Nico Muhly (b. 1981): Control
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, crash cymbals, triangle, bass drum, harpsichord, keyboard; strings
Performance time: 20 minutes
Born in Vermont and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Nico Muhly is an American composer whose work crosses the usual boundaries between pop and classical genres. His opera Two Boys is just one example, but a telling one: Based on events that took place at a school in Manchester, England, it has galvanized listeners in the U.S. and Europe, and has been hailed as one of the most exciting new developments in a centuries-old art form.
Muhly grew up in a highly creative family. His mother, a painter, teaches at Wellesley College; his father is a documentary filmmaker. Exposed to music from an early age as a chorister in his church choir, he went on to study at the Wheeler School in Providence, Columbia University and the Juilliard School, and studied composition with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse.
Muhly has been commissioned by St. Paul's Cathedral and Carnegie Hall, and has written choral music for the Tallis Scholars and Hilliard Ensemble, songs for Anne Sofie von Otter, an encore for violinist Hilary Hahn, and a viola concerto for Nadia Sirota. The Metropolitan Opera recently commissioned to the opera Marnie for its 2019 — 2020 season based on Winston Graham's 1961 novel that was adapted into an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Muhly has scored ballets for choreographer Benjamin Millepied and films including The Reader, Kill Your Darlings, and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, in addition to arranging music by Antony & the Johnson and the National. He lives in New York City.
What to listen for:
Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) is a sequence of five episodes describing, in some way, an element of Utah’s natural environment, as well as the ways in which humans interact with it.
The first part (Landform) begins with a texture of strings, interrupted by forceful chords. A solo oboe works slowly on top of this process, and is itself interrupted by a progression of aggressive chords that slowly ascend, presented at two different (but close enough to rub against one another) speeds. These ascending forms become more seismically unstable, and a trio of pitched percussion (xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone) creates a more mathematical grid; here, as in many other places in Control, I tried to reference, however obliquely, the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), whose visionary work Des Canyons aux Étoiles (1972) deals with Utah’s landscape and the spiritual possibilities found therein. The section ends as it began, but somehow changed, observed by the pitched percussion and subtly transformed.
The second part (Mountain) imagines a mountain in the summer, with various insect-like punctuations from the winds, and a heavily fragmented string section, with small groups of players and soloists splitting from the crowd. A solo viola and solo violin spin simple melodies under and over this texture, sometimes as plain as a single note displaced over all possible octaves. We end with a slightly ominous tuba and piano bassline suggesting, perhaps, that there are other uses for mountains than purely organic ones.
Part three (Beehive) deals with Utah’s history of technological innovation being used to control the landscape. I tried, in various places in this piece, to use the orchestra to convey what must have been the pioneers’ shock at the wild shapes and colors of the landscape; here, that landscape is fully gridded, plotted, and divided and put to agricultural use. The key here is a productive busyness: Utah claims one of the first telegrams ever sent, and, more recently, some of the first fiber internet connections; industriousness is built into the pioneer wagons, the early plows, collective grain storage, charity, education, missionary work, and an ever-changing relationship to technology. Morse-code-like rhythms dominate the first half of this movement, and suddenly, a trio of trumpets take over, echoed by a trio of oboes, then flutes, then various chimes and bells. We end with a solo cello above a busy grid of triangles and woodblock.
Part four (Petroglyph and Tobacco) begins with the simple, aggressive rhythms of stone-carving, hocketed between different families of the orchestra. Eventually, a melody emerges, a Ute song. It is too easy to project a romantic ancientness to the music of Native Americans; in this case, the song was used when begging for tobacco: post-European-contact evidence for the modern malleability of Native American cultural traditions. Similarly, next to a petroglyph, we see modern graffiti, or, graffiti from 90 years ago (Rulon Rushton, 1929, making his mark on history). The landscape and its inhabitants are in a constant dialogue.
Part five (Dust). I’ve spent a good deal of time in the St George area in southern Utah, and one of the most striking elements of the landscape is the outrageous red color everywhere: it’s visually inescapable. More notable, though, was the way the red dust permeated my hair, my clothes, my shoes, and the carpet in my motel. I flew to London the day after a long hike, and when I took off my socks, a confetti of red dust landed on the ground: the Utah landscape had followed me halfway around the world. We can control the landscape, but it has a way of reminding us of its permanence. This section turns a simple chord progression into clouds, shifting forms, and made of many moving parts.
[Dedication TK — ]