The Elements of Style (2005)

Voice & Chamber Ensemble, 26'

The Elements of Style is a song cycle written as a response to Maira Kalman’s illustrated version of Strunk and White’s manual by the same name. It was originally performed in the main reading room at the New York Public Library with a small ensemble of musicians and a larger ensemble of non-musicians playing percussion instruments.

Given the strange makeup of the instrumental ensemble, subtle amplification will almost certainly be necessary for all players and singers.
The amateur percussion ensemble requires a bit of advanced planning. In practice, one of those players should be slightly more musically experienced and can be used as a sub-conductor.

Instrumental choice is absolutely left up to the group; score indications are simply an indication of how we did it at the premiere, and also as timbral suggestions. For instance, at bar 76, any small metal object will work, and any number of the players can participate in this gesture. If it’s a tiny spoon against a tiny teacup because you have those things in your house, use them. Similarly, bar 87 suggests a bit of a “round the room” game, where each player does something on each quarter-note. It doesn’t have to line up cyclically, just as long as each quarter-note is accounted for. There isn’t any way to do the amateur percussion wrong, as long as it is all planned and played carefully and seriously. The goal here is not a Prairie Home Companion wacky weekend afternoon, but instead, something ritualised but commonplace, like the rules of grammar.
—Nico Muhly

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