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Classical 101

Ten 20th-Century Composers to Check Out - Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly was the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.

I love Beethoven's music. Same with Mozart. Bach. Monteverdi. It's a long list. However, hearing the same music every day is like eating the same thing for every meal. Yes, you receive nourishment, but your taste buds get bored. There's nothing new to anticipate.

As I have explored this subject, I have discovered new sounds, new textures, and new ideas. Some have been new perspectives on old favorites, such as Max Richter's re-imagining of https://vimeo.com/103253106">Vivaldi's Four Seasons. I recently played a Suite on Six Swiss Folk Songs by Rolf Liebermann. That led to the discovery of a fascinating piece he wrote for the 1964 Swiss Expo. Symphonie Les Echanges found inspiration in the sounds and rhythms of mid-century office equipment. The blog dispokino described it as including, "16 typewriters, 18 calculator machines, 10 cash registers, 12 punching card machines, 8 telexes, 16 telephones, 1 fork lift and many other machines that were new at the time and are now obsolete." You really owe it to yourself to check out a video of the performance here.

I said all of that, to say this.

Composers have forever found inspiration in the world around them. In earlier days, nature was everywhere in music. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Smetana's Ma vlast, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, to name just a few. In NicoMuhly's biography, it says, "In over 80 works for the concert stage, he has embraced subjects ranging from Renaissance astrology to the ethics of artificial intelligence." One fine example is a piece he wrote in 2012 called Gait. Muhly described it briefly on his website. "So here’s what I thought of. Horses! People! Walking! Running! The great thing about horses is that they have four (arguably five, or three, whatever) speeds or gaits. The wonderful photographer Eadweard Muybridge (who died in 1904) photographed, famously, a sort of stop-motion version of the horse in motion."

Credit National Museum of American History
Eadweard Muybridge's The Horse in Motion.

Muhly found inspiration not only in this series of photographs, but in the sound of his grandmother walking through the house, and children moving about. The work requires a huge orchestra, as you'll see below. He also gives an insightful explanation of the music before the performance.


I am also including a recent interview he did with Kate Molleson, a music critic based in Glasgow. It's a little peek behind the curtain of how Nico Muhly works and creates. Here is a quote from the interview which sums it up nicely:

"What can I do with these instruments that is preferable to ten minutes of silence? That's the FIRST task! You've heard music not preferable to silence. We've ALL been to that concert."


Nico Muhly's music is well-worth exploring. Like any composer, you may not like it all, but you'll like some of it...you may LOVE some of it. As in travel, while the destination is the point of the trip, the journey is half the fun!