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Quiet Music

from Speaks Volumes by Nico Muhly

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“Quiet” in parts, in terms of sound – sometimes so hushed you can hear the pedals working on the piano – but only to create a musical chiaroscuro, some points left in shadow while others are brought brilliantly to the fore. And while the music is discreet, even minimal, here’s a third interpretation of the title: it refers to the attitude of emotional quiescence the piece evokes, as in the presence of a monument. It describes stillness. The melody moves slowly, but when it moves, it spans octaves, rising like a giant architecture above the low, cycling chords in the background.

At least half the time, Nico’s music is secretly sacred, and QUIET MUSIC’s cathedral tunes are no exception. Over the low, austere chorale, that melody has the heft of iron bells, tintinnabulant in a style that nods to Arvo Pärt. Nico says this piece is “water music,” meaning a waste expanse of sea--as opposed to the rushing currents of A Hudson Cycle – but you might be forgiven if these great planes of sound instead remind you of he Great Plains. The ghost of Aaron Copland is hanging around here, too, in those wide-open harmonies (denser, warmer, less medievalist than Pärt’s), and in that desolate fanfare.

Whether landscape or seascape, the picture is the same: a deep and endless vista, a straight horizon-line. In this case, the horizontal is the long strand of A-naturals, rippling at the middle range of the piece, that gently but insistently links each section to the next. When it brings us to the coda, the sense we get is less of an ending than of a prelude to something else, as if our gaze has finally wandered upward from the horizon to fix on the sky.

— Daniel Johnson


from Speaks Volumes, released September 10, 2006
Nico, piano


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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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