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Gait 1

from Wednesday, February29th of the year2012.

So, I’m writing, right now, a piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. The deal is this: it’s gonna be somewhere around 20 minutes long, it’s gonna use all the players (which is insane, it’s like seven flutes just for starters), and it’s gonna be paired with Turangalîla. Now TurangaLIIIILA is my favorite thing that ever happened; it’s a symphony (?) by Messiaen from the 40’s, but it sounds like it’s absolutely from the future. It operates in this puranic, insane timescale and is meant to be a love-song, but it’s really this kind of ecstatic tone-poem radio city decadent bollywood xxxtravaganza genius thing. So I have my work cut out for me in terms of how I’m going to deploy the enormous (and enormously energetic) forces of the NYO.

Normally, I start with a structure and then figure out the notes and the rhythms and all that stuff later. But for right now, I’m kind of stuck with this technical concern about how to make sure I’m using all the players responsibly. The other day, I rang up Philip Glass’s house and described to him this problem, and I mentioned that there were seven flutes, and he conspiratorially whispered to me that he himself played seventh flute in his youth orchestra in Baltimore! So, seventh flute, seventh oboe, seventh clarinet, seventh bassoon: I will be hollering at you.

So here’s what I thought of. Horses! People! Walking! Running! The great thing about horses is that they have four (arguably five, or three, whatever) speeds or gaits. The wonderful photographer Eadweard Muybridge (who died in 1904) photographed, famously, a sort of stop-motion version of the horse in motion:

…and then people have made other, slightly more rhythmic studies:

…and it gets better and better:

So, just as a kind of technical way to start generating material, these gait rhythms are fascinating. If you look at the running trot, that’s a pretty obvious rhythm, right?

But then things can get sexier and more complicated with a “lateral sequence walk:”

(I know flute 7 is missing some dynamics but I don’t want to give away the surprise. Hint: it’s sfp with a crescendo)

The point is, figuring out how to use each family of winds as a kind of creature with a specific range of locomotive patterns is enormously liberating just in terms of being able to construct a bigger narrative. What kind of monster hath eight legs, or twelve, or ten? The initial procedure, here, is to construct a sort of bestiary of the orchestra, and then we’re gonna figure out how to deploy it. There’s something circus-like about the Royal Albert Hall anyway, so this feels, at least for now, totally appropriate.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in terms of structure was having a dream-sequence in the middle of of the piece, sort of right at the heart. A few years ago, I had flown from New York to London to work on an electric violin concerto with Tom Gould (he was, I’m sure, in the NYO at some point), with whom I was staying in St John’s Wood. I’m pretty sure I took one of those disastrous overnight flights that deposits one at Heathrow at sparrow’s fart, and by the time one has navigated the Heathrow Express and the station and the other station and the rolling luggage on the street and the stares of the neighbors and turned up at the house… you can imagine. So, that night, after a rather committed moment at the pub, I fell asleep hard. Then, at what must have been 5 in the morning, I had a sort of feverish and confused dream about horses, and then I realized that no, it was actually horses somewhere near me. So I kind of shuffled to the window and saw something so surreal: a mounted army unit! In full regalia clip-clopping up Avenue Road! In the mist! It was completely bizarre and I thought that either it was the end of the world or I was asleep or something to do with the sleeping pill or who knows, but I went back to bed. Turns out, this is a regular occurrence, as the King’s Troop does a little drill up there all the time — or they used to until they moved in 2012. So, I think a sort of jet-lag fever-dream equestrian moment is going to figure into this piece somehow. The structure is still Shrouded in Mysterie but I will sort it very soon. Also the piece is called Gait, obvs, and I’m going to be sort of blogging its progress as I go along.

Last night I went up into Björk’s show at the Roseland. Everybody? You all need to get over there and bow b4 the queen. This show was Genius. It’s kind of a wacky concept: nature & art & music & technology all in this dance together, and it sounds like something loosely educational in the sense that your pipe-smoke-smelling sciencey uncle would take you to, which it kind of is? She’s using all these screens to illustrate the music, not just to decorate it, which is rare — unique? One of the songs has essentially a primitive midi data but highly stylized, scrolling in real time, so you can follow along and see technically how she’s amassing sound in the arrangements: a huge cluster of sounds announces itself and you see it, hear it, and feel it. It’s very smart, and should be mandatory listening for anybody who’s taken longer than four seconds to write/think/blog about that dumb article about why appoggiatura something something Adele something something else. So over that whole conversation before it even started. Unsubscribe. Find out when the Björk show is coming to your town, and buy tickets for yourself and everybody you know.


  • WHAT KIND OF MONSTER HAS TEN LEGS? I ask this question when I wake up with two dogs on top of me and I count up the legs in the bed and wonder what the hell happened that two species could behave like this, and now there’s gonna music for it!!! Go, Nico!

  • Pretty brilliant. You are making me think about Muybridge and his undeniably valuable contribution to early cinema. The rhythm of motion and the rhythm of story and the rhythm of vision combined to form this amazing art form that has so many unexplored connections with music (especially larger symphonic musics). Trying to work out the complexities in how the rhythm of our bodies function in relation to the rhythm of affect is an admirable journey. Best of luck!

  • Too bad I left the NYO last year. They seem to be doing all their exciting collaborations in 2012 (Anna Meredith, Bellowhead, Nico Muhly…)

    Come anyway! Play along!

  • Nico –

    The graphic you refer to in your comment about Bjork’s concert looks very much the labor of smalin who has developed these pictoral representations of classical works. Actually a great way for those who cannot read music to get an idea of the “score” and for composers a fertile ground for ideas to approach graphic scores. I strongly suggest checking his channel out. This person has done this as a labor of love – they deserve far more credit and exposure.

  • Nico,
    Thanks for giving us a peak into your creative process for Gait.

  • I am with Matt. Pretty Brilliant. Messiaen, Glass, Muybridge, 7th flutes, Bjork. The Mind Boggles/Delights. With you, no delicious difference. Cannot wait to hear/read more.

  • Hi Nico,
    I love so much the way you write. I want to cite something for you that may be of use: ‘Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motioness before our eyes, but constantly appears and disappears. Moving objects constanlty multiply themselves, change shape, succeeding one another, in the space which they traverse. Thus a running horse has not for legs, but twenty and their movements are triangular.’ (Boccioni, 1910)