Thursday, June 02, 2011

Nico Muhly

Just listening to some music by Nico Muhly, a young composer whose name was quite unfamiliar to me.

The music is from I Drink the Air Before Me, and is part of an hour-long ballet of the same name. The You Tube video below isn't actually visual; it's purely some of the music. (You can see some of the ballet and the accompanying music here. and here and watch the pianist conducting the orchestra on the other side of the stage, behind the dancers, and the youth choir.)

It has a violinist doing a number of energetic scratchings over a limited number of notes while in the background various instruments and electronics hum and flutter and hover, and every so often, give a bit of a surprise Thump just to keep you on your toes.

It's interesting to compare this to Gillian Whitehead's music. I've been listening again to the CD that comes with her biography, in particular the piece for orchestra entitled The Improbable Ordered Dance. This begins so softly that I had to turn my CD player up in order to work out that something was happening - even then, it was no more than a ppp rustling going on. Eventually - and I mean around a minute and a half into the music - the cor anglais got going and wandered around some notes, and gradually the thing took on the sound space of landscape with the occasional bird tut-tutting, and the wind whistling when it felt like it, and various other sounds that certainly were reminiscent of something like open marshlands, or being amongst the grasses near the sea.

Dancing it wasn't.

This section of Muhly's ballet score can't be easy to (A) play, or (B) dance to, but at least it has energy. The energy might seem to be like an odd conversation that the violin is having pretty much with itself, a kind of person with mental health issues muttering and occasional barking out at passers-by, and perhaps stamping his feet loudly on something metal, but there's a definite energy to it all. Whitehead's music seems to lack that impulse - or perhaps the impulse is so minimal (it's intriguing that Muhly has worked with Philip Glass, one of the prime minimalists) that you have to stop breathing in order to hear it. I've just got another CD out of the library with her music on it, including the early Missa Brevis. You must admit I'm trying to get to like the lady's music!

There's another interesting thing between the two composers: in the biography Whitehead says at one point that the words of poems aren't what she's trying to communicate when she sets them in a song; she's interested in their sounds, and in stretching them out and playing around with them. The original idea of the words as something we understand seems to go out the window. Which might explain why I find her settings of poems not very sympathetic.

Muhly, in the interview in The Guardian where I first discovered him (twenty minutes ago) says something interesting about words: "I think in language and then it turns into music. The relationship between them is like a reversible coat. The language is the structure on which the music hangs. I don't know what the hell is going on with that. I find it much easier to start thinking about something bizarre in language, like the kind of 'r' sounds they make in Beijing. I think about that for six days, then a piece of music comes out. Maybe I was just put together incorrectly and I should go to the shop and get fixed."

"The language is the structure on which the music hands." He's just about to have his first opera, Two Boys, presented, so it'll be interesting to see how he uses language. It's about two teenage boys who got to know each other via the Internet. One created wild and vast worlds that he shared with the other - and it almost ended in tragedy.

The music isn't readily available yet so it's hard to know what it'll sound like, but I'll be keeping tabs on it and will write about it as soon as I get a chance.
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