For all that early music and new music might seem to be antipodes, the two genres actually have a surprising amount in common. Both exist at the margins of a familiar canon that seems to grow more entrenched by the day. Each demands of a performer painstaking attention to a composer’s intentions and an embrace of sounds that can be shockingly alien.
Kivie Cahn-Lipman is emblematic of the sensibility that embraces both worlds. A cellist, Cahn-Lipman is a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, something of a superstar institution among new-music groups. He is also the founder and director of ACRONYM, a 12-member period-instrument string ensemble, in which he mostly plays viola da gamba. The group specializes in material that’s not just unfamiliar, but in most cases completely unknown. ACRONYM visits Hew Hampshire’s Electric Earth Concerts series on Friday, bringing a selection of instrumental works by the Italian composer Giovanni Valentini (1582-1649). It is almost certain to be the first performance of most of these works since the 17th century.
“I just found myself attracted to what was new and fresh, what hadn’t already been explored,” Cahn-Lipman said during a recent phone conversation. The connection to new music came, as it does for so many musicians, at college — in his case, when he was assigned to play in the contemporary music ensemble at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he met some of the future members of ICE.
His involvement with early music was more circuitous; in fact, he was initially dismissive of the whole enterprise. When he encountered Catharina Meints, one of the world’s foremost Baroque cellists and a member of the Oberlin faculty, “I would tell her that she should use more vibrato and it’d probably sound better.” Recounting this story, he did not sound as though he were joking.
Still, Cahn-Lipman started listening to historically informed recordings, which were booming during his undergraduate years. Gradually, he said, “I fell in love with the sound world.” When he began his doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on modern cello, he took an introductory viola da gamba class and managed to find his way around the instrument. It was the only period-instrument class he’s ever had. (His bio on the ACRONYM website refers to him as its “accidental director” — fitting, he said, for someone who had virtually no early-music training.)
Eventually, Cahn-Lipman simply decided that he wanted to do something professionally in early music, and gathered together a bunch of string- and continuo-playing colleagues. Thus was born ACRONYM, dedicated to exploring “stuff that hasn’t been played before. I’m treating it almost as a new-music project, because I’m trying to bring to light forgotten works by forgotten composers.”
That certainly describes Valentini, about whose life not many details are known. He was born in Venice and probably studied with Giovanni Gabrieli. His patron was the Archduke Ferdinand II, who would become Holy Roman Emperor in 1619. Valentini followed him to Vienna, where he was employed in the Emperor’s court and oversaw Viennese musical life for much of two decades.
Why is this obscure composer’s music worth reviving? Simply because it’s so strange, at least by the standards of the time. Some pieces are thick with chromaticism; others alternate between keys so harmonically distant that it creates an impression of dissonance. Still others include passages that flip back and forth between odd meters.
With one exception — the “Enharmonic Sonata” — none of the music Cahn-Lipman tracked down and arranged appears to have been performed since Valentini’s time. When he’s played MIDI files of his performing scores for friends, he said, the most frequent response has been, “this guy is crazy. There are a couple of these sonatas that almost come across like the results of doing one’s [music] theory homework while heavily intoxicated. Things that just shouldn’t happen in music of the Baroque are happening in this music.”
The novelty is largely due to Valentini’s own proclivity for experimentation. But it’s also a facet of the early Baroque, which is one reason Cahn-Lipman is so attracted to this period.
“What I love the most about early 17th-century music is that so many unexpected things happen,” he explained. “I think a lot of people hear the term ‘Baroque’ and they think Vivaldi, Corelli, Bach, Telemann. And I love that repertoire. But everything’s been standardized . . . I’m very rarely surprised by any music that I hear post-1700. But this early 17th century [stuff], nothing’s been codified yet. And they’ll do anything, harmonically and melodically, go anywhere.”
Asked what he hoped a listener would get from Friday’s concert, Cahn-Lipman again spoke about the music as though it had just been composed, something both new and old, unorthodox but also ear-opening.
“This is beautiful music,” he said. “It’s a little strange and it’s beautiful and it’s ancient. It’s almost 400 years old, and you’re the first audience to hear it since it was written. And that’s just really fun. I love being the first one to hear something, exploring new sounds. And they’re really old sounds, but they’re also really fresh.”David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.