MUSIC / Ancient and modern: Nicholas Williams on a Stephen Montague premiere by the Hilliard Ensemble at the ambitious new Ranmore Festival in Surrey

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Starting an arts festival in today's economic climate is like starting a business - hazardous. Yet last weekend, in a heavily wooded and surprisingly remote part of Surrey between Horsley and Box Hill, the inhabitants of Ranmore took the plunge. From Friday to Sunday all kinds of music filled the local church of St Barnabas, most of the performances homegrown, ranging from piano-trio 'lollipops' to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. Local enthusiasm was clearly the driving force here. Yet there was also space for a prestigious international group giving a world premiere: the Hilliard Ensemble performing Stephen Montague's Boom Box Virelai.

Both choices proved inspired: the deft combination of 13th- and 20th-century popular song in the new piece complementing the millennium of musical styles presented in the Hilliard's 'Sound Patterns' programme. Montague's idea was simple, the pleasure of the thing to be found in the wit of its execution. Verses of an anonymous medieval song, or virelai, sung in the original French and then in English by solo tenor, were accompanied by a collage of clicks, hisses and buzzes impersonating the violent delivery of New York rap - the boom box. Reciting the tale of a girl too nave to be wooed, the song was touching and immediate, its ironic method emphasised by a fleet- footed pulse making it the recital's show-piece and practically the only fast music of the evening.

Not that it stood out as a consequence. Casting back to the first half, it was possible to hear a resemblance between the lay-out of Montague's solo verses and those of Perotin's 12th-century Beata viscera - but with the rap backing replaced by one of quiet humming. And if the mind refused to be stilled by John Cage's Litany for the Whale, it was interesting none the less to draw parallels between the enforced serenity of its mantra-like repetitions, and the natural tranquillity emanating from Reginarum dominarum, the earliest surviving polyphony, dated c 1170, sung by Rogers Covey- Crump and Gordon Jones.

This limpidly decorated scrap of plainsong was anonymous, like the three 14th-century motets also heard in the first half, each piece being constructed from four separate strands of Latin texts sung simultaneously. For the remaining 20th-century music featured by the Hilliards, anonymity, or an emptying out of the personality, seemed a spiritual ideal achieved by the ethereal quality of unaccompanied male voices, and by the use of tensionless post-modern tonality that has come to symbolise, for many, a state of transcendence.

Arvo Part's Summa, a setting of the creed, showed in its endlessly repeated ladder of ascending and descending arpeggios all the hallmarks that have made him high priest of this manner. The slowly unfolding scales, Tavener-like, at the beginning of Ivan Moody's Three Short Pieces from 'The Song of Songs', displayed our richer, more generous native way of doing it. Gavin Bryars' Glorious Hill was the exception, composed in a madrigalian form that accepted traditional notions of harmony and counterpoint as expressive adjuncts to its unusual pre- Renaissance text concerning the dignity of man.

For the audience, eager to accept the challenge of new and old, the Hilliards were the weekend's highlight. They will be a hard act to follow next year, but the festival will define itself by looking outward and inward - and turning its isolation to advantage.

Yet encouraging developments at Ranmore contrast with an overall view in which these singers now find most of their work abroad, and record for a German company. It's not their allegiance that's at stake - simply the old story of restricted British arts budgets and going where you're most wanted. At a time when funding of our musical heritage is once again in the news, it's also a reminder that here as elsewhere the truth is that actions speak louder than words.