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Happy Pentecost 2011 & Two Boys Countdown.

from Sunday, June12th of the year2011.

Happy Pentecost, everybody. I love Pentecost. Four years ago, I wrote the following on this space, which I think sums up my whole feelings about the holiday:

Happy Pentecost, everybody. giotto_pentecost.jpg Pentecost is a really exciting moment in the year because it is all about language. Liturgically, what’s going on is a mirror to the Tower of Babel: a moment of linguistic comprehension through confusion, a bright flash. In the Hebrew Bible, all of the people on earth speaking the same language is an affront to God; in the New Testament, foreign (in the corporeal sense) languages become a temporary point of connection between strangers.

One of my all-time favorite Pentecost motets is Thomas Tallis’s Loquebantur Variis Linguis. I’m including a recording here, as well as a link to a piece I wrote (called So to Speak ) that uses the same theme.

[audio:02 Loquebantur variis linguis.mp3]
Thomas Tallis’s Loquebantur Variis Linguis
The Cambridge Singers / Rutter
Buy the whole album here

Nico Muhly So to Speak
The Juilliard Orchestra / Milarsky

picture-4.pngThe thing that excites me so much about this Tallis are these little licks at the end of the phrases; when done right, you really get the effect of flaming tongues. I tried to get at the same grammatical hysteria in So to Speak. I once rode on a plane to Grand Rapids, MI, next to a girl about my age who was just getting back from missionary work in Nigeria, where she claimed to have engaged in True Spiritual Warfare (her emphases), and also claimed to have spoken in tongues, at that time. What was touching and beautiful about her story wasn’t the fact that it was totally crazy but was instead that she articulated that her glossolalia was her profound and only connection to other people of faith (who were missionaries from places where English is not spoken). I will add here that in addition to the gift of tongues, she got some pretty awesome braids.

Okay now flash forward to today, Pentecost 2011! I went, this morning, to Westminster Abbey to hear them get their tongues united. They did Loquebantur Variis Linguis as part of a complicated procession around the space, so, one heard the voices without seeing the bodies. Delicious. Then, the anthem was Bach’s Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf which is a big imitative counterpoint back-and-forth crazyspace for the first bit, and then it resolves into the most gorgeous and simple chorale. I love this piece so much particularly because I have about nine recordings of it, each one in a totally different tempo. Fabulous.

We are ten days from the premiere of Two Boys. There was a fun little thing: it’s a YouTube video here, and a sassy little retort here. There’s a microsite here. There’s me being in a debate about the nature of things here. There’s a half an hour of me and Craig Lucas talking about everything under the sun. Go nuts!

I’m having a slightly fun time reading all the advance press in anticipation of not being able to read the reviews; it’s just too awful to think about. I think for my sanity I need to wait until it’s all done to really get involved, if at all. While I’m usually ambivalent about this stuff, I observed something that is almost universally true in England. When I ask somebody, “oh, how was Simon Boccanegra,” the answer was never to that question, but instead, “It got 3 stars!” or “It got 4 stars” or “The critics hated it.” It’s outrageous! That’s not what I asked! This happens, though, across the board with people involved in the arts, and it’s a curious business because obviously I could have googled the reviews. Instead, I ask because I wanted to know what you, nice lady, or you, kind sir, your own self thought when you went there. How were the notes, how were the rhythms, how was the singing, how was the story, did it work for you, did you have a nice night at the theater? I want details: I want to know what the production set out to do and whether or not it did it. I want to know how the cor anglais solo was in the Faust (excellent, apparently!) and I want to know if the lighting was generous to the mouth. I feel like that’s a much healthier way to see any art. You go in with a kind and generous mind, and try to figure out what the thing is trying to do and whether or not it did it well. Really, it’s not unlike a restaurant in that way.

For me, the worst thing anybody can say about anything is that it’s overrated or underrated, because what that implies is that the rating has anything to do with the thing itself. Yelp is filled with this kind of skewed logic, where essentially what’s not being discussed is the food, the texture, the mouthfeel, the drinks, but instead, some imagined disparity between press/buzz/hype and the bibimbap itself (have you noticed, also, that yelp reviews always begin, “my fiancĂ©e and I went here the other night”?) The other direction is worse, too, where you say that so-and-so is such an underrated cook or composer or guitarist. The problem is that it very quickly bestows a sort of moral probity on not being in the press, or not being known by many people. The worst example of this is indie rock, I would say, and it has been endlessly ridiculed. It comes up in classical music, too, though, where a lot of people are obsessed with talking about the fact of John Luther Adams’s press or lack thereof, rather than taking that time to really listen to his (unbelievably gorgeous & powerful) music.

So! Check out Two Boys if you’re in London. A lot of people have worked very, very hard to make this thing come alive, and it’s humbling and obscurely touching to me to see how herculean a task making an opera is. I’ve just come back from the Coliseum, where the sets are being reconstructed after we left our rehearsal studio; there were eleven men wrestling this giant tower into place and another six or seven off to the side with buckets of paint and giant pieces of metal. In the north of the city, the video and projection designers are editing hours of footage; I’m gnawing my teeth in Villiers-Street in anticipation of the first sitzprobe in 12 hours. I love this civic vision: everybody doing what they ought to be doing in the right place, all in service of this giant piece of theater. So you’ll come!


  • […] for a healthy counterpoint, Nico Muhly ruminates on ratings as time dwindles down to the premier of his new opera, Two Boys. Just being close to this […]

  • yay yipee!!!!! how very exciting!!!!

  • One thing I’ve been monitoring with increasing alarm is the strange relationship with music events that Standing Ovations have–more and more often, when I ask a person “oh, how was Un Ballo in Maschera,” the answer is increasingly something like “Oh, well it got a standing ovation.” This is still a non-answer, but at least a little more related to the feeling of the evening and the experience, but is it just me or does every single performance (of music or whatever) end up getting a standing ovation now, deserving or not? Perhaps it’s just a regional thing, but every performance I’ve attended in this year culminates in a standing ovation, even my Mom’s little piano students at their year end recital…good for the Self-Esteem, I suppose.

    Anyway, I’m guilty of this when it comes to books, when customers at the bookstore at which I work ask me how a book is and I tend to not think especially highly of it, I usually say something like “oh, well, it’s very well regarded,” or “Yeah, that’s been very popular.” I feel guilty about being evasive, but politeness always wins the day. It’s so personal, isn’t it? It’s one thing to say you had a nice night at the theater, but it’s another to reveal that you were choking back sobs and feeling all these strange inexplicable things, and even being changed. That’s putting a lot of yourself out there. It’s easier just to say “It got four stars.”

  • Thanks for writing about thinking-about-music. It’s always enlightening.

  • I wonder if all comes down to wanting to feel connected, or part of a group and not be left out? Are people too scared to be the only person who does or does not like a piece of art? Maybe the Brits want to tuck their opinions away to protect their place sense of belonging in their social groups? I agree the world would be a much better place if we accepted that it’s ok to be different and it can actually be fun to discuss our differing viewing points with each other. (over tasty cups of coffee) I have Bieber Feva’ !