LILLIE HARRIS - Old Wood, New Music
Traditional Baroque instruments (and those from earlier as well) are probably not the first instruments one would think of when imagining the world of ‘contemporary classical music’; theremins, musical saws, electric violins and computers seem more likely bedfellows - but as a contemporary composer, I can’t help but be drawn to the new sounds offered by these old friends.
I was first exposed to the thriving world of historical performance by my neighbour in the Royal College of Music student halls, a lovely Cornish girl who played the recorder. There had only been one person who played the recorder ‘properly’ at my secondary school, so I was intrigued. Once I saw the beautiful way in which she stored all her recorder parts - made of patterned material and looking more like a nifty toolkit than an instrument case - I was hooked.
Well, it wasn’t just the general loveliness of how the instruments and accessories looked. The real start of my relationship with historical instruments was Baroque dancing.
What started as a throwaway comment on my friend’s part led to me tagging along to weekly historical dance lessons at the top of the south building with the historical performance department, which was designed to demonstrate to the players the original intentions of the music they play every day. Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of the music played in the classes (by live musicians! how decadent!) was by Jean-Baptiste Lully, music director to King Louis XIV’s court; when pushed to name my favourite composer, I always feel a tug towards this adopted-French master.
This is all still pretty historical. But what it did give me was an appreciation for the vibrancy, versatility, unique timbres and distinctive flavours of old instruments: flat-backed viols, gut strings, the underhand bow grip that makes the ‘push’ stronger, contrary to the modern violin family, and the flexibility of pitch and tone offered by instruments that pre-date modern temperament.
It was probably a combination of close friendships with a number of wonderful people who play the instruments, thus giving me a detailed insight into their sounds and functionality, and being selected twice for the National Centre of Early Music’s Composer Competition that drew me into the mindset of seeing historical instruments as useful (and favoured) tools to express new, modern music. In 2013, the NCEM final included a workshop with Florilegium, which in the gorgeous setting of the NCEM’s centre in the converted medieval St Margaret’s church in York was an illuminating experience. I had written a fusion piece, melding a Baroque-style melody with the Adzogbo rhythm common across many African cultures; the percussive, ‘spitty’ and unusual sounds ended up being my favourite, as the particularly human, vocal quality of the recorder and the richer, brighter tone of the Baroque cello had a cohesiveness that I probably would not have felt had the ensemble been on modern cello and flute, for example. The piece was a fun experiment that left me eager to go further.
Another workshop at the Royal College of Music, this time with Fretwork, meant investigating viols in a contemporary context. I ended up being much less enamoured with what I had actually written than with the sound of the ensemble - dissonance on gut stringed viols comes across significantly darker and more piercing than on modern instruments. There can be quite a sharp edge to the higher tenor and treble viols; more so than I had imagined, having lived on the other side of the wall to a viola da gamba player’s practice room.
With gut strings, flat backs and sloped shoulders, and differently-shaped resonance holes to violins, the quality of sound on a viol is different: to me, it’s more metallic (ironically), darker but also sharper, more fragile and more vocal than modern instruments. The fact that their sound is synonymous with Renaissance and Baroque styles means that their natural phrasing and harmonisation is distinctly different to Classical and Romantic music - so just like fashion, what was once commonplace became outdated, only to become exotic again.
What’s also inviting for me as a composer is viol tuning: they mostly have six or seven strings, tuned in fourths with a third in the middle. Not only does this mean that larger spread chords with fuller harmonies are possible, and a wider range of double-stopped intervals possible (compared to the four-stringed violin family, each a fifth apart), but this is part of the difference in resonance: with more strings to resonate, and more fundamental pitches amongst those strings to set multiple harmonic frequencies happily oscillating away, the ‘cloud’ of sound produced by a single tone is very different to the violin family and so offers a completely new sound-world before you’ve even started. I would say this goes a good way to explaining why (to me at least) contemporary styles speak very effectively on these instruments - their overall sound already puts you elsewhere in time, why not have the actual music take you elsewhere too?
I think my favourite member of the historical instrument group thus far for creating contemporary music is trying to be a recorder, but quite obviously is something newer: the paetzold, a miraculous recent addition to the family. It is made of wood with a mouth-piece shaped quite like a recorder’s, but is very square, has a greater range of dynamics and articulation and has keys. This means an enormous range of key clicks, trills, slaps, whistling, breathing, ‘tutting’, and multiphonics are possible, whilst still retaining a core timbre very similar to a traditional recorder. It is easily amplified, and in an ensemble can have various sounds, including almost organ-like.
Its versatility and expressiveness are an absolute delight to work with - there is an awful lot it can do, a nice big green light that composers just love; one of my favourite pieces thus far (both in writing, and in performing) was written for that Cornish friend on her great bass paetzold, amplification and electronics.
Could we be entering an historical-contemporary age? An age that rediscovers the enormous range of sonic possibilities available to new composers on old and ‘reimagined-old’ instruments? Lead on, I say.
In July 2016 Lillie Harris graduated from the Royal College of Music, London, having earned a First Class BMus (Hons) degree. At RCM Lillie studied with Haris Kittos and was awarded the Elgar Memorial Prize for her final portfolio. Last year, she was in the RSNO's first Composers Hub, and notably the RSNO performed her piece 'remisipate' as part of their Season Finale concerts. Other recent performances of Lillie's work have included the National Centre of Early Music Composers Competition Final in 2013 and 2014, a commission for the Gaudier Ensemble as part of the Cerne Abbas festival's 25th anniversary in July 2015, in October 2015, her piece 'Pleura' which was played alongside eight other commissions at Kings Place in the Equator: Women of the World festival, and more recently the RSNO's ensemble Alchemy performing 'Red.' in their brand new hall at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow. In July 2016 Lillie's piece 'wavelet' for mixed ensemble was workshopped and performed by Ensemble Recherche, with guidance from Tristan Murail.