To my understanding, after the voice, the flute and the drum are old as human-made instruments get. Even the most cursory research into the past reveals their ubiquity in various cultures on several continents; it’s not very difficult to imagine why. Stretched skins, hollowed wood – attractive resonant properties can make themselves apparent quite easily. But I do love to ponder what role music might have had for people who lived before writing; perhaps too narrowly, we imagine ancient music’s kinship with the sacred, the ritual, the earthly and heavenly, the religious. It is true that an enormous amount of all music that has ever been composed or performed was intended for a sacred event of some kind. And, while I like to imagine that some our ancestors just loved a good jam here and there, I think the old habit we have of using sound (however produced or organized) to connect with the biggest questions of life, death and the universe is essential to making us - over all these many millennia - us.
Old Instruments is the result of a long creative gestation for me. I’ve been thinking about this work for 6 years, after a conversation with New Mexico native Joshua Smith in a car from Albuquerque to Santa Fe between SFCMF performances in 2015. I wanted to make something big for a small number of players and thought for a long time of what to pair a single flute with. In the end the answer was obvious, and asking our friend Jacob to join on the project was only the beginning. They are two of the finest musicians (far more than good players of old instruments) I know. I felt encouraged to do the big thing I wanted to do, and I feel it’s important to say this: I’ve not enjoyed composing a piece of music more than this one in at least two decades. I dedicate it to them, in the hope that it will mean even half as much to them as it does to me.
The movement themselves are titled poetically – that is, without any specific reference to any specific place, time, culture or tradition; although one might find plenty to be reminded of in each movement. The idea of a ritual, or of meditation, or the concept of a cycle (year, life; generational, eternal) could all be considered universal, and for me this is why the piece is a bit of a love letter to Santa Fe itself. It’s a place with strong traditions and the continuing presence of (at very minimum) three major cultural influence in coexistence and, one hopes, a little respectful cross-pollination. It’s old. It’s sharply defined. It’s open and in flux. And it’s very special.
-- Sean Shepherd