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Clear Music (2003)

for Wendy Law
Cello, harp, celeste, 9'

Muhly writes, “Clear Music is an extended exploration of a single measure in John Taverner’s (1490-1545) motet Mater Christi Sanctissima. I have structured the piece into a series of peaks featuring the highest registers of the treble voice ““ here, the cello. I remember very vividly performing this piece and being struck by how distant the treble was from the other voices ““ sometimes, there are spaces of over an octave between the treble and the alto ““ and I attempted to recreate the somewhat terrifying and exposed contours of these lines. The end result is, I hope, a prolonged and transparent recollection of the Taverner which exposes not only my appreciation for the music itself but also my response to performing it.”

The unaccompanied cello solo opening the piece quotes an expressive passage, near the end of Taverner’s antiphon, in which the trebles soar to a pitch two octaves higher than the next part down, the modal melody. Quoting such a high passage on such a low instrument, Muhly evokes not only the deeply stratified sonorities of Mater Christi but also the physical exertion of vocal performance.

The semiquaver syncopations that join the cello owe less to the backbeats of a rock song or a Beethoven symphony than to the rhythms of composers like Taverner, whose music antedates the use of barlines””here creating a smooth and constant motion that gently pulls the cello forward and bears it aloft. – Program Notes © 2007 Daniel Johnson

Performance Notes
The cello should be placed in the center of the stage, flanked closely by the harp and celeste. If amplification is used (which is not necessary but can help solve certain balance issues), it is recommended that there be one microphone on the back of the celeste as well as one microphone on the pedals, to amplify the clicking and shuffling of the feet. Similarly, both the harp body as well as its pedals should be amplified in this circumstance.

Clear Music is recorded on Bedroom Community Hvalur 001 (Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes).

[audio:01 Clear Music Excerpt.mp3]
Clarice Jensen, cello
Monika Abendroth, harp
Nico Muhly, celeste

Nico & Valgeir mixing Clear Music, Greenhouse Studios, Reykjavík

Clear Music
Clarice Jensen, Bridget Kibbey, Nico Muhly rehearsing Clear Music in Zankel Hall


  • WOW..Clear music is BEAUTIFUL..reminds me of the most wonderful loney rainy days I spend in my antique shop playing old musical boxes while drinking tea. Keep up this truely great talent you have.

    hugs and thanks 🙂

  • This sounds like flowers.

  • i first heard of you a coupleof months ago on a web site (anglicanmusic) of other old organists and choral music queens. i’ve spread the news about you to others here in hawaii (who are amazed at your, talent, youth and beauty and who are pissed off that they hadn’t heard of you and that i “discovered” you), and to my cousin in nyc, who has fallen in love with you and wants to invite you to dinner. she’s a good biographer (jerome robbins among others), and a passable cook. her name is amanda vaill, so if you hear from her, go meet her. do you have any religious type choral composition in latin suitable for a pretty good small (15) group about to make a cd? would you want a mini-commission to do something in hawaiian? aloha nui, david kayner.

  • Mr. Muhly, beautiful music! It reminds me of Sigur Ros, Phillip Glass, God Speed you Black Emperor, and a celeste all mixed in one. It is true other-worldly beauty.