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Spiralling Back

Feature

Composer Nico Muhly doesn’t buy the idea of a straight-line progression in music history, finding his creative kindling in distant centuries.

I have always been suspicious of the straight-arrow simplification of the history of western classical music: Bach leads to Handel leads to Mozart leads to Beethoven and onwards. Much of the music I love exists in its own timeline — 16th-century English composers like Browne and Cornysh; Tallis, borrowing but also stylistically starting his own family tree from the continental styles of the day. As we see from our own families, sometimes seemingly genetic traits skip a generation or three, or come from external influences. I have always been interested in the less obviously audible elements of ‘influence’ — less ‘my dad wrote this so I am refining it’ and more ‘I heard this thing out of the corner of my ear in a record shop in 1954 and it changed my sense of the amplified voice’. These deviations from the straight line are always, for me, the most joyful moments — like when Mozart allowed his own music to be influenced by his impromptu transcription of the Allegri miserere, reaching back 130 years to harvest a beautiful, slightly forbidden, vegetable. Or Stravinsky’s reaching back 200 years to Pergolesi for his Pulcinella: aside from the obvious ways, how does that ouroboros-like musical shape (the snake eating its tail) teach us more about Stravinsky’s music both before and after such a borrowing?

I also love the ways in which 20th-century English choral music seems to exist in its own agricultural system — while it’s true that you can find a few traces of French organ music in Howells’s own, the true ecstasies of his output seem to come from a different tradition from that of other music being made at his particular time — this, to me, is the key distinction. The 1950s on his desk sound nothing like the 1950s on Boulez’s, or Stravinsky’s, or Ella Fitzgerald’s or George Crumb’s.

‘I can plug in to the hyperlinked possibilities of the 21st century, but find myself drawn back to this kind of curved time’

In my own music, I try to actively avoid the taxonomies that music historians and critics impose on the music of our time — those systems are incredibly valuable (if reductive) for music by the deceased, but for contemporary music of any kind, it feels like being pushed onto the motorway rather than enjoying the slower backroads where an impromptu stop is always possible, if not invited. It feels like a musical sabbath to connect to music from 500 years ago, stopping the progress of time to look backwards to Byrd’s heart-breaking harmonic language, and to Taverner’s melismatic genius. During the working week, I can plug back in to the hyperlinked possibilities of the 21st century, but I find myself always drawn to this kind of curved time, where Thomas Ad.s looks towards Couperin but expressed in a decidedly modern idiom, or to the impossible beauty of a Bach chorale in Berg’s violin concerto, like an ancient relic in a complicated, modern reliquary.

When countertenor Iestyn Davies asked me to write a piece for him and a lutenist, I immediately thought about this idea of an historical artefact, preserved in some stylised way. I was drawn to the way in which Richard III’s body was found, bent and broken, underneath a car park in Leicester, and looked for non-Shakespearean (because Shakespeare feels too difficult for me to set) texts surrounding Richard’s death, and eventually landed on a lovely and surreal narrative poem by Guto’r Glyn (c.1435-1493). I framed that with commentary of our time, by Richard III enthusiast Philippa Langley — the whole piece is meant to be a dialogue between today and the 15th century.

We see this sort of conversation throughout these concerts: Monteverdi looks back a century to Gombert, using his motet In illo tempore as a piece of sand around which he makes a pearl. Even the idea of playing Bach’s harpsichord music on the piano is a challenging anachronism. These concerts also feature music that insists on moving quickly and slowly simultaneously, rather like our perception of great units of historical, geological time: Steve Reich’s Drumming is an excellent example of this, but also Nancarrow’s studies, which sound as if they would continue ticking along after humans have become extinct.

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