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A Good Understanding

from Tuesday, September7th of the year2010.

Writing choral music is one of my greatest pleasures in life; I was a boy chorister with an addiction to the textures and rapturous moments that define the Anglican choral tradition from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. My sense of line, melody, and harmony all come from strange, specifically choral sources: a little turn of phrase in a Howells Te Deum setting, or a Tye vocal leap that sends shivers up the spine. As a singer, I looked forward to the liturgy because I knew that with it would come these gems: a flick of the tongue for the Tallis Pentecost motet Loquebantur variis linguis apostolis, or a little bit of call-and-response in Taverner’s Dum transisset sabbatum, during Holy Week.
The Bright Mass with Canons, presented on this disc, is an attempt to rediscover the tropes and moments that brightened my childhood music-making. So, in that spirit, the piece is constructed around these little fetishes. The Kyrie begins with bright, brash trumpets, moving towards a modal, plaintive line. The Gloria is rhythmically insistent, but not too much so, and builds towards exactly the kind of outrageous, suspended climax I adored singing. The Sanctus, on the other hand, looks towards electronic music in its use of aleatoric, insect-like twitching from the upper voices, and also looks to Howells with its long, unctuous lines. The Agnus Dei ends the Mass solemnly, with only the slightest tilt of the head upwards as a semi-chorus outlines, with appoggiaturas, an ascending scale.

Writing a set of canticles (a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, here, rather ambitiously called my First Service) seems like one of the things every composer ought to have done. These are the earliest works in this collection, dating from 2003, when I very anxiously came to Cambridge for their first presentations at Girton and Clare Colleges.
I like the idea of these specific texts having been sung basically every day since the sixteenth century – you have to set the texts delicately, obviously, but because everybody knows them so well, there is always possibility for small explorations into funnier textures and procedures. Another thing to keep in mind about these settings is that they are designed to be listened to while standing up; nobody wants an endless Magnificat. So, they proceed quickly, moving through the text at a conversational but authoritative pace. As I found with the Mass, there is a thrill in manipulating texts that are very well-known and that are recited daily. The only other text of this kind that comes to mind is the announcements made in transit: “mind the gap”, “fasten your seat belts”, “the nearest emergency exit might be located behind you”. Repetition is built into the texts on a macro level; why not, then, explore repetition on the surfaces of them as well?

The first piece I remember learning as a boy was Byrd’s setting of Senex puerum portabat, and so when asked to write a Christmas anthem with brass, I rushed at the chance to set the same text. I also appended a brighter text at the end, to take advantage of the brass quintet. My setting uses two kinds of repetition: metered, controlled pulses in the first half of the piece, and then wild, uncontrolled voices singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. The piece ends with a gentle set of Alleluias, a sort of post-partum comedown with gently lilting altos.

A Good Understanding is a celebratory, excited work originally written for adult voices with the addition of children’s voices at the end. The piece unfolds episodically, short choral phrases alternating with longer interludes from the organ and the percussion. The first half of the text is typical psaltry praise-making: outlining agreements, explaining the rules; the music is, accordingly, severe but practical. The second half of the text begins, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments”. I find the idea of “a good understanding” to be an especially exciting reward for following the rules; the trebles sing pulsed syllables and long descants to celebrate the covenant while the choir sings a lilting, repetitive refrain.

Expecting the Main Things from You is the only secular work on this disc, and although I have always considered setting secular texts to be incredibly difficult, I thought that Whitman’s texts here have the same kind of civic holiness found in the Psalms. Accordingly, the first movement begins with a somewhat obvious word-painting: the poet speaks of carpenters and we have the thwack of wood against wood, he speaks of deckhands and we hear a ship’s bell. However, the ant-farm soon vanishes and the texture dissolves into a lonesome solo violin outlining a delicate passacaglia. After an extended instrumental interlude, the choir emerges, talking about “the delicious singing of the mother”. The first movement ends – as do all three movements – with a wordless sung punctuation: a series of repeated pulses.

If the first and third poems reference the political urgency of the city, the second movement is a pastoral interlude. Accordingly, the percussion parts in this movement are built around three expanding and contracting rhythms in the woodblock, tam-tam and vibraphone. Three quarters of the choir sings a stylised Morse code (I was inspired by watching satellites pass overhead in the middle of the woods in Vermont; the now-omnipresent invisible haze of technology even in the fields), while some sopranos and altos overlay long, endless lines. The third movement is the most urgent and the most aggressive in its patterns: I wanted to reinforce Whitman’s movement from the general to the very specific and accusatory second person of the end of the poem. This is an exciting advantage in secular texts: the word “you” is, at least in the Rites of the church to which I am accustomed, sadly absent. It’s a wonderful word filled with more sounds than one would think, and can be a gentle embrace, or an aggressive finger-pointing. The last five minutes of the third movement obsess over these possibilities. A series of expanding and contracting rhythms and another wordless pulse bring the piece to a quiet close.

None of these works would be possible without their commissioners and first champions. Judith Clurman, a hugely energetic force in choral music, put her weight behind the First Service and commissioned Expecting the Main Things from You. Tim Brown and Martin Ennis, at Girton and Clare colleges respectively, very enthusiastically presented the canticles. And John Scott, a childhood hero of mine, has been performing Bright Mass with Canons since its premiere in 2006. It is with enormous pleasure that I’ve been working with Grant Gershon on this project, whose Los Angeles Master Chorale are a beacon of light for choral music both sacred and secular. His commitment to presenting new music, and his choir’s enthusiasm, have made them wonderful performers and partners in crime both for me and for many living composers.

Nico Muhly

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