The words of ‘I SAW A WOMAN WALK INTO A PLATE GLASS WINDOW’ by Joyce Carol Oates are set to music and reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
The framing lyrics are by Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelssohn.
As Brahms did, Nico Muhly has a great affection and affinity for vocal music, both contemporary and from the Renaissance. Born in Vermont and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, he sang in a church choir as a child, and has long loved Tudor sacred music. Muhly graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English and from the Juilliard School with a master’s degree in music. His teachers at Juilliard included Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano, and he worked for Philip Glass as a programmer and editor. He has collaborated with indie artists such as Grizzly Bear, Björk, and Antony and the Johnsons as a performer and arranger, and has had an album of his choral music recorded by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, in addition to his own albums. Unlike Brahms, Muhly also composes for the theater. His first full-scale opera, Two Boys, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theater, and the English National Opera, and its premieres in London and New York have been much discussed.
So Many Things is a sort of through-composed cantata, two shorter lyrics framing a longer poem. Though in style and form the texts are little like most of the poetry that Brahms set, the subjects of love and loneliness, mortality and memory in them resonate harmoniously with his songs, including many on this program.
In commissioning new works for this Brahms Project, Emanuel Ax and his collaborators Anne Sofie von Otter and Yo-Yo Ma asked composers to consider the notes F, A, and F of Brahms’ motto “Frei aber froh” (free but happy), as used by Brahms in the opening of his Third Symphony. Muhly references the upward thrust of that motive in some of the right-hand gestures in the piano part, but he seems to have found particular inspiration in the fact that A is flattened more often than not in Brahms’ opening bars. Ambivalent modality well suits Muhly’s texts here, allowing muted colors that can be pierced by sudden changes of harmonic direction or gradually shifted through common tone effects.
“Early in the process, Manny mentioned that he had been giving some thought to Brahms’ F-A-F (free but happy) and its corollary, F-A-E (free but lonely),” Muhly writes. “In the most abstract way, I allowed these intervallic anxieties to dictate much of the shape of the vocal lines – obsessive thirds, and resolutions that displace rather than soothe.”
There are many other Brahmsian allusions as well. Brilliantly activated arpeggios and widely spaced chords (with some hand-crossing) accompany the sensual reverie of the first lyric. Muhly supports the longer quasi-strophic poem with an ostinato bass and prominent two-against-three cross rhythms. Cross-relations abound in the ghostly, fluttering introduction to the final lyric, which gives the work its title and reconnects with the opening in sound and attitude, while pressing its harmonic/modal ambiguities to a faded conclusion at once logical, surprising, and utterly apt.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.