Soundstreams exists to strengthen public engagement with new Canadian music and music theatre/opera through innovative musical experiences.


What does music of the 21st century sound like on ancient instruments?

By Felix Mills, Community Engagement Manager

Viola da Gamba ca. 1680

Diving into soundworlds – if you’re reading our blog, this likely piques your interest. Or, maybe you’re not sure and curious to explore. As Soundstreams gets ready for Improvised Components on March 6th at Drake Underground, we’re doing some exploring of our own, looking into the creation of new music using old (or ancient) instruments. Why did this practice arise? How has it occurred over time and what does it sound like today?


The 20th century has many examples of using old instruments to create new sounds. In “western classical music,” it can be suggested that this came about as an attempt to reckon with looming composer giants of bygone classical eras, while also reacting to changing modern circumstances (World War 1 especially influenced a move away from the flowery grandiosity of romantic music).

Leon Botstein, Music Director of American Symphony Orchestra writes on the ever-changing perceptions of music, instruments, and composers of the past and how “neoclassicism can be understood as a reaction to modernity,” meaning that looking to the past was a way to confront changing times. Botstein also posits the idea that 19th-century western music, intertwined with technological advancements in the design of spaces and new instruments, as well as dramatic emotional storytelling, can be compared to trends in popular film today, but that music of the 20th century began to move away from that:

instrumental music began regularly to suggest an emotionally evocative storyline and to use hyperbolic gestures and spectacle to help engage the listener’s sympathies, much like the larger-than-life cinema of today, which takes a comparable pride in technological progress and innovation […] all this came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I.


Now, in our post-modern world, alongside blockbuster entertainment and highly dramatic art, how do contemporary music composers continue to look to tools of the past for creating new exploratory and contemplative soundworlds? At Soundstreams, we enjoy finding out what explorations of this nature sound like in the 21st century. There have definitely been recent revivals of baroque instruments (such as viola da gamba), and you can certainly hear this for yourself within work featured at Improvised Components.


For a taste of artists that Soundstreams is working with, within these realms, see our blog post of UpStream: Further Listening (and watching!) for Improvised Components.

Or, in the playlist below, you can listen to the otherworldly sounds of Mauricio Kagel’s Music for Renaissance Instruments, a meeting of baroque and modern sounds in Nico Muhly’s Dog and Frog and Linda Catlin-Smith’s Ricercar, written for baroque cello.

Tickets for Improvised Components, March 6th at Drake Underground, are SOLD OUT, but some standing room will become available. Join our Facebook event to keep up to date.