My first thought of Nico Muhly’s work Gait was “great, another minimalist repeating the same thing for twenty seven minutes.” However, I was quickly proven wrong by virtuosic writing Muhly incorporated for all instruments. His composition is also a satisfying blend of old western composition practice, and twenty-first century composition.
Nico Muhly’s work, Gait, features harps at the beginning of the piece setting a boisterous and dreamy atmosphere. The composer uses minimalist writing throughout the piece. For example, the harps begin the piece with a continuous ostinato of eighth notes. The overall melody of the ostinato is dissonant until the last bit of the phrase where he included a small chromatic passage that leads to the recapitulation of the ostinato. This small bit of dissonance creates a sense of mystery that engages the listener. This dissonant passage is significant because it is repeated by other instruments throughout the piece.
Gait is orchestrated for a significantly large orchestra, in comparison to the standard romantic orchestra. The score calls for four harps, five to six bassoons with at least two contrabassoons, three oboes and two English horns. The list goes on. However, the Instrumentation is unusual because the conventional instrumentation of orchestras call for only two bassoons, one contrabassoon (if any), two oboes, and one English horn. There are also occasional bursts of dissonant sounds that come from different instruments at, what seems like, random moments. I believe he wrote this to remind the listener that this is not your ordinary classical symphony. The second section is more legato and full of color. The texture is thick, with the strings droning under solos that are passed around to different instruments. The final section is Livelier and creates a sense of adventure. This character is created by the syncopation between the low range instruments and the tenor range instruments. Finally, this piece is unconventional in the form because it does not have a set form, like sonata form, where the first section is repeated at the end. On the contrary, Muhly adds a new character to conclude the piece in an unforgiving manner. The orchestra builds in sound and texture and as the music begins to build tension, the music ends in the middle of a phrase.
There are some ties to classical Western traditions in this work, some more apparent than others. For example, the composer often has consonant harmonies that please the ear. Muhly also uses instruments that are common in an orchestra and strays away from using electronics. Another tie to traditional composition is how he applies idiomatic writing for all instruments, in other words, he does not use extended techniques. Finally, Muhly’s writing of tonal melodies and use of ostinati is a perfect blend of traditional and modern techniques that amuse both the player and listener.