Time Warp: New Music Co-op Reanimates Early Music in a New Millennium

    A organistrum, a medieval precursor to the hurdy-gurdy,
    An organistrum, a medieval precursor to the hurdy-gurdy, a hand-cranked string instrument. One of several instruments members of the New Music Co-op made for their upcoming concert "Uncommon Practices." Photo by Travis Weller.


    For one night only, Austin concertgoers can experience a parallel universe in which viols buck violins and clavichords belong on the main stage.

    That time-bending scenario is the premise of the New Music Co-op concert program “Uncommon Practice: New Music for Early Instruments” Sept. 14 at the University of Texas’ Jessen Auditorium.

    A grassroots organization of composers and performers that have been sounding the horn about new music in Austin since 2001, the Co-op has hosted world renowned composers of the likes of Ellen Fullman and commissioned new works by Berlin-based Arnold Dreyblatt.

    With “Uncommon Practice,” the Co-op delves into an expansive area of music history — specifically early music, a time in which the common practices of Western music had not yet been set and there was plenty of room for many strange and wonderful performance methods and instruments. NMC will be using an array of these tools in an evening of chamber sounds that haven’t popularly been heard in centuries, but that have heard within with modern compositional attitudes.

    “We knew from the beginning, we’re not really an early music ensemble,” says composer and NMC’s executive director Travis Weller. “So it was really just about the instruments. That’s where we started with it: what if we wrote music — that we’re interested in writing — on instruments that predate Bach?

    The program features brand new works by Weller as well by local composers Andrew Stoltz, Brent Fariss, and London-based Jon Paul Mayse. The compositions all make use of sounds from the 12th- to 17th century, using instruments that very well could have become as standard as the violin is today, but, for one reason or another, never did.

    “I’ve never had an instrument before where I had to deal with cotton,” Weller says about the organistrum, the 10th-century predecessor to the hurdy-gurdy. “Just getting it to sound right has almost been an instrument building process.”

    In re-examining the potential in long-forgotten instruments, NMC is joining an ongoing renaissance (pun very much intended) of early music-influenced contemporary programming happening across the country. Early music is proving to be an area of lush possibilities for artists striving to provide audiences with new auditory experiences using old technologies.

    A vielle a Medieval precursor to the modern violin
    A vielle, a Medieval precursor to the modern violin. Photo by Travis Weller.

    Weller, Stoltz and Fariss will each be composing with instruments from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. In writing within the limitations of apparatuses like the portative organ (a small pipe organ, also called an organetto) and psaltery (a harp-like stringed instrument), the composers discovered aural idiosyncrasies that just aren’t present in the usual arsenal of contemporary Western ensemble instruments.

    “We got a real sense of what it would have been like, working with these instruments back when they were the only thing available,” Weller says. “It’s neat to sort of rewind and think about if (the trajectory of instrument development( had gone this way instead.”

    Some instruments used in the performance, like the vielle (a precursor to the violin) and the organistrum, are so rare that they only exist today as reproductions. That gathering musicians for the program a bit of challenge 

    “It’s hard to reach out to people and say ‘I need some vielle players,’” muses Weller.

    Even with instruments like the keyboard-based clavichord, which can easily be performed by 21st-century musicians, modern adjustments had to be applied. Despite its ubiquitousness among musicians of the latter half of the last millennium, the clavichord is ridiculously quiet, and can only realistically be used for practice and composition purposes — not actual concerts. For his piece that utilizes this thin-stringed keyboard, composer Stolz has expertly amplified the historically meek instrument, making it suitable for ensemble performance.

    Other pieces written for “Uncommon Practice” will repurpose instruments in ways musicians of old would have never even conceived of.

    Weller’s own composition will feature a section in which recorders, modified with the assistance of 3D printing, are tuned to the Bohlen-Pierce scale, a microtonal mode developed in the 1970s that ignores the perfect fifth and octave that Western tonality revolves around. While its proportions are close to the octave-based sounds audiences are used to, music of the Bohlen-Pierce scale produces an eerily familiar feeling.

    “It doesn’t have what you normally associate with western music, which is these really distinct senses of major and minor,” Weller explains. “There’s not a lot of tension and resolution and it just sort of floats around — it’s disorientingly consonant.”

    Fariss’ piece will make use of the harpsichord, voice and viol da gamba. Viols, despite their visual similarities, are quite dissimilar to the violin family. The bows are held underhand and were convex, and a viol usually features five to seven strings instead of the violin’s four, making it more resonant and mellow of the two families. But like the clavichord, viol melodies usually couldn’t stand out in a large ensemble, and were eventually left behind for the clearer tones of the violin family.

    Mayse will present a work he debuted in London earlier this year entitled Assembly.” Inspired by his childhood love for Legos and using only three recorders, “Assembly” is made of nine miniature movements that test the limitations of the instrument, creating mesmerizing sounds that are somewhere in between the minimalism of John Cage, the austerity of the Middle Ages, and that sound cue that summons the Oompa Loompas in the original “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” movie.

    With a single concert, the artist of the Co-op will connect the experimental attitudes of today’s music with a historical period in which the rules were also not set, and the dynamics of new musical theory and developments in musical hardware were alive every day.

    It’s actually a place, Weller says, where the artists of New Music Co-op feel most at home.

    “I was about three quarters into writing this piece and I was thinking, ‘oh my gosh, am I a Medievalist?’”