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Born in Vermont, Nico Muhly graduated from Columbia University with a degree in English and from the Juilliard School with a masters 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. His first full-scale opera, Two Boys, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Theater, and the English National Opera, which presented the premiere in London earlier this year.
Muhly sang in a church choir as a child, and has long had affection for Tudor sacred music and more musically oriented liturgies such as evensong. His orchestrations of Byrd’s five-voice motets Miserere mei, Deus (published 1589) and Bow thine ear, O Lord (an English version of Byrd’s own Civitas sancti tui, also published in 1589) for the Aurora Orchestra date from 2007. He often sets the voice parts for five-part strings, like Byrd’s own consort music, with doublings for winds, marimba, and piano that highlight and color certain lines and phrases. It is mostly faithful to Byrd’s music, but with added expressive indications and occasional ornamentation. Bow thine ear, O Lord is the more elaborately adapted of the two, with a ghostly passage where string harmonics shadow the woodwinds, followed by “almost invisible” marimba tremolo.
A concerto for six-string electric violin and chamber ensemble, Seeing is Believing was also written for the Aurora Orchestra, with soloist Thomas Gould, in 2007. (It has been recorded by them, on an album that also includes the Byrd arrangements.) “Seeing is Believing references the exciting and superstitious practice of observing and mapping the sky; while writing it, I wanted to mimic the process by which, through observation, a series of points becomes a line – this seemed like the most appropriate way to think about a soloist versus an orchestra,” Muhly writes. “The electric violin is such a specifically evocative instrument and has always reminded me of the 1980s, and I tried, at times, to reference the music attendant to ’80s educational videos about science, which always sounded vast and mechanical – and sometimes, quite romantic.
“The music begins and ends with the violin creating its own stellar landscape through a looping pedal, out of which instruments begin to articulate an unchanging series of eleven chords that governs the harmonic language of the piece. Three minutes in, the woodwinds begin twittering in what seems to be random, insect-like formations. Eventually, the piano and solo violin ‘map’ them into the celestially pure key of C major; rapturous pulses ensue. A slightly more stylized and polite version of the insect music appears, and the violin sings long lines above it. After a brief return to the first music, slow, nervous music alternates with fast, nervous music. The fast music takes over, pitches are scattered around, the violin calls everybody back to order with 40 repeated notes; rapturous pulses again ensue. The piece ends as it began, with looped educational music depicting the night sky.”
“Tvísöngur is a specific type of Icelandic two-part singing found both in manuscripts and in oral traditions,” Muhly reports. “Some of the tradition seems, like much early music, to stem from an exercise in voice-leading, and other examples are more social, impromptu, and secular. These arrangements attempt to frame the tradition through orchestration and wildly shifting contexts, lighting effects, and textures.”