Making Arrangements

from Sunday, March1st of the year2009.

Making arrangements for people is such a strange thing. I like to think about it like dressing somebody up ““ there are a whole bunch of ways to go about it, ranging from loaning them a pair of jeans and a clean t-shirt to getting a suit made to designing a costume that requires some kind of elk skin to construct. Working with singers usually, in my experience, is more about costume, and working with bands, I have recently learned, is more about getting just the Right Jean and just the Right Shirt. A lot of times, working with bands is about just organizing string players to noodle around appropriately. This is like dressing somebody up in a suit. Everybody looks good in a suit; the more expensive the suit, usually, the better off you look:

This is all very classic. You just add some strings on and everybody wins, you write a little line, or not, or whatever:

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Sia Breathe Me

Let it be said that it took me a long time to find something that was an example of this sort of classic “added strings” arrangement. You all remember this song, right, from the end of Siggis Feet Under? You all wept. Don’t lie 2 me.

But maybe you don’t want a suit. Maybe it’s about something a little bit more rustic, more folky: a small ensemble of winds and brass, perhaps, scattered intermittently around:

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Sam Amidon O, Death from All Is Well

This is my arrangement for Sam Amidon’s version of O, Death.

But then you might want to dress something up way weirder, in more of a costume. Think dark, stark, single instruments, clean lines:

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Teitur You Should Have Seen Us from The Singer

This is Teitur, with his arranger Trondur, using a really minimal costume kind of arrangement to cloak some of the body of this song. The arrangement becomes part of the essential character of the song.

So anyway, I just finished making a suite of eight arrangements for the Grizzly Bear & Brooklyn Philharmonic show last night. Grizzly Bear’s music is an interesting and difficult thing to arrange, because it is is already so textured and diaphanous. It’s kind of like trying to put a rubber band around a water balloon: it resists the formalized structure of a large orchestra beating time behind it. The way I thought about it, for the most part, was like designing a coat that you know will only be seen in the dark, through the rain, and slightly out of focus. Check out this song of theirs, Campfire, from their first CD:

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Grizzly Bear Campfire from Horn of Plentý

It’s kind of like this Daidō Moriyama shot:

…where if you focus in on it with too much precision and intensity, it loses the shine and the grime and the whole point of it is lost. Stoned Music Arrangements ≈ Drizzly Night Clothes. This is my working hypothesis at this time.

In other news, I went to Los Angeles last week to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale play this older piece of mine, Expecting the Main Things from You. It was a great performance; it’s a real luxury to hear a piece after three years of not thinking about it; I came face-to-face with 23 year-old Nico decisions that I found weirdly endearing. For instance, I know better than to write a violin line like this:


(click to enlarge)

…but I sure didn’t in 2004! It ended up sounding great, though, and the people at the Los Angeles Master Chorale could not have been nicer.

We went to a few memorable sushi meals, including one at a place that had very aggressive signs written in neon sharpie saying things like NO CALIFORNIA ROLL and NO SPICY TUNA ROLL and WE’RE SERIOUS. I guess they are aiming for an Authenticâ„¢ Experience of some sort; I was into it, except that what ended up happening as a result of our having placed our trust in the sushi chef was a procession of very, very delicious fish but a pretty uninspired selection. If we’re not allowed a spicy tuna roll for weird moral reasons, can we at least have some monkfish liver? Smelt roe?

The other thing ““ and I know that I’m not meant to ever comment on reviews, but I just want to use this as a larger example in thinking about writing about music. The LA Times wrote one of these half-reviews of the show here, which describes Andrea Clearfield’s piece thus:

Clearfield’s “Dream Variations” is a setting of three Langston Hughes poems for chorus. Marcia Dickstein’s rippling harp suggested a river in one poem and set up a Latin rhythm in another. Yet the most striking elements were provided by the fluid, glistening interplay of the commissioning Debussy Trio (harp, viola, flute) and organist Christoph Bull.

K, cool, moving on:

Sametz’s “Music’s Music” celebrates the healing power of music in a lush, lovely, at times touching score that seems to veer closer and closer to the ethereal pastoral spirit of Vaughan Williams’ similarly inclined “Serenade to Music” as it unfolds. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser was the vocal soloist, and the only instrumental backing consisted of clarinet and harp.

The playlist concluded with the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Expecting the Main Things From You,” in which selections from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are first broken into choral fragments, then backed by a hazy series of Minimalist textures derived first from Steve Reich, then Philip Glass, then Reich again. But midway through the third section, the piece was running low on creative juice, as if the program’s internal iPod needed re-syncing.

Fair enough. Everybody’s got a flabby third movement. That, fortunately, is a matter of opinion, which he has been paid cash money to provide, and I welcome the criticism. But what annoys me about this is the idea that influence and derivation are evaluable acts rather than simply Things that are True. Yes, there is a lot of Reich and Glass in that piece, as there is in basically everything I have ever written and will ever write, and I am the first to admit it. So….what? Here, the description is trying to wield some kind of critical blade and not really hitting the mark. I wish he had said, “The third movement’s reliance on motoric gestures, which seemed derived from Reich and Glass, muzzled the pastoral flexibility of Whitman’s words, rendering them repetitive and sterile, if kinetically exciting” or something. Say you hated it! Say you loved it! Say that the presence of Reich and Glass is annoying because it’s inappropriate for the text! But just saying, “I smell Glass! I smell Adams! I smell Reich!” isn’t itself a review; it’s just a lazy description.

Where I’m getting with this is an attempt to de-vilify influence. Composers especially are trained to bristle at the suggestion that their music “comes from” somewhere. Thousands and thousands of pages have been wasted at the hands of academics sorting out whether or not Stravinsky used Russian folk material in his early ballets; of course Stravinsky was like, “no, I am totally genius and original” and then Richard Taruskin has to spent seventeen thousand years digging all this shit up “” it just seems like a waste of everybody’s time to not just fess up and demand that listeners evaluate what the music has done with its influences rather than just being able to point them out and call it a day. This is why I get so angry when people write things like “this band sounds like this band plus this band with a touch of this band” and then expect me to pay whatever it is for the copy of the newspaper the article was in. Identifying influence cannot be the last word in an honest evaluation of music, especially new music!

20 Comments

  • spot on!

  • Hey Nico, I thought the arrangements last night were exquisite. It’s wonderful to have the chance to read some of the thoughts that went into making them.

  • yo yo yo it's ED
    March 1st, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    9 ARRANGEMENTS NICO NINE!!!
    NOT 8!!!

  • Well, Philip Glass actually has set some Walt Whitman to music, back in his pre-minimalist days.

    http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/a/item.html?id=69435&item=1867517

    Did your piece sound like that?

    PS: Paul Bettany looks good in any arrangement.

  • journalists do like comapring and searching for similarities although it isn’t necessary for the review or significant for the text. it’s easier for them to do that this way

  • Hear, hear!

  • The reviewer provided very little opinion at all, which has very little entertainment value, reading-wise. I like the “But…” before the zing he gives your piece, even though it doesn’t follow something that’s able to be disagreed with.

    And the violin line! I’d probably pull a Robert Schumann trying to stretch my hand for that Ab group in the third bar, but I’d do it gladly.

  • The whole “this band sounds like this band plus this band with a touch of this band” thing seems like a new, even worse take on the ‘criticism’ of a few years ago that used descriptions like “electro-funk-jazz-rock-country-metal-blues.” Pitchfork seems to be the worst for this kind of crap.

    On an entirely related note, I just finished marking a stack of first year Music History papers and it seems like people are finding more and more elaborate ways of saying nothing about music.

  • Part of the issue here is the purpose of a review and the job of the critic. If the critic’s job is to provide a sort of thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down assessment from a presumed expert position, then certainly a review which merely names influences doesn’t do the trick. But if it’s acceptable for a review to be primarily descriptive, then drawing comparisons to other better-known work seems fair. And I’m inclined to think that straight description is a reasonable approach some of the time, especially in cases where the reviewer wants to avoid letting personal biases interfere, or cases where the main value of the review to the audience will be to give them a sense of whether they themselves might be interested.

    That said, I still agree that the review of your piece was problematic, just not for the same reason. One of the problems is that minimalists tend to be “accused” of being derivative a lot more often than our modernist pals. The implicit message of “derived from Schoenberg” is “this dude knows his Schoenberg and is Very Serious.” The implicit message of “derived from Glass” is “he stole from a guy who writes the same thing over and over, how dull.” It’s a ridiculous double standard. And “derived from” rather than “inspired by” or “reminiscent of” is also clearly barbed. The implication of the whole review is crystalized by the parting shot about resyncing the iPod–an iPod holds music by other people, and the reviewer is suggesting that you ripped off Reich and Glass but it didn’t get you far enough so you should have ripped off somebody else too. If your inspiration were Carter and Babbitt would the same insinuations have been made? I doubt it.

    Congratulations on the performance. I’d love to hear the piece.

  • Brilliant post.

  • http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v178/tnlpix/PaulBettany.jpg

  • Most excellent review of the review. May I quote?

  • Does it move you? (Whoever the you is.) In music, that’s the only thing…

  • and so the cycle continues.

    Xaxaxaxa. An officemate just asked me, “Hey, Nick, what’s up with your Project Runway post? Is that intentional? Is that a spoof?”

    There is something rather Adrian Ryan- and Nico Muhly-esque about this post, but it’s all me, completely intentional, and 100% How I Do on the internet.

  • personally i love smelling influence.
    and i think it is useful info.
    but you’re right on about how stupid it is to believe that music should be fragrance-free.
    no cult-of-originality for me, thank you.

  • I thought from the title and the first sentences that someone had died and you were ‘making arrangements’ for their remains. And therefore you had to decide how to dress them.

    Haha.

  • I’m very much struck by how different your music is from that of Reich and Glass, and indeed I don’t really think of you as a minimalist composer; but that’s not to say you don’t have their techniques in your toolbox.

  • a very good point; I recently reviewed
    a concert that Ursula Oppens did in
    North Carolina and I found myself
    trying to straitjacket a very interesting
    work with comparisons–why? The
    urge to make familiar the unfamiliar,
    to control perception rather perceive;
    unfortunately, almost everything must
    go through a filter of a defense mechanism, given the informational
    overload in daily life, and the preponderance of work which turns out
    in good conscience to be merely epigonic.Which brings up the
    the vexing question:when does a work
    betray its sources? Is a parody mass
    “derivative”?

  • Hello, Mr. Muhly, I only heard your name for the first time, today (associated with the song for The National) and was pleased to find this site. I’ll be checking out your work. I enjoyed your comment about influence. That it’s a bad thing to show an influence is absurd. Would they complain to Mozart that the Mass in C had parts derived from Bach? Dear Lord.

  • I stumbled upon this page through an image search of Paul Bettany and found this entry to be very enlightening!
    I enjoyed your metaphoric descriptions paired with the images (and audio examples). I especially liked the visual comparisons because I am a visual artist and I inherently translate things and understand everything visually, so it was very helpful!

    My favorite part, though, was your criticism of criticism. I completely agree with you, and I didn’t know why I hated many reviews until I read this. So thanks!

    Keep up the good work. I’d never heard of you before and now I’m keeping a look out for your work! So hurray for you, have a cookie, and keep writing. :)