Nico Muhly: How Little You Are for Voices and Guitars (World Premiere). Bass Concert Hall, University of Texas, Austin, Texas. Saturday, April 18, 2015.
Thirty-four year old composer Nico Muhly, born in Vermont and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, has taken the classical music world by storm. Prodigiously gifted and energetic, he has, to this point, followed a rather unique career path. Muhly had a conventional education – B.A. at Columbia University, M.A. at Juilliard, classical music composition teachers John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse – but somewhere along the line he stretched out, acquiring, in addition to a background in classical music, an encyclopedic knowledge of pop and rock music. The result? A unique voice among contemporary composers.
This same Nico Muhly had the rare honour of having his opera Two Boys produced at the Met. The Met was impressed enough to commission another opera – working title Marnie – to be presented in its 2019-2020 season.
Muhly has worked extensively with pop and rock musicians, including Björk, Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons, as well as toured with Philip Glass and composed an orchestral work for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He is also a great writer. Check out his opinion of Madonna’s new album Rebel Heart in The Talkhouse here. Multi-talented musical commodity Muhly is clearly busy. Look for recordings of some of his compositions on the Icelandic music collective/recording label Bedroom Community, and stay abreast of his activities via his website www.nicomuhly.com.
Muhly’s latest work, How Little You Are, was the result of a commission from Austin Classical Guitar, Conspirare and Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, supported by the Mellon Foundation. Jumping at the opportunity to write for the unusual combination of voices and three guitar quartets, Muhly set about finding a text, and finally settled on excerpts from the diaries of two Texas pioneer women: Elinore Pruitt Stewart and Mary Alma Blankenship. The title of the piece is taken from a passage by Blankenship, in which she ruminates on the loneliness of pioneer life and the importance of God in that life:
“But when you get among such grandeur you get to feel how little you are, how foolish is human endeavor, except that which unites us with the almighty force called God.”
The women are brave and courageous, but life on the frontier is precarious; they live in fear much of the time and miss terribly the loved ones they left back home.
Muhly’s music for these words is mostly quiet and reflective and he does not try to dramatize events. With one notable exception, the music is abstract rather than overtly emotional. The sound of the twelve acoustic guitars is just the right accompaniment for the words of these Texas pioneer women, as the guitar was the instrument of choice for many travelers into the unknown reaches of the American West.
In spite of the guitars, one doesn’t think of ‘cowboy’ songs until Part Five, the final section of the piece, in which two traditional songs – “O bury me not on the lone prairie” and “I’m thinking of my dear old mother, ten thousand miles away” – emerge softly from the heretofore amorphous texture, as if from a long way off. The effect is magical and deeply moving.
In spite of Muhly’s interest in pop music, his compositional technique is highly sophisticated and in this new work, often deceptively complex; while the three guitar quartets do not appear to be doing much of anything for most of the piece, if one listens closely one hears frequent subtle transformations of rhythms and harmonies. In the last movement, one of the guitarists – I believe he was a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet – repeats a fairly basic pattern over and over, while the other guitarists add unsettling scraps of rhythm and harmony that are clearly at odds with the soloist. This is, after all, the message of the piece and the essence of its special meaning for Texans: we cherish our traditions, but from such perilous beginnings – and even in our modern world we can be lonely and afraid – we have created something structured and enduring.
I found Muhly’s How Little You Are to be an original and powerful piece and look to this composer to create a significant body of work. On the occasion of this commission, he was given a group of performers composers mostly only dream about. The members of Conspirare’s Company of Voices sang this difficult new work with complete assurance and commitment. The three guitar quartets played each note with infinite care and beauty of tone. I only wish that we could have heard more from each of the quartets elsewhere in the program. Craig Hella Johnson prepared the ensemble as only he can and conducted with total mastery. The composer was in Austin for the rehearsals and the performance, spoke a few words of introduction, and generally endeared himself to the audience and the performers with his talent and outgoing personality.
Incidentally, Muhly adds a bass drum in the final movement to underline some of the rhythmic effects – an element that suggested, at least to me, the fear of ruthless Indian tribes that was pervasive on the southwest frontier, and the roll of thunder signaling that nature too was often threatening “on the lone prairie.”
As if on cue, just before the entrance of the bass drum in Muhly’s music, rolling thunder sounded “for real” overhead, right above Bass Concert Hall; I’ll bet Muhly loved it.
I would enjoy hearing this piece again, but not in the Bass Concert Hall, which is too big for this piece, and too dry acoustically. For maximum effect, this music needs a smaller, more resonant facility.
Earlier in the concert we heard short pieces performed by the Allegro Ensemble, Conspirare Youth Choirs and the Austin Classical Guitar Youth Orchestra. The young musicians gave a good account of themselves, but music that was more contemporary in style and more energetic might have suited them better.
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