Drones in Large Cycles

Nico Muhly’s Drones in Large Cycles was written in 2012 and is the bonus composition on Muhly’s album, Drones. Each movement on the album is scored for a single instrument with drones. The instrumentation includes two pianos, violin, viola, and drones. Muhly says, “I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over static structure.” Through the use of several different musical elements, Muhly was able to create a unique work that is deeply rooted in the classical tradition. 

The first thing that stands out is the instrumentation of this work. Mulhy composed a piece that uses instruments traditionally found in the orchestra: piano, violin, and viola. He layers the instrumentation with various drones throughout the work to provide unique musical ideas. Throughout this work the instruments perform virtuosic passages that, at times, contradict the electronics. The violin and viola are commonly used as solo instruments performing alone, together, and with the two pianos. The rhythmic interactions between each instrument is one of many compositional techniques Muhly uses in this work to develop his musical ideas.

The use of phasing was more commonly used by Steve Reich with works such as Piano Phase. Muhly takes that idea and elaborates on it by using four instruments at a time, along with the inclusion of electronics. The composite rhythms created by the overlapping and phasing of several instruments blurs any form of clear musical direction. There is always something new happening rhythmically that is imitated in another instrument, similar to a winding staircase that seems to go on forever. The constant phasing of rhythms builds up to roughly the 10-minute mark, where there is a composite five-over-four polyrhythm. This musical idea, while brief, presents the listener with the climax of the piece. Rather than a large harmonic cadence to signify the climax, Muhly uses polyrhythms to give the piece a solid groove for a moment. 

Overall, this piece has a sense of tonality without a defined key center. There are moments where the instruments are playing in certain keys for moments, then move to a different key. There are no cadences, in a traditional sense, throughout the work. Using the changing harmony only with constant phasing, this further emphasizes a sense of constant motion building to a certain moment in the piece. Due to the lack of a key center, some harmonic content seems a bit strange to the listener. However, Muhly presents these harmonic changes in a way that are complimented by the drones. 

 Muhly’s use of electronics in this piece are different than other composers such as Missy Mazzoli, because Muhly uses it as a place to build upon harmonic motion. Many times, electronics are used as accompaniment to a piece, or a soundscape to create the atmosphere of the work. Muhly uses electronics for both of these reasons, and also as an independent voice throughout this work. In the beginning, there are light sounds provided by the drone accompaniment that act as a soundscape by providing eclectic nuances. As the piece develops the electronics begin to give rhythmic and harmonic support. There are several moments where the electronics move through the texture of the piece to emphasize certain ideas, or to become the main focus of a particular musical moment. 

 In relation to the classical tradition, Muhly is able to bring instruments that carry a long heritage in western music to be brought into the modern day with electronics. He provides the instruments very musical moments, while also having them perform in ways not normally seen in the orchestral realm. Muhly has created a unique work that takes the listener through several musical areas with instrumentation, rhythmic content, and electronics. 

Trice Mayhall


“Drones in Large Cycles”. YouTube Video, 11:50. Posted by “ennio speranza”, April 2, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDTxFrS8DFQ

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