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A Quick Week

from Saturday, January30th of the year2010.

This last week has gone by incredibly quickly; I’m not entirely sure how I lost track of so many days. Last Saturday, so exactly a week ago, I conducted a workshop for composers at Cambridge. This was, without a doubt, one of the most interesting experiences in my life. But I’ll start from the very beginning: rail replacement service caused me to be One and One Half Hours Late! I was so mortified. There is nothing worse, for me, than being late, and this was the worst kind: stuck on a train. Everybody involved seemed quite forgiving, though, so when I turned up 90 minutes after the start time, we got to work quickly. The format was familiar: an ensemble of student and professional players was assembled in a slightly overlit room, and six student composers had written pieces for the ensemble. It was, if I remember correctly, wind quintet, string quartet and piano, with a restriction on how many winds you could use. So you ended up with six pieces for the dreaded Mixed Ensemble.

What became immediately apparent to me is that these six composers were incredibly skilled, technically. Every gesture was really intelligently handled “” quick atonal lines that whipped around corners like fancy waterslides (as opposed to not-fancy waterslides; those of you who have been on them, or have heard lesser works of Poulenc will know what I mean when I say that the corners do not Handle Well). They were especially good at the “single-note” orchestration trick where you have, say, an F, and the piano plays it loud, and a clarinet is playing it really really soft, and then a muted horn sneaks in, and then a cello plays the same note, but as a harmonic, a little bit later. It’s a good trick and these kids were ON it.

What also became clear to me, based on the reactions from my comments, was that these kids had never been explicitly praised or criticized before. It seems as if the only thing that they were comfortable hearing was a sort of middle-of-the-road platitude. The thing with music is that, yes, it’s unteachable. But there are some things that are Just Great about certain pieces, and other things that are Just Mistakes. The composer’s word, I think, is quite fallible “” and I speak from experience. Oftentimes, I wish I had somebody who would just rush into my studio and say, here’s the deal with this piece: this part is awesome, and these two bars have to go. Or “those two bars are irrelevant.” I’ve written at length about this problem before; in the other Arts, both applied and otherwise, there are outside forces to temper the artist. Visual artists are restricted by the size of their canvas or the space their art will inhabit. Writers have editors! Can you imagine, composers, if you had an editor? Somebody you love & hate & trust & mistrust who has access to your music at any juncture? If you look at any novel, you see, in some back annex, the writer lavishing praise on their editors. It’s people who are Paid to Know Better than the Composer.

Anyway, we don’t have those. We have our friends, we have the musicians who play our music, and we have each other. And, of course, we have audiences, but you don’t want to be in the editing phase when you’re presenting a work to the public. So I’ve started being quite blunt with others and with myself especially about things that are working and things that are not working. And I do fantasize about what would happen if composers had editors. I know that in retrospect, somebody would have told me that a bunch of the shit I wrote between 2004-2006 was way too long. But just to be momentarily alternative-universe, do you think somebody would have told John Adams that the third act of Nixon was too long (it isn’t ““ it’s a dreamy reverie that is a welcome and rapturous thing) or that the end of act I of Klinghoffer is too long (it is, sort of – it’s kind of seventeen minutes of slightly similarly harmonically constructed material with obbligato solo instruments before we get the chugga-chugga-chugga Night Chorus)?

But this opens up the biggest question is: how can a composer learn to defend her work? If my editor told me, “Hey Nico, you’ve gotta cut six minutes from this piece,” and I disagreed, I’d have to access a very interesting linguistic register. It’s this thing of talking about your own art as an object distinct from your own body &/or mind. This is the thing I was trying to get the Cambridge kids to dip into: dear boy, with the beautiful atonal horn line: you’re good at that. You’re not good at pacing. Let’s work on it! Let’s talk about what you want to achieve, emotionally and intellectually, with all this beautiful counterpoint. If you have a clear agenda, it’s going to solve all your problems. Dear madam, with the gestural content to rival Boulez: let’s clean up your notation so we can talk about why you have titled your piece with Scripture. Does the scripture trickle down into the work, or does it frame the work? Why are these seven minutes of music preferable to, for instance, seven minutes of silent meditation on the same scripture?

In that spirit, we had our first rehearsal for my new piece Impossible Things “” a double concerto for violinist Pekka Kuusisto and tenor Mark Padmore. Within six seconds of starting work, Mark, Pekka, and I, along with Miss Jacqueline, all agreed to change basically all of the tempo indications. I cut two bars. I confessed stupidity about a double-stop in the cellos. We rehearsed the ending, which is kind of fast. It sounded great. We took it on the road to Holland. At the pre-concert awkward pacing-around moment one of the violist confessed that one bar in the ending was “a little bit tricky.” He showed it to me: it was a fucking mess! A completely unidiomatic disaster of string crossings. What had happened is that it had been originally a violin line in a different key and when I moved things around, I forgot to check to see if the string crossings worked, which is normally a process of calling Nadia in the middle of the night while she’s at the kluh and being like, “hey, okay, so get into second position, and…” I thanked him, but then I realized, honey, tell a bitch during rehearsal! I would have fixed it right then and there!

Anyway, all of that is a very long way of saying, it’s a really good skill to have “” almost as important as being able to excite a single pitch through orchestration “” to be able to defend your work verbally, as well as being able to accept criticism on the teleological level, as in: why should this music exist as opposed to the same amount of silent reflection on the same themes?

From tha Þkrappbook:

an email from me to Pekka Kuusisto:

I have a few ideas about the piece “” I figured out two possible cuts that I think will help with pacing. I’m wondering if you think you’ll have time to incorporate them maybe tomorrow in Tilburg?

I want to cut bars 151, 152, and 153.

I want to turn bar 331 into a 3/4 bar. So everybody just does whatever they’re doing for 3 beats and lose the last two “quavers” and crash right into 332. I think this is going to help enormously with this awkward transition.

Finally, I want to cut 517, 518, and 519, so basically, that bar at 516 happens and diminuendos right into the downbeat of 520 and your lyrical sóló

and I wrote you all these new double stops in the fast movement

a comment from an internet troll re: my last post about the inconveniences of getting a phone in London, and my response:

Grow some balls, you sound like a child. If the guy at orange wasn’t Bengali would it still be 9 out of 10 on the fraud scale? You sound pathetic. A call to arms for Londoners? From you? Yeah, the revolution starts here and boy is it middle-class. If Londoners were like you the city would be dead in ten years.

[Nico responds: Well, I think the nature of this revolution would be specifically designed for people like me and our petty, bourgeois concerns like phones and getting coffee & sandwiches quickly. I can’t pretend to speak for the Subaltern in London, or anywhere for that matter “” being born middle-class is so eternal, isn’t it “” but it sounds like you ‘n’ Gayatri are ready to really roll up the sleeves and get to work with the capital-R Rev! Onwards! I’ll be on the sidelines with artisanal sandwiches for when you get tired. ]

an amazing Wideo of Gayatri Spivak talking about…essentially, herself, but, you know, in trajectory:

“This particular robbing of agency, as it were, had unleashed a much greater charge, and generally in the name of gender, gender as alibi….there is not enough time, we’ll try to make an end soon – in this context, I will argue……” “” she is so great “” she drops these little farts and then rushes away from them, never to return! I love this woman.


  • nico, you love wisely that’s why you’re loved.

  • […] an utter and absolute twist, Nico Muhly waxes rhap­sodic about a totally sci-fi notion: Often­times, I wish I had some­body who would just rush into my stu­dio and say, here’s the […]

  • Made my day. Big time.

  • here here! for honest critism. why is it so difficult to find!? i actually have a couple people i deeply trust musically whom i run passages by all the time, and while it sometimes ends up feeling like composing-by-jury, it quickly exposes clear as day the gestures that i’m not entirely committed to, or didn’t consider hard enough, or have some compelling raison d’être. weed that crap out.

  • Composers do have editors, but usually after they are dead and can’t complain or fight back.

  • Hey Nico

    Speaking of criticism, I heard you liked our rendition of Clear Music.

    I wasn’t sure how you’d react to the use of vibraphone in place of celeste, but the volume and timbre control that I can have with vibes allows for greater variety and contrast in the part. The celeste has such a unique sound, though, so it’s kind of a trade-off…not sure which version I like better.

    We’ve played it a few times and it is always very well received. If you have some more specific thoughts, be sure to send them my way. Thank you again for the kind tweets!


  • Nico,

    Re: verbally defending your own music–

    I will be presenting a piece of mine in a Composers Forum-esque class at the School I currently attend and of which you are an alumnus. During said class, such presentations generally go thusly:

    1. Composer introduces piece–sort of a pre-concert talk for experts.
    2. Composer hits “play” on the CD player; we all listen reverently, some glued to scores, some gazing into the æther.
    3. One composer offers a usually-intelligent critique of the piece.
    4. Another composer offers a considerably-less-intelligent critique.
    5. The composer of Da Piece gets defensive.
    6. We all furiously debate the meaning of the word “sonata” in 21st Century America for 20 minutes.

    In my undergrad Creative Writing classes, the rule was that, whenever you finished reading your piece, the other students could constructively critique your piece, and you were Not Allowed to speak until everyone was finished; then and only then could you respond to said critiques. This always seemed to foster both intelligent critiques (since the other writers weren’t trying to get your goat) and better revisions by the writers (since they weren’t focused on rebutting bad critiques that were trying to get their goat).

    I am going to run my own Forum presentation this way; I will make note of the results and report back.

  • Dear Nico,
    I really love the notion of writing for the momentousness of an occasion. I feel like I get some great composition lessons from reading this blog.

    I had the exact same experience in my undergrad. I think Composer’s Forums can certainly be useful, but I haven’t had a particularly useful experience.

  • More sustenance for the revolution here:

  • Re: editors, editing, defending

    Writing for theater provided quite the wake-up call for me on all three fronts. Suddenly, I was working with people who had opinions different from mine about how things should work. Sometimes I agreed, sometimes I had to defend, sometimes I had to have a hissy fit, sometimes I had to get over it. It was horrible and wonderful, frustrating and enlightening. As roller-coaster-esque as it may be (not a fan thereof), I wish I were challenged (gently!) more often.

  • Hi Nico,

    I just wanted to let you know, I really enjoyed the performance of your new piece yesterday in the Royal Concerthall in Amsterdam!

    I’m definitely going to check out some of your other work. Especially your collaborations with Bedroom Community seem to be promising! As I’ve always really enjoyed the work of Valgeir Sigurðsson.