Nico Muhly’s Keep in Touch by Aaron Conitz

Throughout the years that I’ve spent attending and performing recitals, particularly of the viola variety, it seems as though we all end up hearing and/or playing pretty much the same pieces . . . over and over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, some pieces are outright essential for the student, pedagogically speaking, or are indispensable—solo Bach comes to mind—but I say that we should draw from the wealth of music, diverse and unknown, that has been written for the viola! I’ve always found satisfaction in uncovering less popular works and introducing them to receptive audiences; not only does one break the monotony of Brahms and Walton but is able to really showcase what the viola has to offer.

A recent interest of mine has been the combination of acoustic instruments with electronic forces. For a recent project I created a somewhat extensive list of works written for the viola, two or three other instruments, and electronics (both pre-recorded and interactive). The second parameter was that the pieces must be written after 1995; I felt it was necessary to keep the list as contemporary as possible. My investigation began by searching online library databases and then transferring into the world of personal websites, offering me a glimpse at music that either hadn’t been collected by libraries or still is yet to be published. There were more pieces than I really knew what to do with! I found pieces by well-known composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Terry Riley; but also a number of composers I had heard of maybe once or twice or even not at all.

One of the composers in the latter category was a name I had heard a few times, but not really listened to his music in depth—Nico Muhly. A young composer, born in 1981, Muhly has truly established himself as a diverse and innovative voice within the American classical idiom; his works are a delightful pandemonium of musical styles—from electronic fusion to English choral music to neo-minimalism—and by using each of them he is able to create cohesive and compelling compositions. The work that caught my eye was Keep in Touch (2005), written for solo viola and pre-recorded electronic tape. I was so taken by the piece that I decided to program it on my most recent recital here at Rice University.

Keep in Touch was written for Nadia Sirota, a long-time collaborator of Muhly’s. Composed in 2005, the work is scored for viola and recorded electronics; throughout the work these two “voices” compete and interact with one another. Muhly created the electronic accompaniment using acoustic instruments, processed recorded material, and the vocalization of singer Antony Hegarty. Keep in Touch begins with an extended cadenza after which the electronic material enters; the work utilizes a chaccone-like framework with a set of repeated chords providing a harmonic and formal structure. The juxtaposition of Antony’s gorgeously androgynous, bluesy voice with the sweet, understated timbre of the viola results in a visceral and emotionally engaging piece.

I thought it would be interesting to discuss the process that I went through in order to learn the piece and also to document my first endeavor in preparing and performing a work with pre-recorded electronics. My initial approach to the piece was fairly straightforward and typical—getting the notes into my fingers, listening to a recording, and coming up with bowings and fingerings that would best suit my vision of the piece. I figured it would be best to have a good grasp of the work before sitting down and piecing it together with the electronics, but after my initial attempt at playing with the recording I was left confused. I had learned the notes and rhythms and had made appropriate decisions about colors, but something was not right. Every time I played a section, I would either end up ahead of or behind the recording, even when I was “following” the provided cues! I went back to the drawing board, getting down and dirty with the metronome; if my tempi were accurate I should be able to make it through, right? Turns out I was right, but not completely. I was able to play through the piece with great success in terms of ensemble, but after a lesson and a recital dress rehearsal it seemed that I was following the tape but not collaborating or interacting with it. How strange an idea, I thought, to interact with something so inflexible and inanimate as a recording!

The more familiar I became with the structure of the recorded material, the more comfortable I felt in allowing things not to be as absolutely synchronized as they could be. It was almost as though I had to allow an indeterminate musical idea to exist within the deterministic framework of the recording. The satisfaction and sheer enjoyment I received performing the work was incredible; I was able to interact with a wide array of bizarre and gorgeous sounds and meld the voice of the viola with that of Antony Hegarty.

My experience in preparing and performing a piece written for viola and electronics has certainly inspired me to pursue other works of this nature. The amazing presence of electronic and produced sound in popular music and film scores almost requires that we, as violists and musicians, pursue works that involve the electro-acoustic element.

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