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Classical Notes

A well-timed sip of wine with eyebrows cocked

Posted at 5:35 PM on May 8, 2007 by Don Lee

Some worthwhile reading in Friday's Guardian--a piece by 25-year-old American composer Nico Muhly who, I'm gathering, is a young guy to watch. In a March profile, just in advance of a Carnegie Hall performance, The New York Times described Muhly's compositions as "typically small, elegant parcels filled with clear melodies, pulsating rhythms and the occasional alarming abrasion."

In the Guardian piece he recalls how, as a choirboy, he fell in love with old English church music. "This music," Muhly says, "never calls attention to the composer."

He goes on:

In Romantic music, every note--every detail of orchestration--is illustrative of the composer's emotional journey; in the audience, we're obliged to follow the itinerary outlined for us. At its best, this feels like an adventure. At its worst, it's like being stuck in conversation with a man muttering professorially into a pint of beer.

And a few lines later:

By contrast, Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes and Tye were like the dinner guests on whom you had crushes as a child, not because of any particular story they told, but because of the way they told those stories--the turns of phrase, the little obsessive details, the localised, rather than structural repetitions. The content of the stories could be in another language, but the little gestures--the musical equivalent of subtly tapping the table twice to reinforce a conclusion, smoothing out the tablecloth before the punchline of a joke, a well-timed sip of wine with eyebrows cocked--were the stars of the show, they were like the things you remember when people you love have changed, or moved away, or died.

Makes me wish I could find a service of choral evensong on the way home.