This month at the Poisson Rouge, pianist Bruce Brubaker and violist Nadia Sirota performed music by Philip Glass and Nico Muhly. Both musicians are extremely versatile, and talented within their instruments’ traditional classical genre. Additionally, both are strong proponents of some of the most intriguing music of today: the kind of music that is based on the classical concept of composition and music notation, but is less dependent on note-perfect execution for a positive outcome. Both musicians are great communicators. “The freedom that goes along with this music,” marvels Brubaker, “where the process is such an integral part of its formulation is also inspiring and encourages different acceptance of it. It has its pulse on the now — a moment in time that’s very powerful, in a kind of formulation of Zeitgeist.” He continues: “Part of what gives Nico a perhaps unprecedented wide musical reach, gives him a unique standing in the music world.” Possessing reach and versatility, Muhly’s arrangements for the Pop scene and movie soundtracks have brought his scores from Pop Icons like Bjork and Grizzly Bear, to the Metropolitan Opera, Alice Tully Hall, and beyond.
Brubaker just recorded Drones with Nico in Iceland on the Bedroom-Community label: a 2010 commission by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. The album includes Drones & piano, Drones & viola, and Drones & violin, performed by Brubaker, Sirota, and Pekka Kuusisto along with Nico Muhly and mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson & Paul Evans, who is also the producer. In his liner notes to Drones, Muhly describes “developing harmonic ideas over a static structure,” indicating that, “the idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner.”
Sirota, a long time collaborator and close personal friend of Muhly’s, says: “Drones evolved around a series of pieces for Viola and electronics, me droning my phone number over and over which became the Etude No.2, the first of his drone pieces. Many drone pieces were packed together in pre-recorded sound that is deeply textured and shows, (this is according to Brubaker now) very clearly the great impact Valgeir had on Nico’s work. It exploded with texture and became really three-dimensional.”
Photo:copyright Stern Weber Studio / Bruce Brubaker and Nadia Sirota at lePoisson Rouge
Brubaker explains: “Nico made an original electronic backtrack, but what you hear on the recording is quite different. It sounded even more layered. But that’s the exciting process of working with a living composer like Nico – the recording is not anymore the definitive version, neither is the performance. Music becomes much more alive, in the moment. Perhaps best compared with the times of composers like Mozart, Bach, Monteverdi…who wrote a piece for orchestra, but different instruments performed it over time, so the piece became a different piece each time.”
In the spirit of that spontaneity, Nico is the type of musician who does not give exact instructions. This could be because he knows his performers intimately; Nico is familiar with Brubaker from his Juilliard years when Brubaker, who currently teaches at NEC, was at the faculty at Juilliard and commissioned one of his works. Sirota is an old friend of Nico’s. It could also, however, be due to a lack of perfectionism that accompanies an output of creative material that is sometimes considered to be ostentatiously large, by both Muhly himself as well as his critics. In his blog, Muhly laments: “I have written a lot of music, much of it long pieces for large ensembles. It gave me pause, because I haven’t really had a moment in maybe eighteen months to really survey what’s going on, and this list was a kind of zoomed out, powers-of-ten jolt to my system. My first feeling was one of total exhaustion; the closest analogy I can draw is to having just run for a long time — the actual tiredness arrives a little bit later, delayed, and sometimes is triggered by the sight of a mangled toenail or sweaty, dirty smudge on the forearm. The second wave of thoughts about this document was more alarming: is any of this music any good?”
Photo: copyright Stern Weber Studio – Bruce Brubaker at lePoisson Rouge
Photo: copyright Stern Weber Studio Nadia Sirota lePoisson Rouge
But Brubaker relates a more lighthearted, generous, and less critical attitude: “Nico himself always says: You have to eat every day, and not every meal is going to be the greatest,” elucidating Nico’s refusal to get overly critical or particular about the performance of his work by either Brubaker or Sirota.
“He is a most unusual, great collaborator, figuring out what’s amazing about people around you and that can bring out a great communal effect,” says Sirota. “I really like it and that’s why I am great at it. And he knows that and gives me card Blanche. He only developed gestures, no hard score for me, no indication- it’s just short hand, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.”
In February, Muhly attended a composers’ panel with Phillip Glass at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Glass, for whom Muhly worked for over six years and who Muhly describes as a great mentor, said something remarkable about the creative musical process that he and Muhly continue to undergo:
“Music is a space.”
If music is a space for Glass, it is my impression that Muhly looks to fill that space with community with his unique approach to composition and performance. Overlapping the composed and the improvisational creates a freestanding, independent structure, the range of whose possibilities gives the music a life of its own.
According to Brubaker: “…it all comes together and you end up seeing different perspectives.” In the Drone pieces, one does not hear a single improvisation, but layers of invention create a set recording that embodies a live perspective. When I asked Brubaker, if the performance is difficult he offers:”Some of it is pianistically challenging, like the repeated chords and arpeggiated figures over longer periods that require crossing hands and jumps over large distances. And then laughing it off, he throws in: “it’s kind of Rock ‘n Roll.”
Some of Muhly’s music seems truly fun to play and beautiful to listen to; certain textures and high pitches in his pieces seem almost frivolously lighthearted, but his work also has many serious elements. Brubaker is convinced that Muhly’s music conveys “elaborately thought-out structures, and in its references given, it acknowledges that music belongs to all of us – it is a community product.”
In his book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon devotes a chapter to child prodigies and their upbringing, emphasizing that their childhood develops remarkably different from the norm. In this chapter, Muhly is cited as “a fabulist, for whom truth is an unshiny thing,” but the self-destructive behavior that entered Muhly’s life with “the development of OCD with a strong depressive undercurrent,” as both Solomon and Muhly himself describe, was always connected serving his musical composition. Furthering his art was always at the forefront of Muhly’s mind, and that drive often pulled him in different directions very rapidly. He “entered a manic fugue,” as he enrolled for the double major at Juilliard and Columbia University. As he illustrates: “one day it was Messaiën the next I was like – I want to know everything about the Marimba…That music just made me so insane and happy like it was a narcotic.” Muhly’s curiosity for deciphering what’s behind the music–understanding and recreating musical meaning–is both a challenge and a gift. He says of his struggle: “I have no ambition, I only have obsession.”
I mentioned to Sirota that after meeting Muhly personally at the premiere of his Far Away Songs at Alice Tully Hall, I had the feeling that his music was just like his persona. She almost hugged me, saying: “Well that’s exactly it, if you feel that and you get that, you love it.”