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
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
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
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. …