Nico Muhly

September Songs

I don’t have the standard recommended listings this month; since the performing season gets its official start, I’ll be doing some individual posts on different organizations, what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. Expect the usual suspects, i.e. City Opera, the Phil, Miller Theater, Issue Project Room . . .

I do want to point out some worthwhile recorded/streaming audio that will be coming out in September:

UPDATED: Fixed typo, added link to Oval appearance

CONTACT! Live Blogging; "Detailed Instructions"

8:36PM – As the musicians change for the Muhly piece, John Schaefer has a few words on stage with Magnus Lindberg . . . Lindberg is talking about the importance and legacy of what he calls the “sinfonietta” world, which is essentially the chamber orchestra, colorful but small ensembles, cheaper to run, flexible, great for contemporary composers . . . Muhly and Schaefer are talking about why he replaced violins with violas . . . hey, I like the viola, leave it alone, Schaefer, if it’s good enough for Mozart and the Symphony of Psalms, it’s good enough for you, buddy . . . Beguiling start to this piece, a gentle, short lyric over an odd-metered, shuffling pulse in the percussion, notes rising in the instruments, working together at times and bumping into each other as well . . . syncopated eighth note pulses in the woodwinds, like what David Lang does, with a hint of a long-toned horn melody . . . basic rhythmic pulse is being passed around, as well as this intriguing, mournful melodic gesture, rising in short intervals, almost keening higher than falling in a large interval . . . the music seems to be in a constant state of transition, which is something that music can do so well as an art form . . . now the textures are thinning out, more dissonance is coming in, emotions are attenuating . . .

. . . 2nd movement; slow, quiet, ringing, a simple line in the piccolo, sounds almost like a Lou Harrison symphony . . . a full-fledged piccolo solo over slowly shifting bed of music, limpid sound shapes drifting right and left across the aural horizon . . . quite lovely this . . . this is really a pleasure to listen to, building beautiful textures, sensations and sonorities . . . also has that thing John Adams does so well, the yearning, willful melody over a rich bed of sound, the sound is sympathetic but they seem to occupy different worlds, an interesting idea of coordination and society, one’s place in the universe, or the actual location of one’s navel, found while gazing at it . . . tuba burbles, english horn sighs, bucolic final bars . . .

. . . 3rd movement . . . quarter note pulse, kicked around with a few extra eighth notes . . . piano pulses and arpeggiates, flutes spell out chords, clarinets chug underneath . . . this is Muhly as post-Minimalist, combing procedures from Reich and Adams . . . the music is clearly made here but seems to have a little less focus, as if he’s sure he wants the notes laid out the way they are, but not sure why there should be any notes at all . . . structurally, he’s recalling the first movement now, binding things together with purpose . . . ends a little abruptly . . . lots of good music in that piece, some lovely, complex expressions.  Take a bow, Nico . . .

. . . and . . . intermission.  Be back in a bit, peeps and tweeps and sheeps.

CONTACT! Live Blogging; “Detailed Instructions”

8:36PM – As the musicians change for the Muhly piece, John Schaefer has a few words on stage with Magnus Lindberg . . . Lindberg is talking about the importance and legacy of what he calls the “sinfonietta” world, which is essentially the chamber orchestra, colorful but small ensembles, cheaper to run, flexible, great for contemporary composers . . . Muhly and Schaefer are talking about why he replaced violins with violas . . . hey, I like the viola, leave it alone, Schaefer, if it’s good enough for Mozart and the Symphony of Psalms, it’s good enough for you, buddy . . . Beguiling start to this piece, a gentle, short lyric over an odd-metered, shuffling pulse in the percussion, notes rising in the instruments, working together at times and bumping into each other as well . . . syncopated eighth note pulses in the woodwinds, like what David Lang does, with a hint of a long-toned horn melody . . . basic rhythmic pulse is being passed around, as well as this intriguing, mournful melodic gesture, rising in short intervals, almost keening higher than falling in a large interval . . . the music seems to be in a constant state of transition, which is something that music can do so well as an art form . . . now the textures are thinning out, more dissonance is coming in, emotions are attenuating . . .

. . . 2nd movement; slow, quiet, ringing, a simple line in the piccolo, sounds almost like a Lou Harrison symphony . . . a full-fledged piccolo solo over slowly shifting bed of music, limpid sound shapes drifting right and left across the aural horizon . . . quite lovely this . . . this is really a pleasure to listen to, building beautiful textures, sensations and sonorities . . . also has that thing John Adams does so well, the yearning, willful melody over a rich bed of sound, the sound is sympathetic but they seem to occupy different worlds, an interesting idea of coordination and society, one’s place in the universe, or the actual location of one’s navel, found while gazing at it . . . tuba burbles, english horn sighs, bucolic final bars . . .

. . . 3rd movement . . . quarter note pulse, kicked around with a few extra eighth notes . . . piano pulses and arpeggiates, flutes spell out chords, clarinets chug underneath . . . this is Muhly as post-Minimalist, combing procedures from Reich and Adams . . . the music is clearly made here but seems to have a little less focus, as if he’s sure he wants the notes laid out the way they are, but not sure why there should be any notes at all . . . structurally, he’s recalling the first movement now, binding things together with purpose . . . ends a little abruptly . . . lots of good music in that piece, some lovely, complex expressions.  Take a bow, Nico . . .

. . . and . . . intermission.  Be back in a bit, peeps and tweeps and sheeps.

CONTACT! Live Blogging, 1

Nicely mixed crowd, young and old coming in.  Haven’t spotted any of my fellow cranks . . . er, critics tonight.  There’s more Andriessen at Carnegie tonight, of course.  I had been planning on attending the Andriessen concert at Zankel Saturday night, but then this happened:

But that’s what us live bloggers are for, to fill the gaps.

Maestro Gilbert has now taken the stage to address some remarks to the audience.  The gist: he’s excited about leading a concert of contemporary music as part of the New York Philharmonic.  John Schaefer is offering some opening remarks as well. The program is as follows:

  • Sean Sheperd; These Particular Circumstances (a seven section work)
  • Nico Muhly; Detailed Instructions, for orchestra
  • Matthias Pintscher; Songs from Solomon’s Garden; featuring Thomas Hampson singing

Sean Sheperd is now onstage to talk about his piece, and there’s a bit of flirting with feedback.  Next post will be as the music is playing.

CONTACT! Live Blogging: Prelude

Ensconced in a cozy balcony seat, watching people file in. . . About fifteen minutes until the stated curtain time. . . Musicians warming up onstage include harp, vibes, clarinet, bassoon and cello. . . no way to know what they are playing, but I keep hearing fragments of what sounds like Le Sacre du Printemps . . . but that’s actually not for a few more weeks during the Russian Stravinsky Festival

Nature Boys

Wordless Music began it’s 2009-10 season uptown at Miller Theater Thursday night, and there were many words and plenty of singing, and strangely more than a few empty seats. While Le Poisson Rouge has been the series’ home away from home (like Al Sharpton, it’s a preacher without a pulpit), making it easy to think of it as ‘downtown,’ Wordless Music has no set geography. That’s the idea, as the series puts together combinations of pop, rock, jazz, classical, improvisational and world music with the goal of mapping out new territory, showing the way into places audiences didn’t know existed. To paraphrase a high-placed, anonymous administration source, they are creating our musical reality. The old uptown-downtown divide is irrelevant.

Those who decided not to make their way to Columbia missed considerable magic. The program was both almost impossible to accurately describe and yet completely surprising. On stage, together, were Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon and Thomas Bartlett, who together at different times and places make up Samamidon and Doveman, and perform Muhly’s compositions. At Miller Theater, they called themselves “The 802 Tour,” after a Vermont area code, and collaborated on performances of each others material. The exception were three shortened versions of pieces from Muhly first record, Speaks Volumes, which came after intermission. These are interesting study pieces, but only satisfy a powerful interest with certain compositional techniques, and suffered in comparison to the wonderful song-making the rest of the evening.

And that song-making was wonderful. More like griots than musicians, they strolled through contemporary pop music, originals and covers (a ballad performance of “Footloose!”), folk music and traditional shape note songs. Amidon and Bartlett shared the singing, the former with an absolutely idiomatic folk music style of dry, direct phrasing and pitch-perfect intonation, the latter with an intimate, whispering tenor, while Muhly mastered and directed the accompaniment on keyboards, electronics and piano (joining Bartlett in a lot of four-hands playing) and augmenting the songs with arrangements for the ACME String Quartet. The show began with a kind of ambient tuning, increasingly resonant chords on the piano and banjo over a bed of pleasantly glitchy electronic noise. This elided quickly into the vocal material, a kind of medley, each segment intriguing and satisfying so that one wished the music would remain where it was longer even as it made a quick transition to the next song, which itself replaced any feelings of loss and regret with an even greater satisfaction. The three musicians (with occasional backing from Dougie Bowne on drums and Oren Bloedow on bass), worked together with a polished and casual intimacy, they gave the impression of sharing something private and special and yet still keeping a great deal of mystery held close. The stage may as well have been the living room of their shared apartment, but the rest of the home was off limits to the guests.

A great deal of this effect was produced by the song arrangements. Hearing a musician like Amidon not just sing “O Death” but really convey the sadness and terror is magic enough, but to have that song recontextualized with plangent string chords and quiet, lovely electronic colors, and to see that work in person is like witness a magic trick, alchemy that works. The song retains it’s shape and modest core but becomes somehow taller, broader, deeper. Beyond the beauty of the performance there is the beauty of the conception which was sincere and broad-minded, a contemporary way of loving and preserving something by presenting it in a new way. Amidon, Bartlett and Muhly were making an in-the-moment combination of folk, pop, electronic and contemporary classical music, ignoring prejudices, telling new stories and making old stories new, pretty much the essence of Wordless Music. The generosity is breathtaking to contemplate.

The focus of the first half as Amidon’s work, with “O Death,” “All Is Well” and two shape note songs, although Bartlett quietly drew attention with his naively charming performance of the Kenny Loggins hit. After Muhly’s performances of “Skip Town,” “Quiet Music” and “Honest Music” after the intermission, Barlett performed a series of his songs, including “From Silence,” “The Angel’s Share” and “The Best Thing.” While the musicians had a set list, there was no set program for the audience, which added to the flowing, spontaneous feel of the event. The finale was a stunning, powerful performance of Muhly’s “The Only Tune,” a deconstruction and rebuilding of a folk song which builds tension as the singing and the music seem to fight against each other, then finds a release in beautiful, fulsome concord. It was a perfectly judged finale to an evening of enthralling, mercurial emotions, none quite definable even as the words of the songs tried to pin them down, as if pop songs had been performed with the searching manner of a Beethoven piano sonata.

The encore was one last medley, which included a fragment of a Mariah Carey song and ended with Amidon leading the crowd in repeated singings of the chorus to R. Kelly’s “Relief.” Slick R&B turned into a puzzle over lyrical meaning in Amidon’s description of the song as having nothing to do with reality, which then was turned into traditional group singing, a community art. Something new was made old and then new again, stories remade and retold. The sweet and gentle nature of the performances was the foundation upon which these enchanting stories were built.

(The Wordless Music Meets Miller Theater Festival continues Thursday, September 10 through Saturday, September 12, and tickets are still available for all remaining performances.)

Music Humor

If you’ve attended a music school, or even a music camp, you’ve heard a lot of viola jokes (not to worry, there are jokes about most other instruments as well). I’ve been mildly amused by a few, but I never felt the inclination to pick on the viola – like Mozart, I’m particularly fond of the instrument. I love the range along which it lies, the baritone lows to the feathery highs, and especially the woody, throaty timbre which to my ears is closest to reaching the special vocalized quality that makes the gamba so lovely. Now we are fortunate to have a new recording that renews the case for the instrument, “first things first” from Nadia Sirota on the continuously impressive New Amsterdam label.

This is a recital album, a series of new works that place the viola at the center, and although it’s not flawless, the whole is in this case greater than the sum of its parts. Sirota’s playing has a great deal to do with this success; her sound is full-bodied, her intonation is excellent and she plays everything with conviction and musicality. The other important element is that the recording is extremely well assembled. It is a real album, with the pieces placed in such a way that the weaknesses are lessened and the strengths reinforced, and I would credit both Sirota and co-producer Judd Greenstein with this.

Greenstein is also the composer of the most successful works on the album, the solo piece ‘Escape’ and the concluding work for viola accompanied by the Chiara String Quartet, ‘The Night Gatherers.’ The latter piece, which brings the album to a rich and satisfying conclusion, is a lyric and romantic minor key ballade full of beautiful, lush sounds, exquisitely crafted and performed. ‘Escape’ is the literal and aesthetic centerpiece of the album and demonstrates the craft of composition at its best. Greenstein starts with minimal melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material; a repeated, accented descending minor third, then he composes. He moves the interval around, pairs it, adds a transitional note and rhythm, expands it, takes it apart, develops a range of dynamics and textures. He turns a fragment into an involved, and involving, solo work, full of emotional and intellectual intensity. The connection between where the music began and where it is and is going is always in our ears. It’s a tour-de-force work and a tour-de-force performance by Sirota.

Two other composers are featured on the album, Nico Muhly and Marcos Balter. Muhly’s three pieces, ‘Duet No. 1, Chorale Pointing Down,’ and etudes ‘1’ and ‘1A’ represent the spectrum of strength and weakness within. The first piece, the album opener adds Clarice Jensen on cello and is bracing and fascinating. It opens with a dramatic gesture, forceful, minor key and dissonant intervals, and then proceeds to take that material apart and build new music from it, music different in style and emotional tone. The turns and transformations are natural and interesting – this is another fine, satisfying work. The etudes are the opposite, studies in rhythm that try and make too much out of weak material. The problem is the rhythm itself, a sharply dotted figure that has some overdubbed accompaniment but which never changes (is never actually studied), and is itself is awkward and slightly irritating, sounding too much like and attempt to notate swing. Compared with ‘Escape,’ these are just at the level of quasi-improvisatory sketches, not finished pieces.

Balter’s ‘Ut’ and ‘Live Water’ are studies as well, but a successful ones. A piece that is truly an etude should present something to be explored and offer some possibilities. These are basically simple but sonically evocative works about the possible qualities of sound that the instrument can create, and sound environments in which to place the viola. They are full of timbres; glassy, rich, ghostly, plucked and sawed strings and enhanced with some signal processing and, on ‘Live Water,’ a whispered voice. They are meditative dreamscapes and serious explorations of the instrument and work as material that brings together the strands of exploration and meditation that are the final, lasting sensations of this fine album.

As a postscript, in my library I now have a decent sampling of New Amsterdam releases, some I’ve already written about and others that I’ve had just for myself. The music that I’ve heard covers a range from sophisticated and experimental pop to contemporary chamber music and jazz big band and all of it is clearly selected and prepared with a catholic attitude and excellent taste for what makes each an excellent representative of its style and thinking. This is an impressive and exciting beginning, and my admiration goes out to all who work at the label.