For several weeks, I’ve been listening to
these two recent discs and trying to figure out what to say about
this music. Muhly
is a prolific young composer, who has not only written “classical”
music, but has also worked with pop and rock artists, such as
Björk and Arcade Fire, and has collaborated with Philip Glass.
His music is part of a new generation of compositions that cross
boundaries, that don’t see classical music as being “classical”,
and that explore sounds and forms that are sometimes considered
to be part of pop music. Decca, on the back of one of these discs,
touts him as “America’s leading young composer”.
Written as a score for a dance piece by Stephen Petronio, Muhly
says in the liner-notes that I Drink the Air Before Me
relate to the weather: storms, anxiety and coastal living”, and
that he “divided up the piece into a series of episodes all hinging
around spiral-shaped constellations of notes”.
This is all well and good. I don’t hear the “spiral-shaped constellations
of notes”, but I hear an attractive composition that works well
as incidental music, that is mostly tonal and agreeable to the
ear. Often, there is an interesting counterpoint between the piano
- which acts as much as a percussion instrument as a melodic one
- and the other instruments. At times the music flows smoothly,
and at times it has rough edges. Muhly is very adept at arranging
this music, and the small ensemble works adroitly as a unit, with
each instrument also standing alone at times. The choir blends
well in the sections where it is used, and provides an interesting
enhancement to the chamber ensemble. Some of the music can be
a bit annoying: the droning viola (with tape?) of Varied Carols
is grating, and is about 7 minutes too long, parts of Music
Under Pressure 2 – Piano
sound like Muhly is just playing
random notes, and parts of Storm Center
are better skipped.
But the closing piece, One Day Tells Its Tale To Another
dominated by piano and choir, is attractive and moving, and is
a fitting end to the disc.
A Good Understanding
is a collection of choral works by
Muhly and features a large choir with soloists, organ, horns,
strings and percussion. The texts are biblical, with the exception
of the final work, Expecting the Main Things from You
the words of which are by Walt Whitman.
There’s a blandness in this music; it is less angular or edgy
than that of I Drink the Air Before Me
, and, in fact, it
sounds as if it is by a different composer. While Muhly was a
chorister in his youth, this doesn’t ensure that the music he
composes for choir is anything special.
Recently, a number of discs of choral music by living composers
have had a certain popularity. This may be related to the faux
spirituality that people hear in this music; that a choir is something
people think of in connection with a church. I’m not especially
moved by this type of bland choral music, and would much rather
listen to the originals, be they Bach or plainchant. One thing
that I miss in the works on this disc is any sound of joy. The
music is played at plodding tempi – because that sounds more “spiritual”?
– and, while the sound of the choir is delicious, it becomes,
in the end, little more than an attractive background. Each piece
sounds similar, and Muhly’s approach consists, for the most part,
of repeating the same types of harmonies and melodic fragments.
A bit of raucous organ playing in A Good Understanding
some spice, but when the choir comes in, they sound just the way
they do on all the other pieces.
The longest work on the disc, Expecting the Main Things from
, at 22 minutes in three movements, is the most ambitious.
Taking words from Walt Whitman, this notably features more instruments
than the other works. There is a string quartet and organ playing
behind the choir and soloists. This piece, which might have been
compelling, ends up being overwhelmed by the sound of the choir.
Perhaps with a smaller group of singers, this could be an interesting
However, this music in no way suggests Whitman. The poetry here
suffers greatly from the lush, layered choral treatment. These
are strong, vibrant words, those of an individualist poet:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
In Muhly’s music, the urgency of Whitman’s words is attenuated
into that of a smooth choir, which is as far from Whitman’s intentions
as possible. The final movement is perhaps the only part of this
disc that has character. The tone is quite different from the
rest of the piece, and the from the other works; it recalls some
of Steve Reich’s works such as Tehillim
. If only Muhly
had gone further in this direction.
In the end – and this is why it has taken me a while to write
about these discs – I’m left unmoved by this music. I’m very interested
in the direction that young composers like Muhly are taking. I
can understand that they can incite a certain level of enthusiasm
among those who see this “new music” as being something that is
divorced from the classical canon, but that also rejects the long-dominant
atonal contemporary classical music that, for many listeners,
is a source of headaches.
This is classical music for those who don’t listen to classical
music, and in a way that is admirable. If these 21st century composers
– those like Muhly, Timothy Andres, David Lang or Paul Moravec
– can attract new listeners to the broader classical genre, then
this is a good thing. If they can revitalize a genre that has,
for decades, been dominated by atonality, that is perhaps even
better. But these discs by Muhly, while interesting, just don’t
grab me. I may be wrong, as many others seem to think that this
is wonderful. But I don’t find much here to come back to, and
I already feel that I’ve listened to these discs more than enough.