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from Monday, October25th of the year2010.

Well, that was surreal. I am flying home to New York after a four week absence during which I engaged in every conceivable form of musical activity. The most surprising one, though, was this last weekend in Ghent, where there is an annual film festival with an especial focus on film music. I had won (but due, ironically, to film scoring commitments, couldn’t attend) an award last year for the “discovery” of 2009 for my score to The Reader, and as is tradition at this festival, was invited back this year to play a suite from the same film. What I hadn’t quite realized is that every other film composer in the universe was there: Angelo Badalamenti, Howard Shore, Stephen Warbeck, Frédéric Devreese, Alexandre Desplat (could somebody please just figure out how he wants his last name pronounced? Even Francophone Belgians were doing it nine different ways), Gustavo Santoalolla, Bruno Coulais, Elliot Goldenthal, I mean, it was really intense. Gabriel Yared! All these people played their music with the Brussels Philharmonic in a big old exposition hall reminiscent of the Grand Palais in Paris.

Composing in any context is a lonesome business inasmuch as your collaborators tend to be musicians, but not other composers. I can’t imagine the last time I’ve been in the presence of nine other composers since school. The funniest thing in the world was Angelo Badalamenti, who is, among other things, known for being David Lynch’s longtime collaborator. I should say here that I have never enjoyed David Lynch; it’s surreal and trippy for people who didn’t grow up in surreal or trippy ways; in the visual lexicon of my childhood and young adulthood, a dwarf dancing in a red velour room isn’t really that outrageous. Anyway, the music! The music! Angelo Badalamenti, in my head, would be a kind of wiry, philosophically inclined Siennese chain-smoker living in Los Angeles. Not so: he is like, the kindest, most affable and gregarious grandpa this side of Federal Hill; he’s in Jersey, he is the kindest person ever. The idea of him working on Mulholland Drive is itself a surreal decision, so maybe I wasn’t giving DL enough credit. Badalamenti writes tunes in the old-fashioned sense, and it’s enormously satisfying to see that sort of craft still in action. He is a proper ham, too, at the piano, which is a skill and a way to be that I see very infrequently outside of the most decadent organ improvisations.

There was a documentary screening about Maurice Jarre, who wrote the soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia; the documentary was in French and I don’t quite recall the phrasing, but there was a moment with an interview with Omar Sherif where I started laughing uncontrollably — he was saying that it was outrageous to finance “un film avec que des Arabes qui traversent l’écran…” — “a film of just Arabs crossing the screen either from the left or from the right.” There is something incredibly efficient about the French “que,” that I wish we had in English; it is funny, sort of dismissive, and almost always an exaggeration (“I went there and it was only Germans” or “you should have seen this menu, it was only lentils.”) Also this documentary reminded me the extent to which I need to watch L. of Arabia again as soon as physically possible. I’ma schedule nine hours or however long it is, turn the lights down lo, and put out cigarettes on my hand or something. Il y aurait que la perversité.

I’ma also need to go ahead and rent a proper DVD of that Julie Taymor joint Titus and turn up the speakers. The score is really, really delicious. Really good tuba writing. At the end of the movie — which is the bit we heard — Goldenthal uses a tone constellation I love love love, which is similar to the one found in the second part of John Adams’s Harmonium and one with which I enjoy very strong emotional associations. The penultimate piece in the concert — the last being Stephen Warbeck’s Shakespeare in Love score which has a lot of great secret marimba — was Gustavo Santoalolla playing from The Motorcycle Diaries and Brokeback Mountain, and of course they took it right up to the point where he sniffs those clothes but didn’t actually show it. That clothes sniffing is so outrageous.

Check out that deelish Titus:
[audio:21 Finale 1.mp3]
Elliot Goldenthal, Titus Finale (excerpt)

And then the Adams:
[audio:02 Harmonium 2 1.mp3]
John Adams Harmonium, Part II (excerpt)

I had another strange emotional moment the previous week. Aurora Orchestra, who are made up of young, London-based musicians, are recording an album centered around an electric violin concerto I wrote a few years ago called Seeing is Believing, alongside some other chamber orchestra music as well as five arrangements of Gibbons and Byrd for large ensemble. Through a series of complicated and very English manoeuvres, it came to pass that John Rutter, the composer, conductor and producer, was going to produce this album at Snape Maltings, the recording studio and concert hall in Snape that is part of Benjamin Britten’s legacy’s umbrella. This was shocking probably most intensely to me; Rutter is a gentle titan, someone whose choral output seems to keep the entire music publishing industry afloat. Despite having written approximately nine billion pieces of choral music, some successful and others puddin’-sweet even to a 10 year old, one of the most fabulous things about Rutter is that he, under the auspices of his own record label Collegium, recorded and released gorgeous versions of much of the 16th and 17th century music I love dearly, as well as much of the 20th century British choral repertoire. His choir is made of mixed voices, which is to say, female sopranos and altos, and is for that and for other reasons free from a lot of the more intense restrictions of performance practice having to do with early music.

An aside: Early Music People need, like many academics, half a reason to fight each other to the death. I once witnessed Dutch people nearly come to blows over something to do with bow speed in Flemish viol fantasia. Even lay listeners approach fierce levels of loyalty to having the music sung by people of a certain gender, or not, or with a certain amount of vibrato, or nann vibrato, or only cheating vibrato in the sense that British Airways has a scheme wherein one is encouraged to “Raid the Larder;” vibrato here being the 4bidden cheese straw and its attendant whiskey enjoyed once in the flight and really only during Laetare Sunday but don’t tell.)

In any event, for a while, in America at least, the Rutter/Cambridge Singer versions of these pieces were the only ones I could get my hands on: an emergency trip to the Tower Records in Boston. This is, of course, before Amazon, before iTunes, so you’re dealing with literally saving up your money and going with your body up into the record shoppe and into the glassed-off porn/classical room and finding the cassette of Byrd motets. That was how I first heard recorded versions of Bow Thine Ear, the Byrd motet that is essentially the groundwork for emotional content in my music and life. So last week, I found myself in a makeshift control room, with John Rutter, recording orchestral arrangements of Bow Thine Ear and Miserere Mei with a sort of strange regressive delight — I didn’t know where to put my hands, I didn’t know if I should take two minutes and gush and babble which I think English people find really inappropriate (gushing and babbling is meant to occur only after several pints of beer; doing it before that time they either think you are insane or trying to get into their pants). I was also mortified and secretly delighted by the weirdness of the arrangements: they have a lot of secret little pokes and prods and interjections that are meant to represent the small electrical tics of the keen chorister’s brain while singing them; they are personal matters but, with any luck, radiate a certain twitchy love for the music.

Here is Rutter’s recording of Bow Thine Ear,

[audio:1-10 Bow Thine Ear.mp3]
Byrd Bow Thine Ear
John Rutter + the Cambridge Sangers

And here is my arrangement for Aurora; this is a live recording from a few years ago.

[audio:03 Byrd-Muhly – Bow Thine Ear.mp3]

Sion is wasted, is wa-a-a-asted + brought low. Also, still to this day when I have to void a check I am tempted to write “Desolate + Void” on it.


  • Hi Nico

    Congrats with your performance last Saturday, and also for taking the time with fans after the press conference!

    Don’t forget to add our Belgian Frédéric Devreese to the celebrated composers who were present. 🙂

  • It saddens me that it is not possible to hit both “Bow Thine Ear” play-buttons simultaneously.

  • I am so pleased to hear that “Seeing is Believing” has been recorded. When will a score be available for purchase?

  • What a great story about Rutter. And I can’t imagine life without William Byrd.

  • “I should say here that I have never enjoyed David Lynch; it’s surreal and trippy for people who didn’t grow up in surreal or trippy ways…” This statement is risible and I think you should give Lynch another shot. Have you seen Inland Empire?

  • Greetings, incredibly busy gesamtkuntswerk-er:
    please don’t forget those of us trundling in the hinterlands, longing for your inspiration through this blog, pretty please!!!!!

  • Smell is one of the strongest trigger to memory.That scene was indescribely sad and intense in the sense of loss and regret.I admired your score to ‘The Reader’ very much,it added greatly to the wonderful film.