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Clear Music

from Speaks Volumes 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


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

Nico Muhly is a composer of orchestral music, stage works and sacred music. His work for film includes scores for for The Reader and the BBC adaptation of Howards End. Recordings of his works have been released by Decca and Nonesuch, and he is part of the artist-run record label Bedroom Community, which released his first two albums, Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue. ... more

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