critical remarks on nico muhly's diacritical marks

"Form ever follows function."  Though said about architecture, this aphorism may also explain why contemporary composers struggle with form: they are unclear about the function.  Nico Muhly's new string quartet Diacritical Marks, premiered Wednesday at New York's Kaufman center (as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival), broke from traditional forms, instead of just 4 movements, having 8. 8 movements!  Generally far too many.  Typically, I lose count midway through and get distracted wondering if we are in movement 5, 6, or 7.  For Muhly's piece, I kept track (and took notes), so that wasn't an issue.  After a few short, pop-song length movements, I prejudged the form as a cop-out; instead of writing a few movements with beginnings, middles, and ends--a much more difficult compositional endeavor in my book--each movement was either a beginning, a disembodied middle, or an end.  

The first four movements seemed almost unrelated: 
  • I. rhythmic and intense in minor 
  • II. more chromatic, almost like simplified Berg
  • III. interlocking diatonic patterns in viola and violin II, making phrases of varying lengths
  • IV. slow, intimate, on the verge of stillness
I could see each movement underscoring different scenes to a film--nothing mainstream, of course but even indie films with dramatic montages need music.  Muhly has done film scores, and his entire style of music is deeply indebted to Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the former's music (or just his style) being used in all sorts of films.  [It's sort of a polite criticism to say that one's music sounds like film score.]
In fact, film music is something that almost all contemporary composers have to deal with; most people's primary experience of classical-sounding music is from films.  For some, the association is with classical instruments themselves.  
In movement V, things got interesting when Muhly brought back the same simple, repetitive patterns from the 3rd movement but added melodies in the cello and then also in the violin--like a Wagnerian film composer using certain musical ideas to show connections between different scenes.  
Movement VI, I cannot remember.  Such is the problem with 8 movements.  I wrote: "tonal/modal harmonies; ecstatic II."  (Like an ecstatic version of the 2nd movement.)
Movement VII was the 3rd with different melodies in the violin and cello.
And Movement VIII started with a fugal section, using a very simple motive that was mostly repeated notes with some triplets thrown in for character.  Somehow this morphed and merged with the ideas from the 1st movement.
So in the 8 movements, there were only 5 movements worth of musical ideas.  At about the 6th or 7th movement, I had an epiphany; this is not only a viable form but a contemporary one, an apt response to those forces that shape our musical unconsciousness, specifically film scores and twitter.  In a time when some people's music critic of the year is a twitterer (Muhly, like Kanye, has quite the twitter presence), brevity (and therefore usually clarity) is en vogue.
While I started out skeptical, Muhly made a convincing argument.  Instead of a few organically unfolding movements (like I generally prefer), Muhly paints a pointillistic picture with each short movement contributing to the whole like different scenes in a movie.  Better than just a usurpation, it was an intelligent and interesting response to it.

Filed under: ecstatic

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