Culture: Roots of Inspiration from the Balkans; Past and Present Sounds Combine in Birmingham's Early Music Festivals, as Christopher Morley Hears

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Byline: Christopher Morley

An intriguing twist to this year's Birmingham Early Music Festivals sees music from many centuries past rubbing shoulders with works from the present day.

With the spare textures of the earliest notated music now informing much of today's contemporary output - John Tavener an obvious example - Saturday's programme at St Chad's Cathedral from expert vocal quartet Red Byrd offers revealing examples of the links between the two time-zones.

Twelfth and 13th-century conducti and organi from composers including the Parisians Leonin and Perotin rub shoulders with John Cage and Nigel Osborne. Cage's piece is his chant-like Litany of the Whale, while Osborne is represented by his BEMF commission Angel-nebulae, 20 minutes in length, and here receiving its premiere.

Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh, Nigel Osborne has in recent years become deeply interested in a number of 'very ancient musical forms that are in some ways startlingly modern': the several thousand years-old vocal polyphony of the Caucasus, music of the Byzantine and Gnostic traditions, and Moslem-related traditions of Albania and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Combined with this interest is Osborne's previous research into electro-acoustic music, resulting in an exploration of the harmonic series which emerges in passages of new-sounding intonation.

Osborne has developed a new system of notation to help his singers through these mysterious upper reaches, 'but it's nothing terribly stressful,' he assures me, 'it uses nothing that hasn't been used before, but in other circumstances. It depends very much on the musical language, and to how they tune it.

'In modal music of the 16th century, for example, we're tuning in a different way. Certain sounds can be a little bit 'brighter', because the intonation system that Bach helped to devise tends to make everything possible by a lot of compromises - but if you stop trying to make everything possible you can make music a little brighter. …