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I Cannot Attain Unto It (2005)

Choir, 5'

I Cannot Attain Unto It is a setting of a section of Psalm 139 arranged such that certain syllables repeat and cycle around each other. The harmonic motion of the piece is through common tones, a method in which a single note is sustained through two related or unrelated keys. The use of the repetition is meant to be at once devotional and hypnotic. Mr. Muhly said he has been drawn to the psalms since he was a young child. “Their obsessive repetition and turns of phrase has always fascinated me. Every time I set one, I learn something new about the strategic use of repetition.” I Cannot Attain Unto It was commissioned by the Manhattan Choral Ensemble.

[audio:03 I Cannot Attain Unto It 1.mp3]
Live Recording
The Manhattan Choral Ensemble
Thomas Cunningham, conductor


Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
– Psalm 139, 6-8


  • The mix of words and music is very effectively done. There is a reference to Nico Muhly having set other psalm texts. Which ones? (I have a specialized music collection of psalm settings and would be particularly interested to learn about others by Nico Muhly.)

  • I cannot get enought of it@! Keep the choral music coming; every work you do enriches the tradition & helps keep it alive & kicking.

  • Jedadiah Bernards
    April 29th, 2010 at 2:32 am

    oh lord.
    this hits me.

    i hope you come visit the wasteland of Portland, Or again someday. i will be there.