Clear Music

from by Nico Muhly

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CLEAR MUSIC begins with what is instantly recognizable as an expressive texture: an unaccompanied solo in the high register of the cello. The contour of the line is borrowed, like most of Nico’s vocabulary of sentimental gestures, from the English choral repertoire – particularly the choral music of the English Renaissance, where the smooth, white-key voice-leading occasionally indulges in chromatic dissonances and ambiguities impermissible in later, tonal counterpoint. The opening statement of Clear Music outlines a diminished fourth, generating its tension by the introduction of a chromatic tone into a modal melody.

When the celeste enters, it’s with another, clearly recognizable sentimental gesture – a leap in the upwards, followed by the sighing resolution of a suspension. But at this point the dialectic of the piece gets into gear, as this figure immediately restates itself with a clockwork obsessiveness, opposing the lyricism of the cello with the eighth-note pulse that quietly but almost unrelentingly dominates the piece.

Nico has variously identified two very different musical sources as the inspiration behind Clear Music: the motet Mater Christi Sanctissima by John Taverner, in which the treble line hangs in precarious isolation miles above the other voices, and Björk’s Vespertine, in which the singer’s half-whispered vocals unfold like a Miles Davis solo over the music-box plinks of harp, celeste, and an actual music-box. In both cases, the aesthetic is one of total exposure and nakedness, and Nico exploits its awkwardness to suggest a skepticism towards the very project of emotional expression in music. Ultimately, when the ensemble rushes to a too-easy, too-satisfying conclusion, a lengthy coda apologizes for and calls into question everything that’s come before it.

— Daniel Johnson

credits

from Speaks Volumes, released September 10, 2006
Clarice Jensen, cello
Nico, celeste
Monika Abendroth, harp
Cello recorded by Dan Bora

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Nico Muhly New York

A Graduate of the Juilliard School for composition, Vermont-born Nico Muhly has been causing significant ripples in modern music circles with a variety of projects. Nico has collaborated closely with artists as diverse as Antony (from Antony and the Johnsons) and Philip Glass. ... more

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