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Seeing is Believing

from Tuesday, September20th of the year2011.

The music begins and ends with the violin creating its own stellar landscape through a looping pedal, out of which instruments begin to articulate an unchanging series of eleven chords which governs the harmonic language of the piece. Three minutes in, the woodwinds begin chirping in what seem to be random, insect-like formations. Eventually, the piano and solo violin “map” them into the celestially pure key of C major; rapturous pulses ensue. A slightly more stylised and polite version of the insect music appears, and the violin sings long lines above it. After a brief return to the first music, slow, nervous music alternates with fast, nervous music. The fast music takes over, pitches are scattered around, the violin calls everybody back to order with forty repeated notes; rapturous pulses again ensue. The piece ends as it began, with looped educational music depicting the night sky.

William Byrd’s music has always fascinated me both as a composer and as an erstwhile choirboy; on the page it looks like so little, but then in its realisation, an enormous emotional landscape unfolds. When Nick Collon asked if I might try to orchestrate a few motets for Aurora, I jumped at the chance. There is a moment in Byrd’s Miserere mei, Deus where the key suddenly shifts into an unexpected major, and the rhythmic footprint slows down. I aimed for an outrageous, but quiet, amplification of this moment that fascinated me as a treble; here, it is punctuated by registral extremes in the piano: gamelan gongs in the left hand and toy piano in the right. The second piece I arranged is Bow thine ear, O Lord, which is said to be one of Byrd’s most personal expressions of faith and the turmoil surrounding it. It has in it one of the high-water marks of the choral tradition, namely Byrd’s setting of the phrase “Sion is wasted and brought low”, which he sets twice in two different octaves, and it is scandalously lush even when performed by the most austere of choirs. Here, it’s brass, marimba, and ghostly strings, a texture that expands into the celesta and woodwinds intoning the word “Jerusalem”. I should point out that these are very liberal arrangements of the originals; occasionally, I have rendered the effect of one alto holding onto a note too long, a wayward tenor, a day-dreaming treble.

By All Means stems from a similar interest in the Anglican choral tradition, but with a slightly different set of rules. The commission was from the Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music, and it had to do with reacting to (and writing for roughly the same forces as) Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments, op. 24. My own response to this guideline was to focus on the opening three pitches of the row Webern uses, which, to me, produce a very diatonic outline of a B flat major chord. One of the most delicious psychological reactions I have had to most serial music is that my brain tries to turn twelve-tone music into post-Wagnerian tonal harmonies: thick, rich chords brimming with meaning and profound significance. I suffer from this disorder even when presented with the thorniest Wuorinen or the most inscrutable Babbitt. Listening to the row from op. 24, I was immediately reminded of the cross-relations in Weelkes motets, where a G major chord and a G minor chord can appear in the same bar a split second apart. By All Means is a large arch of several textures in which both Weelkes and Webern can coexist and collaborate: the scattered points of Webern’s orchestration organised together by a Tudor resolution, or the shimmering counterpoint of Weelkes sent astray by sudden chromatic variation.

Stepping is a form of almost militaristic dancing involving the entire body as well as the voice. The routines are highly choreographed and precise but maintain an expressive freedom that comes out of the energy required to pull off the moves. In writing Step Team for the Chicago Symphony MusicNOW series, I wanted to avoid too much delicate, pointillistic writing and instead focused on making the nine players function as one team with a singular rhythmic agenda. Whenever the Chicago Symphony comes to New York, I am always impressed with the massive steakhouse-style proportions of the brass sound, so this score features the bass trombone as a guide for the harmonic and lyrical material. At a certain point in the piece, the rhythmic unisons begin to break down, and individual players or groups of players start slowing down or speeding up against the pulse. The bass trombone works as a unifying element here, announcing the changes between sections. Some scattered pulses ensue, and the brass section continuously shepherds the other instruments back into line. Step Team ends with a gentle duet between the bass trombone and the piano, with a series of ornaments from the other players.

Orlando Gibbons! I love him so much. His cadences always drive me crazy with pleasure; when the Britten Sinfonia asked me to arrange a few anthems for small ensemble, I immediately said yes, on the condition that I could start with This is the Record of John, which is a chatty narrative piece featuring call-and-response interaction between soloists and the choir, with a fantastic accompanying meshwork of imitative phrases. Here, the viola is the star countertenor, slightly hungover but fiercely earnest.

Orlando Gibbons’s verse anthem See, see, the Word is incarnate is one of my favourite pieces of text setting: Gibbons divides up Godfrey Goodman’s verses into solo bits for solo or coupled countertenors, who weave in and out of a texture of viols. Then, the chorus comes in at the end of each verse, like a 1960s girl group, echoing the soloist: “Let us welcome such a guest!”, “Goodwill towards men!” Knowing when to come in was always an adventure for me as a chorister; I memorised everything and then would get entranced by the soloists (how can you not get drawn into a line like “See, O see the fresh wounds, the gored blood, the pricks of thorns, the print of nails”?) and miss my entrance. My piece, Motion, tries to capture the nervous energy of obsessive counting. The piece is built on little repeated fragments from the Gibbons, as well as on an extended quotation and ornamentation of one of the verses, where the viola and the cello criss-cross one another and the other instruments create a messy grid of anxious quavers. The piece ends ecstatically, using as its primary cell Gibbons’s melody “in the sight of multitudes a glorious Ascension”. The title comes from a vision of Christ’s reign: “the blind have sight and cripples have their motion” – the word “motion”, in Gibbons’s setting (and my appropriation), comprising three syllables.

Nico Muhly

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