Composing new music for early instruments

Postgraduate composer Alex Glyde-Bates talks about the process of writing his new work ‘Objet d’Art’ for Trio Aporia, which was premiered at the Turner Sims Concert Hall during our ‘MUSIC @1PM’ concert series:

Last summer I was approached by flautist Stephen Preston to write a new ten-minute work for his new trio, Trio Aporia, to go in a concert of other new works to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of French composer and influential music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau. While writing for an anniversary is fairly standard fare for most composers these days, there was, however, a slight complication… Trio Aporia consisted of period instruments, the Baroque flute (played by Stephen Preston), the harpsichord (Jane Chapman) and the viola da gamba (Richard Boothby). Not only had I never written for these instruments before, but also I had never even seen the viola da gamba up close before. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I jumped at the opportunity.

Jane Chapman

As a contemporary composer, writing for historical instruments presents many complications that require having to reconsider many assumptions that often go unchallenged when writing for contemporary instruments. Firstly, many historical instruments are precursors or distant relations of the modern standardised instruments we are most familiar. This means its easy to fall into the trap of them becoming ‘false friends’, so you are always conscious of trying not to treat the Harpsichord as a piano, the Baroque flute as a modern flute. Similarly, it’s not only the technical abilities of the instrument that differ from their modern counterparts, but also their sound worlds. Most historical instruments were designed for playing in small gatherings or front rooms, not the large-scale public recitals we are used to today. This means that a composer has to a lot of ‘retuning’ of their ‘internal ear’, that they would have spent years developing and honing.

For me, in particular, there was also no escaping their historical ‘otherness’ that is so powerfully evoked by their visual appearance. To try and ignore their powerful historicity would have been an act of surrealism. Rather than trying to avoid this sense of anachronism, I decided to make it the centre of the piece itself. Taking Rameau’s fourth Pièce de clavecin en concert as my starting point, I treated Rameau’s original like a damaged archaeological object — fragments of a pot unearthed after centuries — to be reconstructed again according to modern thought. The final completed piece, Objet d’art, was completed in early January 2014 and premièred at the Turner Sims alongside the fourth and fifth Pièce de clavecin en concert, and two other new works.

Writing for historical instruments not only gave me new insights into a different sound world that I had not previously known, but by trying to immerse myself in an historical Other, it allowed me to see my previous work from a new critical distance. It highlighted to me many of the historical assumptions and habits about music, performance and composition that I had uncritically assimilated previously. By highlighting them, it has provided me with new questions to take forward into future my compositions, for whatever instruments they might be.