Nico Muhly delivers a night of music to remember. Because memory is all I’ll have.
Earlier this evening, the Mrs. and I headed to Merkin Concert Hall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a much-anticipated performance of new works by the composer Nico Muhly. The hall itself is a modest, modern auditorium with red cloth-backed seats and acoustically generous blond wood suspended every which way, in accordance with the laws of physics (I assume). It’s a lovely, intimate space and the auditorium was filled with eager patrons of all ages (we sat just behind a very attentive toddler and his parents), ready to listen.
I love the concert hall; I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is something about live performance in that environment that, much like live theater, heightens the emotional response in me. I feel part of a moment, alive and connected to something that may or may not unfold according to plan. One of the more interesting things about most live theater and concert music is that there is, quite literally, a plan to be followed; In the case of music, the score, the music on the page, is the meticulously created map that should dictate the entirety of the proceedings. Formally speaking, one of the most oppressive things about classical music is the idea of constant reproduction of the same ol’ scores; The opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (a personal favorite) are instantly recognizable to an audience. What makes the concert hall so exciting for me is the knowledge that, regardless of what is on the page, no two reproductions of the score will ever sound the same because, while performances vary in quality and execution, what really changes is time itself; The relationship of the music to my experience, my mood, my relationship to other art, to other ways of thinking, to new ideas that continually pile up inside of me and change who I am. Cells dying and reproducing; My ears are never the same.
What struck me tonight was just how much Nico Muhly’s performance not only honored that process of change, but utilized it as a fundamental philosophy for the creation of music. First, I had never heard any of these pieces before, and I don’t think many had; All three appear on Muhly’s forthcoming album. There is nothing staid or boring in hearing any music for the first time; The burst of the new is always worth a listen. In an on-stage conversation with WNYC host John Schaefer, Muhly was charming and forthright in his explanation that the program we had received when we walked in the door was, in fact, a “lie”; Instead of the stripped down performance the program notes had promised, there would instead be several musicians and pre-recorded elements that would be used on-stage to create a “studio” environment. And then, just under his breath, Muhly said that, of course, the idea of reproducing music was false in its conception; No recorded performance ever equals the sonic and emotional experience of the live event. And so, what promised to be an engaging evening of music became something very special. Sure, the scores rested on the music stands, waiting to be performed, but suddenly, things felt dangerous and alive with possibility.
Now, this phenomenon is nothing new; Jazz music is built upon improvisation and a century’s worth of that music thrived on this very tension between beautiful melody and the certainty that no two performances of a song will ever be alike. Rock and roll and the blues also feature the possibility that songs will be radically re-interpreted in performance. All of this is true, but while most jazz songs feature a main melody followed by improvisation over a suggested chord progression and most rock songs are primarily a delivery system for verse-chorus-verse, lyrics and melody, both of these forms exist in relation to a fixed, recorded memory of a song; If you take a song like My Favorite Things into the stratosphere like John Coltrane did, you have an amazing musician still referencing the Rogers and Hammerstein original and taking it into unforeseen places. In so-called classical music, the composer is the primary star; While we revel in soloists and ensembles and their performances of their “repertoires”, it has long been the case that fidelity to the score that has been the standard for excellence in reproduction. Sure, you can manipulate the music to create a diverse array of emotional responses, but the meter and the notes will always be the same and the musicians, as amazing as they may be, bend to the will of the conductor, the interpreter of composer’s will. Muhly’s performance eliminated this entire hierarchy altogether; As composer, conductor and performer, he found a space between fidelity to the score and the live creation of musical textures that fit within his controlled framework, but which created a singular experience for audience and musicians alike.
First up was a piece for solo piano and several pre-recorded pianos called Skip Town; The piece is a percussive, syncopated conversation between Muhly playing live piano and the stacks of piano tracks (also Muhly, but recorded) that darted all over the PA. The piece was lively and engaging, and performed masterfully by Muhly. Next up was the highlight of the evening; A beautiful, soaring piece called Wonders that featured percussion, harpsichord, piano, laptop, bass trombone, two counter-tenors, electronic celesta, and a text that drew from various Olde English sources. The texts relate to the uncertainty of travel, the mythologies of the sea and an anonymous complaint against a 17th century choir master. But at its heart, this piece is built upon Muhly’s effortless transitions from one mood to the next, most notably in his quotation of a madrigal by the composer Thomas Weelkes called Thule, the period of cosmography (I don’t think Muhly knows what that means either);
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I
Whose heart with fear doth freeze…
and then, suddenly, in the middle of it all, these soaring tenor voices, singing what sounds like a cry from centuries ago, this purely harmonious, beautiful burst of human voice singing a very formal snippet of choral music. It was glorious; I audibly gasped and began smiling. During this piece, for whatever reason, I was transported out of time, out of place, into what I can only think of as simple openness; I was hearing the music, thinking about its structure and sound, remembering things from my own past, watching Muhly conduct from behind his harpsichord, sensing the presence of my wife next to me, and feeling, all of it at once, one thing, experiencing the music. When the piece ended and the final chord slowly evaporated, I wanted that almost-silence, the faint hum of dying notes, to just hang there forever.
The final piece of the night was Mothertoungue, the title track from Muhly’s forthcoming album. The piece was written for the mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, but again, the stage was filled with musicians; Amplified viola, electric bass, percussion (including watering can and soaked rag), piano and electronic celesta, our two amazing counter-tenors (Helgi Hrafn Jónsson and Caleb Bruhan), and electronics (which featured Fischer’s voice in layers of sound). The idea behind the piece was to have Fischer list all of the memories she could muster off of the tip of her tongue; old phone numbers, zip codes, addresses, social security numbers. Muhly then created layers of vocal tracks against which Fischer sang her memories live (and the tenors sang their own remembered numbers) while the instrumental ensemble led them through a “morning”; waking, showering, making breakfast and going a little bit mad with all of things that must be remembered. It goes a little something like this:
The piece was marvelous and of all the music performed, felt the most likely to whirl out of control. But in the midst of the sound was a deeply-felt order; Pitches and chords came and went in unison, the structure of the vocals against the shifting backdrop of the ensemble provided tension, resolved to harmony and dissipated into dissonance again. Somehow, as the final chord was struck, the last numeric obsession sung, the piece made perfect sense. It was overwhelming; Bows were taken, and the audience applauded thunderously (and would have kept applauding had they not been cut off by an announcement). Slowly, still moved and eager to talk about the music, we donned our jackets and all slipped into the night.
I had a discussion with the Mrs. on the subway ride home about how different things must have been just one hundred years or so ago; To have experienced Wonders and Mothertongue in performance tonight and then to not be able to hear them again until the next live performance would be heartbreaking. Back then, there were compensations to be made for those who could afford them; See multiple performances of a beloved symphony or opera, buy and study the score, get the sheet music and play back a shadow of the entire piece on a home piano, fruitlessly attempting to capture the power of the full, live orchestration. While Muhly correctly stated that the recording of a performance holds no true fidelity to the performance itself, without recorded music, the live performance becomes the all, the only thing that matters. While I can’t wait to get my paws on Mothertongue and listen to these songs as recorded, what I love about Muhly’s approach is that he designed these pieces for the recording studio and then did not even attempt to “authentically” replicate that experience on the stage; He created a magic, unique moment that can only ever exist in the past, a fleeting memory of a lovely concert hall. History can have the record, we had the night. Knowing this only added a fierce temporal concentration to the evening; While I may never hear the same exact sounds again, I remember what I heard. No going back, but that’s okay; It was beautiful.