It Goes Without Saying

Carlos Barba


Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying is a minimalist musical experience that combines digital and acoustic sounds in a very creative and tasteful manner. I had to listen several times to absorb and appreciate the complex soundscape that Muhly created. The backbone of the piece is a drone, made up of long notes and sometimes chords played by a keyboard synthesizer pad. This is the only voice that never rests or stops in the entire piece. This provides a foundation that supports the multiple clarinet parts that are heard through most of the piece. Although there are a few long, held notes, most of the clarinet parts are made up of short rhythmic bursts. The clarinets are the lead instruments but they are playing very rhythmically and not melodically. These voices repeat and develop short rhythmic motives that are passed around in a call-and-response manner. These often create clusters and other types of interesting non-tertian harmonies About a minute into the piece, the clarinet keys being fingered are heard as a non-pitched percussion element that contributes to the rhythmic accompaniment. 

            Besides the clicking sounds of the clarinets, there are a series of percussive elements and sounds that are heard. Metallic timbres of many kinds are produced by legitimate and make-shift percussion instruments. Some pitched-percussion instruments, such as celestas and some kinds of bells or mallet instruments are heard playing short rhythmic motives similar to the clarinets. Other digital sounds or samples are incorporated as sound effects or as part of the beats or patterns that the variety of percussive sounds create. There is a steady pulse sometimes but the meter is unclear. The percussion, clarinets, and all sounds fade in an out while the drones are always heard in the background. The form is through-composed. The piece flows and evolves naturally, without cadences or contrasting sections. There is only one section close to the middle that sounds different from the rest of the piece. Some abrupt, industrial-like, rhythmic samples are heard above everything else for about half a minute, but then it returns to the same type of texture.

            I really appreciate the balance of simplicity and complexity in this piece. The long notes in the synthesizer create a sense of easiness, stability, and calmness. The intricate rhythmic bursts and patterns heard in all the other instruments and timbres create complex polyrhythms. These fade in and out, so they do not overwhelm the listener. The harmonic tension and release is also interesting. There are a lot of pitches being heard but there is no clear tonal center. There is harmony being created by the different instruments but it is definitely not functional or traditional. There is a really nice balance of consonance and dissonance throughout. It is far from being atonal but it is also far from being diatonic. I am definitely interested in listening to some more of Muhly’s works. I do not hear a lot of influences from the common practice period of classical music in this particular piece but I know Muhly is well educated in that from an interview I watched a few weeks ago. It sounds like he was influenced by minimalist composers such as Phillip Glass or Steve Reich. My favorite element was the variety of timbres and percussive effects Muhly chose for this piece. The clicking clarinet keys and other unusual sounds create an exquisite palette of colors that really caught my attention. 

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