Honest Music

Nico Muhly
Honest Music
Recording released in 2006

In my first listen to this composition, I thought that I was hearing a chamber work with harp, keyboards (some sort of synthesizer included), and a small string ensemble, with the first violin being featured throughout. When I saw the composition on Muhly’s website I was surprised to learn that the piece was for violin and a pre-recorded CD. The violinist performing was so well timed that I thought I was listening to multiple live musicians interacting with one another.

I noticed that the composition had a relaxed form or structure. It seemed to me that opening was more timid and slow to develop. This was followed by a section that seemed more active and really showed off the violin soloist. Then the piece winded back down to the way it started. I felt like he composed the piece in a manner that many composers of the past would have; an ABA’ type form. The form is perceived in the harmonic content, tempo, and development of ideas.

The section that I considered “A,” or perhaps an introduction, seemed to be characterized by a layering effect with violins over a pedal point from the keyboards. It has a lot of dead space that gives a sense of reflection. At first it seems like only two violins are echoing each other but then it sounds like more and more enter the texture. The only harmony in this section is created by the overlapping of the violins as it creates suspensions and resolutions. The second section seemed to be much more active in all the parts. The keyboards and harps were now playing arpeggiating figures as opposed to just providing a pedal. The violin was now performing soaring solo lines. Sometimes the solo line seemed perfectly echoed, almost as if they were performing with some sort of special reverb. The violinist was much more forward dynamically and energetically so it seemed clear to me at that point that this composition was made to feature a violin soloist. After a particularly lengthy violin solo break that ended with an extremely high pitch, the piece seemed to climax with activity from all musicians. It was during this section that I also noticed synthesizer in the texture and made it sound like the composition was going to turn into something influenced more by electronics.

After this climax, the piece seemed to wind back down and sounded a lot like the beginning. The fact that Muhly ended the composition the way he had begun it made me feel that he values symmetry despite the free nature of his music. Listening again, in the soloistic section, I realized that the long violin solo break happens twice towards the beginning of the section and towards the end. Looking at the time frame of when the two violin breaks happen, they are at approximately the 2 minute mark and the 4 minute mark in the 6 minute composition, dissecting the composition into thirds.

As a classical composer, Muhly most likely feels that making his composition more symmetrical helps his audience connect to it more. Although the solo lines and themes would be difficult to reproduce by the listener, they would still be able to recognize them when they repeated. Muhly skillfully demonstrated mastery at creating something memorable that would keep his listeners engaged.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

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