The composer has supplied the following note:
So many Jewish folksongs retain something old and original, despite contemporary influences and the superimposition of styles of different periods. Since first hearing these songs I have always been struck by the depth of feeling, the lyricism and the drama in them, qualities which the music possesses even when divorced from the words. Indeed, the qualities inherent in the music become more apparent when the words are absent.
My attention was eventually directed not so much to the melody of the song as a whole, but rather to the motifs, those invisible units of music which give the melody its innate impetus. Interest in these 'nuclei' led me to use them in creating longer musical lines and layers, thereby building a special kind of texture derived from them.
About an Old Tune came into being in this way. A chamber work, it contains neither 'old tunes' nor any other tune in the accepted sense of the word. Instead, it is based on what I would call the essential micro-intonations of different Jewish melodies which together form the backbone of the piece. Episodes, some lyrical, some dramatic, are built from the free variants of motifs of my own choice. The episodes are linked together to form a chain of development in such a way that the principal motifs gradually merge into a more continuous melodic line, heard near the end of the work.
One might describe this manner of development as 'from variants to a theme.' Part of the development involves the use of heterophony, which achieves two purposes: recreation of their original 'archaic' manner of performance, and creation of a specific quality of ensemble sound. The principle of interlacing heterophony, bringing together several variants simultaneously, is applied at a higher level in order to link up a number of musical ideas and thereby produce an unimpeded flow of complementary or contrasting layers.