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The Guardian & Choral Sex

So, The Guardian asked Björk to take over their Film and Music section for today. She, in turn, asked me to write an article and here it is. WeaselIn it, I discuss singing in a choir as a boy, how that music continues to be relevant to me today, as well as other issues stemming from having a choral upbringing. Towards the end of the article, there’s a little Björkish description in which she calls me “snappy.” Also in the same section is a pretty fascinating interview with B in which she talks about nationalism, colonialism, and the whole idea of being from somewhere as something to be played with rather than something to always feel faithful/guilty about. Everybody should buy her forthcomynge album; I conducted one of the slow jamz, and there is also all this Antony up on it, &c.

(Special for Rhode Island nostalgites: You may as well read this, too).

Choral sexThe Guardian, Friday, April 27th
Composer Nico Muhly was bored of his childhood ‘Disneyfied’ piano studies – then he discovered the grand passions of singing in choirs

As a child, I sang in the boys’ choir at an Episcopalian church in Providence, Rhode Island. The church was (and still is) smack in the middle of downtown Providence – a city then just on the cusp of what is now half-jokingly referred to as its renaissance, brought about by a surreal confluence of urban beautification schemes, corrupt but lovable politicians and down-city curd tastings. The diocese had somehow found the money to put together a choir of 20 or so boys, with another 10 or 12 men and the occasional woman to round out the sections: a frontier outpost – an ecclesiastical Pegu Club – at the remote periphery of the Anglican universe.
On my first day, we began learning the Byrd Christmas motet Senex Puerum Portabat, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that moment to my conception of myself as a musician today. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the music, but I found a more profound resonance in its structure. The world of the beginner pianist – which is what I was – is essentially a Disneyfied German romantic landscape, and the early piano student is largely confined (with the exception of Bach and Bartók) to sonata allegro form (or something close to it) with pastoral themes: simplified Beethoven symphonic tunes, The Happy Farmer, ABA, ABA-prime, with perhaps Ah! Vous Dirais-Je, Maman if you’re lucky. (I remember my pride at recognising My First Rondo – they should have scrapbooks for these moments.) In this landscape of ritornellos, variations and enfolded repetitions, the alien cartography of Senex Puerum Portabat felt perversely like home.

The motet begins with a descending passage in the trebles, which is immediately imitated, first in the altos and then in the tenors and the basses, trebles popping up to seal the whole phrase in A major. Before anybody has time to notice, the altos are already sliding around outside the chord, and then the trebles jump out of the chord, too, anchor on a C natural, and soulfully descend to resolve on an F sharp. The altos are on F natural before the reverberation has decayed; on the same syllable, the trebles are asked to re-articulate a note, necessitating a subtle glottal stop. If those phrases are like four people having a conversation about an unsolved mystery, that little re-articulation is one person tapping the table and saying, “Here! I think I know the answer.”

This music never calls attention to the composer. In Romantic music, every note – every detail of orchestration – is illustrative of the composer’s emotional journey; in the audience, we’re obliged to follow the itinerary outlined for us. At its best, this feels like an adventure. At its worst, it’s like being stuck in conversation with a man muttering professorially into a pint of beer. I would get frustrated playing Beethoven sonatas, thinking: “Yes, I agree that it is raining very hard, and we were talking about this at great length before that sweet part when you wanted to talk about your girlfriend and you cried a little bit, but why can’t you just hide under that tarpaulin there instead of staying out in the cold and gnashing your teeth?”

By contrast, Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes and Tye were like the dinner guests on whom you had crushes as a child, not because of any particular story they told, but because of the way they told those stories – the turns of phrase, the little obsessive details, the localised, rather than structural repetitions. The content of the stories could be in another language, but the little gestures – the musical equivalent of subtly tapping the table twice to reinforce a conclusion, smoothing out the tablecloth before the punchline of a joke, a well-timed sip of wine with eyebrows cocked – were the stars of the show, they were like the things you remember when people you love have changed, or moved away, or died.

My love for Thomas Weelkes, especially, was like a childish celebrity infatuation. If the internet had existed, I would have been running the Weelkes fan site and moderating the message boards. There was something about his 400-year-old music that felt so right in the throat and brain; I would have followed him on tour and lit my lighter during When David Heard. I’d have told all my friends that he had written the Ninth Service for me. Part of what is so appealing to me is the athletic teamwork required to pull that music off; in his anthem Hosanna To the Son of David, the basses begin with a swift kick to an A on the syllable “Ho-“. Immediately afterwards, the rest of the voices enter on a fat A-major chord, and spiral out into a quick cadence, some moving quickly to a distant note, some staying right where they are, and the tenors doing a little back-flip to their second positions. I cannot remember any other music that has excited me as much as that one balletic and powerful gesture: it has got to be right or there is nothing to listen to. Weelkes makes you do it again and again, with subtle variations each time; singing it was a pleasure that made me feel larger than myself, part of a different body of work.

Our repertoire was not limited. Bach was always thrilling to sing, and I loved the stop-and-go structure of Purcell’s anthems, and was hypnotised by Howells’ butterscotch melodic lines. I had my first practical exposure to contemporary music (Judith Weir!) under the same roof. I remember my perverse fascination with those three famous Brückner motets, but like my teenage embarrassment seeing Berinini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, singing those motets seemed a little rude, with their toe-curling climaxes and whispered plain-chant pillow-talk. If you consider, on the other hand, the endings of even the slowest Weelkes, the friskiest Byrd, the smartest-dressed Gibbons, what happens is not a focused climax but a tightening of the thighs against the saddle, a more directed gait, things happening closer together, a tautness in the reins.

I stopped singing once my voice changed and I began taking composing seriously, carrying these choral affinities into my own work (although the music I write is for the most part instrumental). I am most comfortable creating tiny, obsessive narratives inside a simple structure rather than working on top of a story. I am happier when a piece has a climax for everybody: a little endearing detail here, a little nudge there, rather than an agreed-upon moment. I am more interested in the narrative frictions between one note and its neighbour than in bigger structures. This is problematic as well as helpful.

One of the hardest things about writing music now is that structure is politically loaded, thanks in part to everybody’s bad attitude in the 60s and 70s. What does it mean, for instance, to have a piece with a minimal structure, such as the large plates of Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts or Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, in the centre of which is a selection of only the choicest notes? What about music like Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli – an efficiently pleated structure that can fit more inside, like a mini-van? Is “fast-slow-fast” bourgeois and inappropriate for our time? Why won’t John Adams just use the word symphony about those big orchestra pieces? Why didn’t Stravinsky number his? And what about the fact that the last thing anybody can agree on is Le Sacre du Printemps – a perfect series of vignettes in two big piles with only a few genuine repetitions? And what about those great Wagnerian totems nobody wants to talk about? Drones? Milton? Art song?

To map out the structure of a piece on paper is to write yourself into an argument about the nature of things. As a shy 25-year-old, I know that I am going to have to make a mark on that paper eventually, stake a claim, no matter how tenuous. I take comfort in those choral works now, and look for moments when my music can connect with people in the same subtle and urgent ways.


  • Thank you for this wonderful essay. Something similar happened to me, and you caught aptly the wonderment I felt. The music completed the circuits in my brain and I was at home.

  • I’m kvelling!
    Love the snappy food. Kosher? Maybe the rope is.
    oxoxTanta Jen

  • Your poignant article in the Guardian is amazing! Actually, at points it describes how I felt hearing part of Speaks Volumes for the first time last year.

  • Nico,

    Your site looks fabulous! Congrats, plus loved the illustrations here. Great we have one more music blog.

  • ‘Tis a pity you don’t write much vocal music. After stumbling upon your piece in The Guardian I can’t help but wonder what your music would feel like in my mezzo throat.

  • “Choral Sex” is the far and away the most brilliant essay on early choral music ever written.

  • Thanks for the moving essay, Nico.

    I know you’ve set one of Shakespeare’s sonnets — have you thought of setting all of them?

  • the clarity of why and how this stuff
    appealed to you is wonderful, and the best bit,
    perhaps, is the horseriding metaphor…..both apt and
    provocative and sexy at the same time. I also like
    the idea of what you write having internal epiphanies
    that can please different people at different times,
    rather than an agreed-upon narrative climaxing in some
    mutually public way…..but this is surely a
    description of this piece as well, with its
    familiarity and dense references in the same