Preservation That's Instrumental

Article excerpt

Whether they are playing early music or 1960s electronic compositions, musicians often struggle to find instruments that don't become obsolete before the music does.

In an onstage interview during an evening of music by Kaija Saariaho at Zankel Hall this spring in New York, Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall's director of artistic planning, asked Ms. Saariaho a provocative question, suggested by the nature of the music she was presenting.

Although she writes prolifically for conventional ensembles, Ms. Saariaho also composes electronic music, and the works performed that evening not only combined live voices with recorded or electronically altered live sounds but also had video components, by Jean-Baptiste Barriere, that combined live and recorded elements.

That's a lot of technology, and several glowing Apple laptops sat on the mixing desk at the back of the hall, running it all.

But in a preamble to his question Mr. Geffen noted that he had once visited the old Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where Milton Babbitt, Otto Luening and other electronic music pioneers composed on the room-size RCA Mark II Synthesizer, which was state of the art when it was built in 1958. Anyone who had ever worked with electronic music could see where Mr. Geffen was going: visions of 1960s vintage Moog modules, 1970s Buchla boxes and 1980s Atari computers passed before your eyes. Mr. Geffen wanted to know how Ms. Saariaho deals with the technological change that renders an electronic composers' tools archaic with alarming frequency.

This, Ms. Saariaho acknowledged, was one of her worst nightmares. Several works on her program dated to the 1980s and '90s. The technology behind them had to be revisited before they could be revived.

Composers and new-music performers, meet the early-music world. Harpsichordists, viola da gamba players and devotees of wooden flutes, valveless horns and archaic string instruments feel your pain, though only to a degree. Specialists in music from the Middle Ages through the early Romantic era have a thriving support industry to rely on: a world of instrument builders who use antique designs to reproduce the timbres and tactile qualities of early keyboards, strings, woodwinds, brasses and percussion instruments.

The parallels are not exact of course. Everything moves immensely faster today than it did in, say, 1800, and instruments (the term now including computers and music-creation programs) that push the limits of possibility today may well be landfill three years from now. Whether this is a function of relentless creativity and innovation or corporate profit lust -- planned obsolescence run amok -- the bottom line is the same: You have to scramble to keep your music playable.

That said, period-instrument players can point to times of rapid flux as well. Anyone who attended the Boston Early Music Festival in 2009 might have run into a minifestival of pianoforte music in which players demonstrated a great variety of transitional pianos, each with strikingly different characteristics of tone and touch.

For performers of the historically informed persuasion this is a complicated issue. Discussing the pianos, some players expressed preferences for one maker's style over another's, but most agreed that the more pertinent issue was which pianos particular composers played or owned, and whether their works bear evidence that they had specific instruments in mind.

Even musicians who take a less fine-grained approach believe that modern reproductions of period instruments should capture not only the timbres but also the broader experience that musicians of former times had when they sat down to play. The transaction involved in performing a bass line on a harpsichord, for example, is a complex interplay of tensions and time lags, a result of a sequence of actions that starts with the player depressing a key and ends with a quill plucking a string. …