Creativity, Cultural Studies, Psalms and Songs

My Art of Interrupting Interrupting Art [The Creative Process]

Nico Muhly

At the risk of sounding snotty, on this wonderfully dreary Saturday afternoon, I was catching up on my Paris Reviews, by polishing off Issue 203, and listening to NYC’s classical music station WQXR’s online contemporary station, Q2, and discovered Nico Muhly‘s I Drink The Air Before Me: Music Under Pressure 3.

” I Drink the Air Before Me is an evening-length score for Stephen Petronio’s dance piece bearing the same name.  Inasmuch as it was celebrating Stephen’s company’s 25th anniversary, the piece wanted to be big, ecstatic, and celebratory. Our initial meeting, in which we discussed the structure of the work, yielded a sketch: a giant line, starting at the lower left hand side of a napkin, and ending in the upper right.  Start small, get big!  The rules: a children’s choir should begin and end the piece.  The work should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety, and coastal living.  A giant build-up should land us inside the center of a storm, with whirling, irregular, spiral-shaped music and irregular, spiral-shaped dancing.  Using these rules, I divided up the piece into a series of episodes all hinging around spiral-shaped constellations of notes.  These are most audible in Music Under Pressure 3, and least audible when they are absent, in the diatonic, almost plainchant music that the choir sings at the end, the text of which comes from Psalm 19:

One day tells its tale to another,
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
Although they have no words or language,
and their voices are not heard,
Their sound has gone out into all lands,
and their message to the ends of the world.

I wanted the ensemble to be a little quirky community of people living by the edge of the sea: a busybody flute, a wise viola, and the masculine, workmanlike bassoon, trombone, and upright bass.  The piano acts as an agitator, an unwelcome visitor, bearing with it aggressive electronic noises and rhythmic interruptions.  ”

Nico Muhly

The album, evidently, is about storms. And I very much like violent weather. I can trace this directly to the summer thunderstorms of my youth in Texas.

I was caught by the composition because I felt a kind of creative kinship to it. And when I feel a kinship to something creative, I feel creative, myself. Creativity is one of my great interruptions. If I experience something that resonates within me, I will interrupt myself – and even the work that interrupts me, id est, I interrupt it, and I am led to create, myself.

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