Vesper Sparrow

Missy Mazzoly

Vesper Sparrow (2012)

For chamber choir

            At the first moment I heard Missy Mazzoly’s Vesper Sparrow, I was immediately attracted by the way the voices evoked the sounds of nature. As its title suggests, the purpose of this piece is to represent the vesper sparrow´s song. The bird sings from the top of a bush, or another high place to demarcate its territory. Its song begins with two pairs of repeated notes and ends with a series of guttural trills. This pattern can be heard throughout most of the piece.

            The texture is polyphonic most of the time, but there are homophonic moments in the beginning, middle, and closing sections. This variety of textures, plus the timbres and colors created by the combination of syllables and vowel shapes in different voices, envelops the listener in a relaxing and satisfying sonic environment. Each section of the choir has a role. The melody is primarily carried by the sopranos, who introduce a rhythmic motive that is later echoed by the other sections. The bass section acts as an accompaniment, forming chords in imitation of the bird’s guttural sounds during climactic moments of the piece. The alto section acts as harmonic and melodic support for the soprano and bass. The tenors have the same role as the altos, in addition to taking over the melody from the sopranos in certain sections of the piece.

            It is difficult to establish the style of this piece because its structure isn’t obvious. When I heard the music for the first time, it gave me the impression that there was no tonal center, or that these were changes between tonal centers. However, as it developed further, it was easy to identify a tonal center and harmonic functions.

Talking about the elaborate choral voicing is essential. Having listened to the work several times I only find two possibilities: SSAATTBB or SSAATBBB. I arrived at these formations by taking into account the colors and timbres present in the work. I am inclined to hear it as an SSAATBBB arrangement, due to the predominance of the bass in the male voice, which serves as accompaniment to the melody carried by the sopranos and tenors. Although this formation (SSAATBBB) is not typical in traditional choral arrangements (since it can cause balance and blend issues between choir sections), in this piece there is a perfect balance between sections. Several points help to identify a choir with perfect balance. The shape of the vowels, the onset of the notes, and the number of members in the choir are in my opinion the essential points for a good balance and blend. Other important points are the coordination of breaths and the use of consonants, among others.

            I do not find this piece strongly connected with western music traditions. However, there are specific characteristics, such as the pursuit of a tonal center and functional harmonies which are related to the practices of western music. The use of the tenor and alto voices as support and as harmonic connectors, the bass as an accompaniment, and the soprano as the main melody are directly related to the traditional practices of western music. These characteristics reminds me some on Johannes Brahms´ works. The use of baroque era practices but adding new compositional techniques gives  Missy Mazzoli’s work the best of both sides, old and new.

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana

Dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana

Dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet (2016)

Choir and chamber orchestra

Dress in magic amulets, dark, from My feet, is a piece of music in which meditation space drew all my attention. The piece is saturated with dissonances and unisons, and shows a good number of contrasting timbres. During the piece, it is easy to identify general layers in terms of which ensembles are present. I heard two layers: Orchestra and Choir. When the two layers split into more specific ones, like orchestral and choral sections, it is almost impossible to identify those sections. Because of the split, the choir remains in a unison That is present in the first part of the piece, while the orchestra plays stable long notes in the background before it starts to play a duet along with the choir.

A very important characteristic of the entire piece is how these organic and artificial timbral combinations create a homophonic texture. In order to make those characteristic timbres, the composer uses electronic instruments like electric guitar and keyboard in combination with the orchestra. This use of electric instruments represents a common characteristic of this composer. There are some moments when the dynamics in the choir create different phrase shapes in order to enhance the harmonic tension. Those climax points create a deeper connection with the text. Another characteristic is the lack of rhythm.  Regarding rhythm, the lack of rhythmic patterns helps to maintain the homophonic texture, but there are moments in the climax points when the percussion creates a contrasting polyphonic texture with a contrapuntual mix of rhythms.

As a singer and choral conductor, I found it interesting how the choir keeps the balance and blend perfectly to sound as one voice, even when there are constant changes of colors. There is an evident connection between dynamics and vowel contrast. Every time that the dynamics rise, the vowel shape starts to become wider and open and it goes back to being more closed and taller when it goes soft. Something important that I realized is that sometimes I cannot identify what the text means. This is because the choir took out the vibrato and connects each vowel by just touching the consonants to maintain the texture. After I realized that, I decided to look at the text. It is written in the libretto format. I discovered that the text is not long. This challenges the performer to express the meaning of it and make the diction clear to the listener.

I found this piece not fully representative of the classical western choral tradition. The use of unusual orchestration it is not part of the classical western music traditions. But the repetitive change of vowel shape, and the lack of clarity in the text put it in another stream of the choral repertoire which it can be related to the western choral tradition. It is necessary to add that the use of non-vibrato is a common tool in the contemporary and classical choral repertoire. I was impressed by the beauty and complexity of this work. This inspires me in to look and learn more about this really talented composer.


Caroline Shaw

Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw is perfect mix between joy and anxiety. Caroline Shaw is a composer who makes several connections to the past while still making an effort to create new sounds that are well blended into classical traditions.

The composer works with harmony in a fascinating way. At first she uses joyful melodies that capture your attention as a listener. The texture of this piece is mostly thin because of the constant parallel movement except for when she suddenly adds chromatic passages. Caroline incorporates extremely dramatic dynamic contrast throughout this work. For example, the beginning of work is expressed with swells of sounds that diminuendo quickly. The effect it creates is like push and pull of sound. I would consider the nature of her work to be gentle and light-hearted. When it comes to rhythm, there are often moving eighth notes that help you keep track of time. This is especially helpful when she quickly increases and decreases the tempo of the music creating a push and pull effects. The composer also uses chromaticism frequently as a transition to either go to a new section or to repeat a section. Minor extended techniques are used in this modern work. For instance, the one technique that stood out the most was when the performers dampened their strings and continued to bow on the strings in a similar rhythmic pattern to the melody from the beginning of the piece. The form of this piece is similar to that of a Minuet. The beginning is the Minuet and the middle section is a bouncy and lively trio played mostly in pizzicato that later transitions back to the original theme.

As for the connection to the past, I hear several traits that make connections to more traditional styles of Western classical composition. Many open harmonies and parallel motions are present which remind me of musical composition form the renaissance period. Another major trait that I noticed was the form she chose to compose her music in. As I mentioned before, there is a connection between the classic minuet and trio and this piece. This ternary form, like a common minuet, has its three sections of ABA’. Although the recapitulation is not exact in the trio section, the composer hints back to it by ending the piece with a gentle strumming of the strings from the cello. There are also some hints of folkloric playing techniques. More specifically, in the transition from the trio to the recapitulation. While the viola plays arpeggios, the first and second violin play in parallel fourths, creating a folk-like sound.

In conclusion, Caroline Shaw is a composer who is clearly tied to traditional western practices. Although she works with several techniques and sounds that don’t apply to older traditions, she still makes several connections to the past.

Leroy Medina


Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte is a piece written for a string quartet, one of the most respected and commonly used genres in chamber music. One might expect this particular composition to be worlds away from the works historically written for this genre, as Entr’acte was composed by a 21st-century composer. However, upon listening to the piece, I was surprised to discover that Shaw does not conform to these expectations, but instead has created a work that incorporates many elements that can easily be tied back into the Western art classical tradition. With its homophonic texture, clear form and relatively stable tonality, there is little room left in the piece for ambiguity. Even so, Shaw uses every bit of space available to her with rapid meter changes and extended techniques, resulting in an incredibly well rounded piece that provides the listener with a taste of 21st-century compositional characteristics. Entr’acte is a masterfully written work that merges different eras of music, Classical and contemporary, in the most elegant, tasteful way, capturing and preserving the attention of the audience.

    Entr’acte is staged in a Minuet and Trio structure, a form that thrived in the 18th-century. The Minuet, set in the key of D minor, showcases a nostalgic, emotionally charged melody. With each subsequent return, this lyrical theme develops further, both dynamically and harmonically. The expressiveness is enhanced by the driven, ostinato rhythm, set in compound triple meter. In the Minuet, Shaw juxtaposes this poeticism with ambivalence in harmony, as well as voice-like, whispering effects, created by the musicians bowing the body of their instruments. Shaw then returns to the opening statement, creating a rounded binary form within the Minuet.

The Trio presents itself in the key of E-flat Major, unrelated to the initial D minor key of the Minuet. This change in key from major to minor provides contrast with a clear separation between the two sections, enticing the listener even more. The Trio, with its binary form, sets off on an emotional journey ranging from the resonant, consonant melodies in the A section, to the direct quotation of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in the B section. In the opening section of the Trio, Shaw provides simple harmonies and phrasing, reminiscent of the Classical style of composing. While the violist and the second violinist are coloring the music and keeping the rhythm grounded with left hand pizzicatos, the first violinist and cellist are playfully imitating each other, resulting in an “echo” effect. The A section is then contrasted with the driven Fratres quote found in the viola part, the protagonist of the B section. Shaw puts the violist in charge of creating tension through harmony and dynamics in its heavily textured, arpeggiated line. The meter is emphasizing this culmination further, constantly shifting from duple to mixed, abandoning our predictions of the triple meter commonly used in Trio sections. Prior to the return of the Minuet, the piece slowly dissipates through false harmonics and downward glissandos, which creates a “falling down” effect. It appears as though Shaw intended to convey a different mood for the return of the opening theme, now making it dreary and weary. The very end features the cello alone, arpeggiating pizzicato chords, bringing the listener back to the familiar D minor key, and adding a sentimental longing for the past.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte features a wide variety of styles, merging together the music from the Classical period, the 20th and the 21st-century. The quartet presents an ever-changing journey where the compositional ideas organically flow and melt into one another, all the while preserving the sense of familiarity through form, and nostalgia through harmony. Shaw created an attention grabbing piece whose elegance will leave no audience member unimpressed.

Ivana Biliskov

Recording used:

Mutters and Exhales

Ashley Venegas; 4/24/19

Caroline Adelaide Shaw

So Quietly (Live recording November 20, 2016)

For a cappella choir

Certainly, I have an affinity towards music that implements string, wind, and percussive instruments lest I forget another “voice” within the ensembles. One can narrowly think of the human voice as just a means for conversation and, unfortunately, forget that it, too, has history and traditions in the musical world. As an instrumentalist, I delve into the wind and orchestral areas with a greater fervor, regarding compositions, composers, famous musicians, musical styles, and the overall history that follows them. Since I noticed my inattentiveness to the vocal area, I found it important to review a vocal piece that is by our selected composer of the week. Caroline Shaw, an American composer, is famously known for her creative manipulation of the voice in her a cappella composition Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw’s So Quietly is a commissioned a cappella work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and features a transformative story with percussive breaths and a cycle of dynamic and textual tension and release points that build the overall “character” who struggles to find their “voice” in the world.

Within the introduction of the work, the sopranos and alto voices sing a unison rhythm on the syllables “Da dat” and “Ahh” in a 4/4-time signature. As the work progresses, the sopranos reach up to their head voices, creating noticeable register distance between the altos as they both repeat the same rhythmic motive from the introduction. There is a moment where the choir breaks into a new section by having four groups separately inhaling breaths on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. After this moment, long-sustained canon phrases and silences create an unpredictable sense of time as the choir beings to build upon thicker polyphonic textures and gradually crescendos to a forte dynamic. The choir returns to a 4/4-time signature as the altos steadily breathe on counts 2 and 4, immediately adding breathes on each 8th note of the measure; the sopranos return to melodic vocal line with clearly articulated words in a softer dynamic.

Throughout the work, the choir constantly switches between sections of stable 4/4-time signatures and areas where there seems to be free time. Within the stable 4/4 time, the choir tends to sing in a unison rhythmic pattern and the voices build a polyphonic texture; the lyrics during this section are enunciated with clarity. During the sections of free time, the choir tends to have a thicker polyphonic texture (more divisi parts), louder dynamics, and the text is often repeated in a canon which makes the words a bit indiscernible. Half way in work, the choir intertwines the 4/4-time signature with the text “I’ll just sit here” as the other half of the choir has “Ah” phrases in free time. The text and these two contrasting sections of the work illustrate a story of a person (or group) that is afraid to be vocal about any issue, but they gradually gain strength to talk (sing) about these issues without worrying about others opinions.

In regards to the text, the first words are simply syllables of “Das” that eventually turn into the monotonous pattern of “Maybes”, symbolizing a person who is unsure of confronting an issue at hand. Following in succession, the imitative polyphony of “Nevermind, you I” and “Could you I think…if maybe” give hint that the person wishes to be vocal, while the next set of words, “I don’t want to be quiet” is sung in a louder dynamic and show the roundabout thoughts and struggle within them. While the person contemplates to “…just sit here” and not confront the issue, the words abruptly shift to “I won’t just sit here” but again there is a cycle of vocals that go back and forth between these two phrases. Ultimately, the person in the story believes that they will make a difference in the world by “ever-singing” and begin to be vocal on issues they find are important. While the words are not complex, the structure of the lyrics in the work is quite impressive. When the choir has percussive breathes or no text (words), the choir helps create a sense of anxiety as the lack of vocals and deep breathes represent a person who is holding back their words and thoughts (although they eventually surface as the work goes on). In addition, when the person in the story is reluctant about voicing their beliefs, the choir has a softer dynamic but as they build strength of their “voice” and character, the choir develops a thick, polyphonic texture and has a strong forte dynamic.

As I further analyzed the work, I understood that the choir was singing a song that could not be considered liturgical or sacred music. Medieval choral music had unaccompanied (a cappella) Gregorian chant that was monophonic and was free in terms of a time signature, but during the latter half of the Middle Ages music began to shift towards using more polyphonic textures and secular texts. Within “So Quietly”, the text of the work is not sacred but rather secular as the lyrics involve a story of a person becoming vocal about their own beliefs and features such polyphonic textures. The use of non-sacred text and polyphony is like the shift towards secular music during the late Middles Ages and Renaissance Era, which included non-religious topics such as love songs and political satire. Shaw does implement 21st-century harmonies that are reminiscent of Eric Whitacre as the cluster of chords that envelop the “room” are thick with textures and sounds. When taken into consideration, the secular text of So Quietly can also be viewed as a change from the following expected beliefs (such as religion) to transitioning towards an independent mindset by the end of the work. Nevertheless, Shaw has created a rather interesting choral work that does not shy away from a mix of traditional features such as imitation, but also includes the “newer” concepts of cluster chords and percussive breaths into So Quietly.


“Brooklyn Youth Chorus Sings Caroline Shaw’s ‘So Quietly’.” YouTube video, 5:35. Posted by “WQXR,” February 8, 2017. (accessed April 24, 2019).

Speak up.

Caroline Shaw
“So Quietly”
Premiere date unknown (2016-2017) by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

With a title like So Quietly, this composition defied my first expectations. I clicked “play” with the expectation of soft dynamics, thin textures, and possibly a slow tempo. What I heard was a group of young girls and boys (all most likely altos and sopranos) using every possible timbre they could produce with their voices as well as full ranges and dynamics. I heard soaring melodic lines, ostinatos, counterpoint, defiant lyrics, and lastly an ingenious use of rests.

Listening to the lyrics, I could see that Shaw wanted to take the listener through a development of emotions and mindsets. At first the “narrator,” or “protagonist,” is tentative and not wanting to share their thoughts or feelings on whatever issue they are thinking of. But as Shaw develops her musical ideas, she also develops her text until the “narrator” is now ready to share their thoughts and ideas to be “a difference in the room” instead of sitting quietly.

The music itself spoke volumes. The tentativeness of the “narrator” at the beginning was highlighted, not only by the fact that we don’t hear any actual words until further into the song, but also the use of rests, which give the listener a sense of suspense, as if the singers are trying to tell you something but are not sure if they should share it or not. The rests also kept me very interested. They seemed to be different every time and much more organic, like a conversation inside one’s own head. When speaking, we do not just speak in rhythm with pauses in the same places like simpler music would sound when rests are placed on the same beat every-time. The flow is interrupted by small decisions in what we want to say next. Shaw has imitated, to the best of her ability, the act of decision making inside our heads.

Another thing that Shaw utilized to express the tentativeness at the beginning was the unified rhythm in the first section. It gave me the impression of someone just blending in with society and not wanting to be seen as different or as breaking the status quo. However, as the words started to turn toward thoughts of breaking out, the texture began to overlap with counterpoint, ostinatos, pedal points, and – above it all – soaring melodic lines.

Before the “narrator” changes their mind, there is a great deal of tension created by Shaw’s use of dissonances and suspensions, as well as a rhythmic motor of audible, almost percussive, breathing. But by the end of the composition, when the “narrator” has chosen to speak up, the music is now unified in rhythm and consonant, as if to say the “narrator” has completely made up their mind and is at peace with their decision.

Listening to this work, and other works by Shaw, I have noticed a trend in some of her writing. Not only does she seem inspired by minimalistic writing with her prevalent use of ostinatos but she also seems to have a deep connection to the music of the baroque period. Her use of counterpoint in So Quietly is exemplary and it is clear that she finds the development of ideas a key asset to her compositional technique. She has created a fresh new take on baroque counterpoint, which keeps the listener engaged and entertained with story-like developments of her ideas.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:


Taxidermy was composed in 2012 by Caroline Shaw for Sō Percussion. The title, Taxidermy, was chosen by Shaw because of what she associates it with. Some of these include: awkward, silent, funny, and creepy, which are represented throughout the piece. Shaw accomplishes this by exploring different timbres with the instrumentation, implement choices, layering of voices, and the harmonies created during the piece. 

The piece begins with flower pots laid at an angle, played with yarn mallets. This creates a somber, and slightly demented, beginning to the piece as the flower pots are not perfectly in tune with each other. Not long after the beginning, other players use the wooden shaft of their mallets to provide a bright, stark contrast to the beginning material. This leads to a moment of chaos that decrescendos to almost nothing. This section repeats once again in a shorter segment. All the while this is happening, two players are providing a steady rhythmic accompaniment throughout the seemingly random interjections of bright sounds. This overall “A section” perfectly captures the essence of what Shaw previously described as “creepy and awkward”. 

Once the vibraphone and marimba enter, the piece takes on a slightly happier demeanor. The two keyboard instruments provide clear melodic and harmonic lines in contrast to the distorted sound of the flower pots heard earlier. Shaw develops this character by having the flower pots play a more intricate rhythmic pattern over the melodic patterns provided by the vibraphone. This gives the piece the “awkwardness” through a mixture of tonalities and timbral characteristics of all the instruments being performed. This entire section can be heard as a “B section” as there are new instruments introduced, new rhythmic development, and a difference in overall tonality.

The “A section” material is re-introduced again, however this time it develops with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material over the previously heard harmonic accompaniment from the beginning. This section can be heard as an “A’ section” due to the similar material being repeated along with the primary voices only being flower pots. In contrast to the very beginning all flower pots are only played with yarn and the rhythmic patterns develop into new material. The performers begin to say, “the detail of the pattern is movement”. This is critical as there is a final element placed on top of the texture that completely displaces the sense of meter.             

Shaw composed a piece that is unique in instrumentation, approach, and timbre characteristics. She explored different colors with several different sized flower pots, the use of implements, and the use of common percussion instruments. Along with the compositional techniques used, Shaw is able to tie this piece to the classical western tradition by using a Ternary Form. This is clearly heard throughout the work with the return of different music ideas that develop each time they are present. Overall Shaw has created a work that uses a variety of timbres, and a musical form that is common throughout western classical music.

Trice Mayhall


“Taxidermy”. YouTube Video, 10:07. Posted by “Adele Dusenbury”, February 19, 2018.

Restless Essence

Ashley Venegas; 4/11/19

Nico Asher Muhly

Mothertongue: IV. Monster (released June 16, 2008)

For mezzo soprano, oboe, harp, keyboards, violins, viola, electric bass

Restless Essence

Despite the number of works I have encountered, the genre and style of 21st-century music has yet to grasp an absolute place to call “home” as it constantly travels around diverse musical styles and genres. Although we have only come across a handful of recently influential composers, each one of them has presented us an acquired taste of music that lets the palate become fond of the new flavours and leaves us craving more beyond the mundane notes of the past. Nico Asher Muhly, an American contemporary composer, has shown us his unique ability to blend the sounds of classical and popular music; he is fully aware and capable of writing in a classical style, notably choral music, but he also works with chamber pop and electronic music. With the collaboration of several fine musicians in 2008, Muhly was able to produce a four-movement experimental work that incorporates musical speech, electronic timbres, and classical instruments to create an eclectic atmosphere of sounds.

The album Mothertongue is a large three-suite work with 3-4 movements in each set; the first suite is the Mothertongue suite (4 movements) and it is focused on vocal speech interacting in a musical setting. In the first movement “Archive”, Muhly introduces us to familiar classical instruments, such as violins, violas, an oboe, a harp and a mezzo soprano voice yet he also incorporates synthesized keyboards and an electric bass to create a rock band atmosphere. “Archive” doesn’t necessarily have extreme contrasts in terms of dynamics (softs and louds), but rather the work provides contrast in its rhythmic activity and varying texture based upon the main vocal line. The classical instruments and keyboard are the accompaniment (homophony) as they sustain long tones and interject small, repetitive motives to support the vocal line. The overall timbre of the work is a mix between light sounds produced by the voice and classical instruments and a heavier tone that is derived from the low-registered distorted electric guitar. The addition of the distort guitar allows for the work to have an indie-like style and allows for the work to have depth as the other instrument are performed in the mid-to-high areas of their range.

In terms of the main musical line, the vocals do not have “normal” lyrics and there are little too few areas with a single vocal, melodic line. At the beginning of the work, the mezzo soprano enters in with a whispery tone while reciting the English alphabet in a continuous cycle. The singer layers several versions of this alphabet motive in every measure and each version is sung within the diatonic scale of the work itself (like a broken up melodic line). As the song progresses, the voice takes on a small melodic role by singing on the pitches “Re” and “Do” while simultaneous establishing a straightforward 3/4 time meter, as compared to the beginning of the work. Unexpectedly, the singer switches over to reciting a flurry of telephone numbers and addresses that continuously layer upon while the alphabet motive is recited beneath it.

Although the voice is only repeating letters, numbers, and addresses, the words themselves have become both a percussive and melodic element within the work. The singer must maintain an awareness of pitch as each entering voice is repeating lyrics on specific diatonic tones, rather than relying on regular speech, which often varies in inflection and speed. In addition, while each entrance of the alphabet motive does not always enter on the downbeats of the work, the singer maintains a level of rhythm that is even in note length, which allows for the voice to become a percussive element. There is a melodic vocal part around the midpoint of the work as the tempo beginnings to slow down, but the lyrics are simply the singer counting from 1 to 5. However, the voice here has a sweeter character as the singer’s focus shifts from its previous percussive nature. Remarkably, there is a brief moment where the mezzo soprano does not recite lyrics but rather hums a melodic line, thus providing a long-awaited tension-release point from the constant noise and layers of sounds until it is repeated in another round to the end.

When comparing the “Archive” to classical music, one might not consider it to have any semblance to old musical traditions or practices. The repetitious vocals layer upon each other throughout the work and the words seem to have little meaning beyond letters, numbers, and address and create a flurry of “noise”. However, the mezzo soprano vocals are the driving force within the work as it dictates the overall contour and direction of the first movement. The vocals guide the augmentation and diminution of rhythmic activity for the rest of the instrumentation; as the voice maintains fast-paced rhythms, the texture becomes thicker as the constant sounds overlap (vice-versa for slowed rhythms and thinner textures).

While there is only discussion here, on the first movement, the Mothertongue suite is comprised of four movements that follow each other in a sequence and do reinstate motives from previous movements; “Monster”, the fourth movement of the suite, brings back the vocal motive lyrics (telephone numbers and addresses) of the first movement “Archive”. Although “Archive” is difficult to place, in terms of musical style and genre, Muhly does incorporate classical techniques into the mix with skillful hands and ears. Perhaps we are not accustom to hearing numbers and addresses becoming lyrics, but Muhly is able to capture the listeners attention with small moments of tension-release points and creative ways of incorporating speech into music with classical techniques.   

– Ashley Venegas


Muhly, Nico. “Mothertongue.” Bandcamp. April 10, 2019).

“Nico Muhly – Mothertongue- I. Archive – Abigail Fischer. Visuals by Glenn McQuaid.” YouTube video, 5:48. Posted by “Apeofnaples,” January 14, 2009.

Skip Town

Nico Muhly

Skip Town

Amy Miller

Skip Down

When looking through different works by Nico Muhly, what stood out among all his works was his piece, Skip Town, with its official music video. My first thought was about the purpose of music videos and why so many artists create music videos to go along with their music. Not to say I don’t feel the same when listening to their music over the radio or music apps, but the physical appearance of a video to go along with their music just adds more to the context of their song. Upon listening to and watching the music video, I found that his style of writing did not fully depart from the traditional Classical style of composing, as there was an indication of tonality, lyricism, and meter in the piano and percussion part. However, Muhly adds his own perspective and originality by incorporating natural physical sounds such as, walking, pacing, closing and opening doors. It is not uncommon in the 21st century to combine these everyday sounds into musical pieces. Therefore, we can conclude that Muhly’s mission is to merge the old with the new.

In the music video, a man is trying to eagerly get his belongings packed up so he can “skip town.” The entire music video has a sense that he is racing against the clock. The music in the piano and percussion reflected the sense of ticking with its constant fast rhythmic pattern that did not change throughout the piece. In my opinion, the music was more captivating when watching the video too, more so than when I didn’t watch the video and just listened to the music alone. You can still hear and imagine the sounds of someone rushing and grabbing their belongings in a hurry, with side car troubles, but it wasn’t as convincing or as dramatic as seeing it happen. Even when there were no sounds coming from the actor, and the piano and percussion carried on its rhythmic pattern, the actor’s flailing arms and pacing were still synced with the meter set underneath.

Like most modern art-music, 21st century composers tend to draw their inspiration from the classical Western art tradition, and in this case, I got the sense that Muhly drew his inspiration from the romantic era with his use of tonality, lyricism, and meter. Even though the tonality of the piece comes strictly from the piano and percussion’s rhythmic line, the choice in which he presents the order of broken chords creates a melody-like line.  The piece is in a stable 2/4 meter that derives from the piano. All of the sound effects and motions of the actor are in some form synced to this meter. Whether it be him closing his car door on a down beat, or his timing of opening his watch to check the time.

The lyricism in the piece is not done in a traditional manner with an expressive melody line, but through the overlapping rhythms that form in the piano’s syncopated rhythm with big interval leaps. This use of a single motif played by the piano, with the addition of percussion later, is repeated throughout the piece with little variation, while new musical ideas of rhythm and sound are produced through the actions of the actor and his rush to leave town.

Cello Concerto, Part One

Through the course of my research on Nico Muhly’s works, his cello concerto drew my attention immediately. This was not surprising since, after all, it was premiered by my professor, world renowned cellist, Zuill Bailey. Muhly incorporated a number of influences to create this piece. The concerto’s very first measure was a direct quote from Dutilleux’s Metaboles. There also seemed to be an homage to Stravinsky’s rhythms, Ravel’s impressionistic lyricism and Glass’s minimalism. And yet, the concerto was set in the traditional Classical style structure, a three movement fast-slow-fast piece. It is safe to say that even though Muhly’s writing did not always provide a feeling of tonal stability or an overall sense of cohesion between the orchestra and the soloist, it is, nevertheless, a piece that fits well in the traditional writing of the Western art classical tradition, combining the simplicity of the Classical era and the ambiguity of 20th-century works.

Muhly composed this cello concerto for solo cello accompanied by a small chamber orchestra. The first movement shies away from the traditional tempo-marking-based titles, and is referred to as “Part One”. Here, the cello and the orchestra seem to be in conflict with one another. While the cello is overflowing with lyricism, the orchestra is trying to distract it with the repetition of Stravinsky-like accents on the first beat of each measure. This interruption of the emotionally charged cadenza-resembling melody in the cello brings a level of stability to the piece, keeping the meter, which is constantly exchanging between triple and duple, grounded. Adding to the metric continuity, the harmonic textures in the orchestra are reiterated as well. Although the key is ambivalent due to the significant use of chromaticism, the repetition of intervals brings a sense of familiarity to the listener and provides a safe environment for the piece.

Muhly sets the first movement in a ternary form, A B A, a form commonly heard and used in the Classical period. The return to the A section serves as yet another technique through which Muhly very successfully balances out the movement and facilitates with ease the connection of the audience to the piece, as he provides them a sense of home, a return to a familiar place, at the very end. Muhly contrasts the expressiveness in the A section with the virtuosic B section, both dynamically and technically. The B section musically and rhythmically unites the orchestra and the soloist, creating an ominous, frantic feeling. This distress is achieved through the solo cello’s virtuosic, driven line, the repeated fast passages in the strings, muted entrances in the brass that are rarely aligned and persistently varied in rhythm, as well as the off-beat accents in the percussion that seem to resemble Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. With the conclusion of the B section and the returning A section, the movement proceeds attacca into Part Two, the second movement.

Nico Muhly composed a piece that could, without a doubt, be categorized as a modern, 21st-century work. It is an emotionally soaring work with great variety of style, ranging from impressionism and expressionism to minimalism, with the hint of the beloved Classical style. However, Muhly’s greatness is not only heard in how well he is able to infuse different styles to create an original work. His true genius is recognized through knowing his audience and providing them with a revolutionary, attention grabbing piece that they can identify with, appreciate, and most importantly, enjoy.

Ivana Biliskov

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