Nico Muhly on writing, specifically writing choral music:
I like the idea of these specific texts having been sung basically every day since the sixteenth century — you have to set the texts delicately, obviously, but because everybody knows them so well, there is always possibility for small explorations into funnier textures and procedures. Another thing to keep in mind about these settings is that they are designed to be listened to while standing up; nobody wants an endless Magnificat. …. The only other text of this kind that comes to mind is the announcements made in transit: “mind the gap”, “fasten your seat belts”, “the nearest emergency exit might be located behind you”. Repetition is built into the texts on a macro level; why not, then, explore repetition on the surfaces of them as well?
So we have an idea of the audience. We can be there, standing up, with him. And then:
[T]he first movement begins with a somewhat obvious word-painting: the poet speaks of carpenters and we have the thwack of wood against wood, he speaks of deckhands and we hear a ship’s bell. However, the ant-farm soon vanishes and the texture dissolves into a lonesome solo violin outlining a delicate passacaglia. After an extended instrumental interlude, the choir emerges, talking about “the delicious singing of the mother”. The first movement ends — as do all three movements — with a wordless sung punctuation: a series of repeated pulses.
Some years ago now, a colleague and I pitched an audio interview series idea. “What Design Sounds Like,” it would be called. (I believe the credit is his for the name.) We frequently talk about design, have opinions about design out loud, we thought, but what if we took the artifacts away, and were only left with the words? And further, not text, but one thing, simply audio. What does design sound like?
As I went from Google Reader over to Nico’s site hoping he’d included a clip (he often does) so I could listen as he narrated, I lost track. There were sopranos, and a haze of technology, and Morse Code. But all in text. And then, the reading was finished. The pieces had ended. And I had heard it. With one thing, with text, he had done it: what music reads like.
Later, of course, I tracked it down. But there was no need. He created the experience already, contained, complete. As I listen to the album now, I now understand what John Updike said of churchgoing, “Taken purely as a human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for us one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts? …. Only in church and at the polls are we actually given our supposed value, the soul-unit of one, with its noumenal arithmetic of equality: one equals one.”
Taking everything away gives us that arithmetic.