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Nico Muhly: Drones & Violin

Posted on 25 Jan 2016 by Leo Messias

Pictured: Nico Muhly

Composed 2011

Born Randolph, 1981

New York-based Nico Muhly is a composer equally at home in writing music for the Tallis Scholars, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Metropolitan Opera as he is in working with pop artists like Björk, Grizzly Bear and Antony & the Johnsons. A frequent collaborator with Bryce Dessner (their Planetarium concert project with singer Sufjan Stevens has earned rave reviews), he comes from a classical music background, but that doesn’t restrict him creatively:

‘It’s essentially like being from somewhere,’ he says. ‘It’s like being from Nebraska . . . It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else.’

Among Muhly’s most celebrated works is the Drones series, recorded and produced in the Greenhouse studios in Iceland and released initially as three EPs, respectively entitled Drones & Piano, Drones & Viola, and Drones & Violin, the latter part played by Pekka Kuusisto. Nico Muhly says of them:

‘I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honour these drones and stylise them.’

The first part of Drones & Violin is subtitled ‘Material in E flat’, in which the presence of the drone is nowhere near as simple as might be expected, the violin ranging through a diverse spectrum of timbral and tonal registers against the backdrop of the ever-present ‘hum’ (elsewhere Muhly has given the example of the changing pitches of an aircraft in flight as examples of everyday drones).

The effect is to weave music in and out of the mundane, to find the stuff of art in the everyday world around us, while all the while putting the soloist through a serious test of technique, as if expressing the natural human desire to break free from the aural shackles that constantly confine us.

By Martin Buzacott

Nico Muhly's Drones & Violin Part 1 - Material in E Flat is featured on the Beethoven & The 21st Century program featuring his friend and collaborator, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and ACO Collective. Touring Australia from 4 to 19 February. 

Beethoven & The 21st Century

4-19 February
Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney

NICO MUHLY (arr. strings) Part I from Drones & Violin
ERKKI-SVEN TÜÜR Action–Passion–Illusion
TIPPETT A Lament from Variations on an Elizabethan Theme
BRYCE DESSNER (arr. strings) Tenebre
SIBELIUS Rakastava
BEETHOVEN (arr. strings) String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’