all specialize in new music for old instruments.

Mahan Esfahani | Credit: Marco Borggreve

“The harpsichord opened me up to modern music,” Esfahani told The New York Times. “Who would have thought?”

Except for the instrumental sonorities, most of this new music sounds like it originated in the 21st century. But some of it also reflects a growing interest in using the actual forms and styles of Baroque music — counterpoint, improvisation, and so on — in new works. In southern California, the young, neo-Baroque chamber orchestra Kontrapunktus has announced its inaugural season and a new album; the compositions by Los Angeles native Mark Moya actually sound a lot like actual Baroque music, venturing dangerously — or delightfully — into pastiche and not merely using the sonorities of period instruments. Early in this century, Moya founded Vox Saeculorum, an organization of composers devoted to contemporary composition in Baroque styles. Up the West Coast in Portland, the period instrument ensemble Broken Consort (recently relocated from the East Coast) this month makes its debut with a concert of American music from the 16th century to the present, and just recorded a new album of original music composed by its leader, singer Emily Lau.

Prominent nonspecialist composers are getting into the act, including Shaw’s compositions for PBO and a new piece from one of the leading American composers of his generation, Portland’s Kenji Bunch, whose Apocryphal Dances (performed by members of Portland Baroque Orchestra) is a suite of five dances loosely based on Baroque forms like Rigaudon, Pasacaille, Musette and so on. Even younger composers ranging from not yet well known (Patrick Dittamo) to emerging stars (Gregory Spears’s lovely Requiem on the hip New Amsterdam record label) to world famous (Nico Muhly) are bringing their affection for Baroque music to new compositions. Muhly’s collaboration with Faroese singer/songwriter Teitur Lassen, Confessions, with Holland Baroque paired the newest imaginable lyrics — culled from comments on YouTube videos — and modern rhythms with ancient instruments.

“The distance between contemporary listening and Baroque music is one of the most heartbreaking and interesting things,” Muhly said. “Most of the music I like is from the 17th century or before. It’s a tradition that never stopped—a small tradition, a specific one. There is something incredibly direct about Baroque music and Baroque instruments.” 

Periodic Revivals

You could argue that Baroque music never stopped, as composers from Stravinsky to Strauss, Ravel to Reich, periodically rediscovered and mined the era, particularly Bach’s music. Lou Harrison, a pupil of the “ultramodernist” Bay Area composer Henry Cowell who also admired English virginal composers, Handel, and other Baroque masters, studied and performed in a rare early music ensemble at San Francisco State in the 1930s. Baroque forms (from rondeaux and chaconnes to even earlier techniques like estampies) grace his repertoire from the 1940s through his 2000 Harpsichord Sonata. Earlier, he even used a tack piano to simulate harpsichord. As Harrison and others showed and today’s composers continue to demonstrate, Baroque forms are malleable enough to accommodate all kinds of techniques, old and new.

Sally Beamish | Credit: Ashley Coombes

“There’s always been a fascination among contemporary composers with Baroque and the simplicity of Renaissance music,” says Sally Beamish, citing fellow Brits like Peter Maxwell Davies and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. “There’s something about that era of music that lends itself to more variation on simple and strong themes. It’s definitely happening more these days. Many ensembles that have sprung up over the last 40 years are beginning to commission new music. It’s a fascinating development.”

After World War I, modernist composers shared the Baroque revivalists’ rejection of Romanticism. And after modernism’s midcentury heyday, Baroque music with its emphasis on “affect” proved a useful model for postmodernists like Harrison who wanted to bring back emotion — often rejected by modernists who blamed it for the horrors of the 20th century — without what many now view as the rhetorical excesses of 19th-century Romanticism. Minimalists like Steve Reich used early music singers who avoided Romantic vibrato, and motoric rhythms reminiscent of Bach. And groups like American Baroque and others have performed and commissioned new music for period instruments for decades.

Reasons for Revival

Galax Quartet

New Baroque music offers many advantages to composers, listeners, and performers. “Early performance practice has scaled back on a few excesses of mainstream practice,” says Roy Whelden of the Bay Area’s Galax Quartet. “I remember talking to the composer Carl Stone about this. He stated quite bluntly that he was ‘allergic’ to many aspects of modern performance practice—things like continuous vibrato, unthinking application of equal temperament, heedless portamento, etcetera. He did appreciate that the Galax Quartet thought about those aspects of performance.”

For contemporary composers, ever in search of new sounds, the silken, transparent sounds of period instruments provide an even greater acoustic richness and nuance than either electronic or big-hall orchestras — and a ready-made corps of players. Moreover, microtonal composers may appreciate the wider emotional range afforded by Baroque tunings, which those composers used expressively in ways denied to today’s equal tempered instruments.

Beyond such stylistic preferences, practical considerations also favor today’s resurgence of Baroque-influenced music. Most modern orchestras are complex, expensive operations modeled on 19th-century configurations. It can be costly and time consuming to compose for them, so most contemporary “classical” music arises in chamber ensembles, usually similar in size to Baroque bands, and they perform in smaller, cheaper spaces that afford their own advantages. Thanks to the now three-generation-old early music revival, many of those small ensembles are composed of trained, often youthful, early music specialists who can perform in less expensive settings. Just as with contemporary composers, many of today’s classical musicians are also looking back to the Baroque.

“One of the things that period instrument orchestras have done is take music out of hallowed concert halls and put it into smaller, more informal spaces,” McGegan says. “A lot of Baroque music is heard up close and personal rather than from row X, which is great place to feel more involved in the music. So, I’m going for flexibility in every possible way what music is performed, including how it’s performed and where it is performed. I think Philharmonia can be part of that.”

Wrinkle in Time

Whatever the reason, the last generation or so has seen an aesthetic and practical intersection between exponents of new music and baroque music.

“The rise of the early music movement since the ‘50s and our re-introduction to these colorful instruments from around the world has ignited the imagination of many composers,” says Broken Consort’s Emily Lau. “The other reason is that most of the early music experts, especially those who are fearless improvisers, are also big contemporary music performers/composers. The two ‘opposite’ fields seem to attract the same type of creative energies. Both fields are technically and rhetorically demanding, and require the drive to explore the unknown with determination.”

Majel Connery | Credit: Ken Ueno

“There is a tendency for new music singers and instrumentalists to also play early music, to stop at 1750 and then skip ahead to the 1960s and on to the present,” says Berkeley-based singer and composer Majel Connery. “Somehow those sound worlds are assumed to be complementary. As a vocalist, I’m best suited to singing Berio and Monteverdi. The music I treasure is very recent or very old. It’s almost like a wrinkle in time where those two periods have folded over on each other in really inspiring way.”

Connery recently worked with one of the most prominent, future-oriented, HIP ensembles, New York’s New Vintage Baroque, a period instrument ensemble founded in 2011 by young Baroque oboist Lindsay McIntosh and dedicated to the creation of 21st-century repertoire for early instruments. Composed of young graduates from Juilliard School’s new historical performance program, the band presents a monthly curated series at National Sawdust called Table Music that pairs food and historically informed music and has performed and commissioned music by Spears, NVB member Doug Balliett (a rap cantata cycle!), and a song cycle co-written by composer-performer collective Oracle Hysterical (Connery, Elliot Cole, and Doug and Brad Balliett), with whom it shares a viola da gamba player. With influences ranging from the Beatles (who owed much to classical music) to My Brightest Diamond to English Baroque composer John Blow, their album Passionate Pilgrim, which came out last spring on New York’s adventurous VisionIntoArt label, stands as a signature expression of the 21st-century Baroque revival.

Oracle Hysterical | Credit: Nick Lorden

As with other historically informed groups, instrumentation inspired innovation. “In Oracle, we have a very awkward instrumentation: bassoon, upright bass, viola da gamba, and harmonium and piano,” Connery explains. “So, we like to approach other groups and learn to write for a new ensemble each time.” With Passionate Pilgrim, that meant learning to write for period instruments. “I imagined that learning to write for Baroque instruments would mean throttling way back,” Connery recalls. “Instead of an Audi and Porsche, now I’d be working with a Model T Ford. That was really wrong-headed on my part!”

Connery and her colleagues discovered “there’s a way that Baroque instruments are expansive and open ended in a way modern instruments are not. In Baroque, pitch is a forest of possibilities. We spend so much time on tuning in Baroque practice. It’s a way of listening and making music we’re really unfamiliar with today. We discovered that modern and baroque bassoons can play side by side” despite playing in different tunings (Baroque singers and musicians use a lower frequency of 415 Hz for the tuning A, whereas modern instruments are tuned to 440 Hz.).

Mixing tunings and instruments from different periods like that opens up new possibilities for composers, says NVB’s Lindsay McIntosh. “We’re trying now to experiment with how we can work together with modern counterparts,” she says. “Dipping our toes into the ocean of modern and baroque together, we’re finding we have all these colors available. That creates this really cool new world we’re in.”

Like McGegan and his PBO colleagues, Connery says, young musicians at San Francisco Conservatory who subscribe to historical performance practice “want to shed the notion of dusty, historically fixed repertoire. It’s not just playing Telemann and Monteverdi, it’s also about opening baroque instruments to the possibility of playing new music or in this case pop music. So, you have to have Baroque players willing to make that leap with you.”

They found them in NVB, whose musicians were eager to try everything from punk to Beatles licks to sounds recalling contemporary pop singer/harpist Joanna Newsom, a Nevada City native and one-time Mills College student.

“It’s harder for them to get to the same places can get, but when they get there it’s achieved so much more,” Connery says. “It wouldn’t necessarily be special if we had written for a modern ensemble, but there’s something timbrally compelling about these tunes because of the baroque instruments’ analog quality. Like with the revival of vinyl LPs, people intuit an authenticity to the sound, a depth, a historicity. There’s a perpetual search to find new sounds, and we’re finding cool new sounds in a much earlier place.”

Lindsay McIntosh

Connery found a sympathetic ear in NVB founder Lindsay McIntosh. “Composers are getting back to the natural sound of a lot of these instruments,” the Northern California native explains. “These composers are ready and open to hearing this new sound. They love the flexibility, the new timbres of sound, the intimate feeling you can get. They want to write something gorgeously lyric and want to capitalize on these colors we can get that they can’t get with a modern ensemble. These new works, written for these older instruments, are less avant-garde, but with a weird 21st-century spin.” Baroque forms invited today’s composers, like yesterday’s, to gravitate toward ornamentation and improvisation that historically trained musicians enjoy.

And she’s finding a whole corps of other young players and composers who also prefer the intimate salon feeling that the smaller ensembles of soft instruments allow compared to expensive-to-rent concert halls. But she’s finding that few programs exist to train composers in writing for so called “obsolete” instruments, so NVB’s collaborations with composers necessarily devote a lot of time to explaining how to write for their instruments. She’s contemplating a book that would teach composers how to write for Baroque instruments.

Those composer collaborations at Juilliard and beyond remind her of the days when Baroque instruments were new. “You get to help create something new when the composer’s sitting there with you. It feels like we’re sitting in the choir loft with Bach or Lully,” with composers distributing hot-off-the-printer scores.”

Audience Appeal

Even more important than their appeal to composers and performers, the new Baroque music appeals to a broad range of listeners — and not just those who already cherish the originals. Baroque music’s emphasis on definable beats may appeal to listeners and pop culture-aware composers raised on pop’s regular rhythms, also born in dance. And Connery, who also runs a similarly inspired opera company, Opera Cabal, says HIP performance’s smaller scale and intimate sound even liberates composers to write more accessibly.

“If opera is a big button that goes to 50, we can dial that down to 18 or 22 and it’s more approachable without dumbing things down,” she says. “For a long time, I did music that was complex, harsh, atonal, and difficult to listen to because I believed that’s what I was trained to do. Those of us in conservatories are trained to think that complex and difficult music is what good art is. After shows, people would wander up to me with blank looks. I’m finally realizing that I want to reach people by composing and performing music that’s likable for lots of people.”

 The Baroque revival offers an ideal place to do that. “In a world so fast-paced these days, everything is so big and disconnected, to play Baroque music in smaller settings offers something so unique,” McIntosh says. “People are wanting to go back to that communal music making.”