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Nico Muhly - Seeing is Believing

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Artist: Nico Muhly

Album: Seeing is Believing

Label: Decca

Review date: Aug. 3, 2011

These days it seems to be a minor trope to connect new music with early music 1. While it’s still common to hear new pieces interspersed with the workhorses of the Romantic period in concert halls (orchestra administrators still believe that’s the music that fills concert halls), the pairing of the new with the very old raises an interesting set of questions. What is the affinity between the old and the new? Why exclude the Classical and Romantic eras, and what does that exclusion mean? What do these juxtapositions say about the artists who make them? Is there more to these pairings than the postmodern tendency toward layering musical quotations as an end in and of itself? And how does all of this relate to the hotshot American composer Nico Muhly?

First, though, a (relatively) brief detour into the history of history in classical music. The notion of history in what we call classical music is a relatively recent invention. For most of the second millennium, composers reacted primarily to the music of the previous generation and of their peers, without much real knowledge of any prior musics. Older music was relegated to the archives where much of it was lost or languished for centuries. This started to change in the early 19th century for two primary reasons: first, the gravitational force of Beethoven (and, to a lesser extent, Mozart and Haydn) and the stabilization of the modern orchestra suddenly meant that older music maintained its currency (a trend that continues to this day in every symphony in the world). Secondly, Felix Mendelssohn staged a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, the first performance of the work since Bach’s death in 1750, leading to a huge revival of Bach’s music in Germany and elsewhere. Suddenly, music had a history to the point where Wagner could begin talking about the superiority of German music over the centuries, Guido Adler could invent musicology to study the lost musical past (and, in part, confirm the superiority of German music), and Brahms could be paralyzed by the weight of Beethoven and so forth. But even then, the canon only started around the middle of the 17th century.

The 20th century saw many composers try to distance themselves from the overdetermined excesses of the Romantic era through increasing harmonic and formal complexity, overtly using popular music, turning to unusual chamber ensembles, and inserting layer upon layer of quotation. At the same time, researchers (including composers like Anton Webern who studied the 15th century composer Heinrich Isaac for his doctorate) were rediscovering the music of the more distant past and making it available for public consumption. Certain composers, particularly those already invested in notions of polyphony, dove in to this newly available repertoire as a source of inspiration (Elliott Carter, for instance, spent much of the 1930s singing pre-Baroque choral music). Nowhere was this rediscovered history more important than in England, where Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, and Alexander Goehr built an avant-garde based on combining serialism with the music of their English forefathers: Purcell, Byrd, Taverner, Tallis and Dowland. These Elizabethan composers provided an alternate way to think about tonality and polyphony, not to mention that they were perhaps the last group of English composers to actually influence the classical music world. So by reaching back, Davies and Birtwistle were staking a claim both to their Englishness but also to the idea that they were pushing the musical avant-garde in a new direction, that they were somehow once again in the lead.

Which brings us to Seeing is Believing, in which an English ensemble, the Aurora Orchestra, plays three Muhly arrangements of old pieces by William Byrd (1540-1623) and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), two pieces of Muhly’s that are inspired by Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes (1573-1623), and two other pieces by Muhly. In a way, this diversity of inspiration shows the full depth of Muhly’s compositional voice, one that simultaneously encapsulates non-mathematical minimalism, indie rock inspired classical music, vaguely ironic Romantic post-minimalism, and Elizabethan polyphony. Of all the works here, “Motion” merges all of these threads most successfully. Muhly tears apart a Gibbons anthem into small chunks and reconfigres them into a minimalist setting with all the energy of an Arcade Fire song driven by chugging, rhythmic piano parts straight out of Steve Reich. Gibbons is subsumed by the propulsive force of the writing, emerging at the occasional Tudor cadence only to vanish again into the texture. The old is really only important here as background inspiration for Muhly, or as source material to be remixed; Gibbons exerts no active force on the listened experience of the work. This shows some of minimalism’s ability to engulf any outside sounds or styles that get thrown at it.

The other work that engages directly with the old is “By All Means,” which pits Weelkes and Webern in a battle of polyphony with John Adams as referee. Webern and Weelkes are fundamental to the piece, which abound with direct quotations of and stylistic references to both composers. Thus, this is the most abstract piece on the disc, bumping up against the academic, particularly in those moments where a texture from Webern cleverly resolves into a Weelkesian cadence. Unlike either of those composers, though, Muhly never quite seems to know how to end a piece; most of the compositions on this album seem to simply run out of steam, to evaporate without ever coming to a satisfying conclusion. Minimalism often has a problem escaping its shifting grooves and its rare to hear a composer who manages to do that successfully.

The final two original works are a bit more enigmatic. “Step Team” is more conventionally minimalist, with propulsive arrangements and tense chord progressions, punctuated by random attacks at the bottom of the bass or top of the treble. And the title tune, a concerto for six-string electric violin, takes its inspiration from ‘80s educational videos. Both are fairly conventional, though I find “Step Team” keeps my attention much better than “Seeing is Believing.”

Which brings us to the three arrangements, two Byrd motets and one Gibbons anthem. All three were originally choral works in which the different voices are locked in reverential counterpoint. Muhly clearly loves all three works, expounding at length about each in the liner notes, and his arrangements are eminently tasteful. He’ll occasionally transpose a voice up or down, using all of the (more sober) colors and timbres the Aurora’s provide. In the context of the CD, though, it becomes clear just how much Muhly relies on these English composers as cement for his own compositional approach. Their idioms may be different, but those composers’ approach to harmony and dissonance suffuses Muhly’s music at a fundamental level. It becomes impossible to listen to the pieces on Mothertongue without hearing flashes of England’s Tudor period, certain bits of polyphony in “Seeing is Believing” become legible as interpolations of Byrd or Purcell, and the harmonic language of Gibbons shows through the seams in “Motion.” This isn’t the kind of post-modern music that just splays quotations at random. In short, Muhly needs the old as a scaffold. And by including the old on this album, he is laying that scaffold bare.

1. For the purposes of this review, I’ll consider “early music” as music written before 1700. It’s not uncommon to see concerts that connect, say, John Adams’ Shaker Loops with Battalia by the early baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, or juxtapose Henry Purcell with Peter Maxwell Davies, pair Webern with Palestrina. There are CDs that pit John Cage against Frescobaldi, Steve Reich against Bach, Hildegard with Eve Beglarian and Kitty Brazelton, Thomas Tallis with George Crumb, Arvo Pärt with Gregorian chant, and Josquin des Prez with György Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow.

By Dan Ruccia

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