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Please note: The text below refers to all of Nico Muhly's pieces in this program.

While the music of Nico Muhly sometimes lives up to expectations for following the footsteps of his known mentors (Philip Glass or John Corigliano), its other influences may prove to be pleasant surprises. Most noteworthy among these are religious ecstasy (strikingly similar to the music of Arvo Pärt) and ambient music.

That said, nothing about Muhly’s musical language should strike the listener as attempting intentional innovation. Instead, it expresses content through its own engaging lyricism, made out of his recognizable influences and a playful sense of humor. Above all, he reminds us that although a drone can be indicated on a score with a single note, it can also be created with many notes.  

Most of the pieces by Muhly on this program appear on James McVinnie’s 2013 album Cycles, and both commence with the same piece: a tribute for a minister-friend’s installation into a church, titled Rev’d Mustard his installation prelude (2013). It sets a simple hymn-like opening in two-part counterpoint against a contrasting section of repetitive arpeggios and thicker chords, before returning to the simple hymn again. 

Since the early Christian church, the seven so-called “O” antiphons of Advent have been sung in Vespers during the final eight days (Octave) before Christmas, concluding with the Magnificat on Christmas Eve. Over time, Christians have assigned them extra reverence and mysticism since they occur during a “golden” time interval of the church calendar. For centuries, composers in Western music have set them in styles appropriate to their era. Muhly’s O Antiphon Preludes (2010) provide musical afterthoughts to the chanted antiphons of the Catholic Breviary. Following Chopin’s model of prelude as short character piece, each lasts about two to three minutes in different monolithic forms, some slow and meditative, others loud and rhythmic: “Sapientia,” “Adonai,” “Radix Jesse,” “Clavis David,” “Oriens,” “Rex Gentium,” and “Emmanuel” (which acrostically backwards spells “ero cras” which is Latin for “tomorrow I will come”).

Drones & Viola da Gamba (2014) begins peripatetically with a wide-sweeping melody outlining various consonant harmonies, gradually becoming more cadenza-like, before arriving at several thick broken chords. Slow Twitchy Organs (2007) for organ, marimba, and string instrument provides a more ambient style, although the “twitchiness” created by abrupt punctuations on the marimba and sustained and embellished by the viola da gamba allow a perceived dialogue to unfold.

In Fast Cycles (2009) for organ solo, Muhly is again playing off the way that fast arpeggios morph into chords and back again, while a slow and ominous pedal line serves as melody. Commissioned by percussionist Chris Thompson, Beaming Music (2002) for organ and marimba employs a pun on the word “beaming” in reference to both the process of transforming short metric snippets into sustained chords and Thompson’s bright or “beaming” personality.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin and a JD from McGeorge School of Law.