Bryce Dessner is one of the most sought-after composers of his generation, with a rapidly expanding catalogue of works commissioned by leading ensembles. His orchestral, chamber, and vocal compositions have been commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Metropolitan Museum of Art (for the New York Philharmonic), Kronos Quartet, BAM Next Wave Festival, Barbican Centre, Edinburgh International Festival, Sydney Festival, eighth blackbird, Sō Percussion, New York City Ballet, and many others. He has worked with some of the world’s most creative and respected musicians and visual artists, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jonny Greenwood, Justin Peck, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Matthew Ritchie, among others. His work Murder Ballades, featured on eighth blackbird’s album Filament (which Dessner produced and on which he also performs) won |the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance. In the fall of 2015, he was tapped, along with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, to compose music for Oscar Award–winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film The Revenant, which received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score and a Grammy nomination in the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media category.
Other recent projects include Quilting, a 17-minute score co-commissioned with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, premiered in May 2015 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel; and The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet created by Dessner, Justin Peck, and Marcel Dzama, premiered in February 2016 by the New York City Ballet.
Dessner now resides in Paris and has been increasingly active composing for major European ensembles and soloists. Last fall, he premiered a new piece entitled Wires, commissioned for Ensemble Intercontemporain and Matthias Pintscher, as well as recent solo works for violinists Pekka Kuusisto and Jennifer Koh, and a concerto for renowned pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque.
I composed this solo work for cellist Nicolas Altstaedt two summers ago when I was composer in residence at Pekka Kuusisto’s beautiful chamber music festival, Meidän Festivaali, in Sibelius’s hometown of Tuusula. Tuusula is small lake town about 40 minutes from Helsinki, and was a haven for composers and painters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The place remains untouched by development with all the original houses standing as they were. Sibelius’s beautiful house, Ainola, is now a museum, and Pekka’s small festival is held next door in a set of cabins and wooden performance spaces that date from the same era. I was inspired by Pekka’s amazing ability to bring together artists from disparate backgrounds, including some of Europe’s finest chamber musicians, as well as a deeply original mix of repertoire—old music and new music without prejudice to either—and with audiences seemingly willing to follow him in any direction. The place itself, the woods and water and light, inspired me to write this cello solo for Nicolas, which was not planned as part of the festival. I would write a bit of the piece every day, which accounts for its improvisatory feeling, and at the end of the week Nicolas premiered it in a chapel on the edge of the lake where Sibelius was baptized. Afterwards, the three of us rowed a wooden boat across the lake and had a sauna. According to Pekka, this is not an entirely uncommon occurrence in Finland.
I have often been asked in the press about the influence of Steve Reich on younger composers, and it is difficult to overstate his unique position in modern music. His music has not just been essential to my life and work as a composer, but it was an inspiration for me becoming a musician to begin with. I now live in Paris and his presence in Europe may even overshadow his importance in America, a living modern master who is celebrated constantly in the major concert halls. Fifty years ago, the thought of an American composer having such importance in Europe would have been nearly unimaginable. Today, he is everywhere and his influence has opened up a broader conversation between two worlds of contemporary music. With all this acclaim and a sense of living musical history, it is possible to overlook the incredible generosity and graciousness of the man himself, whom I have been so incredibly lucky to know and to work with as a performer of his music, and later as a mentor and supporter of my own compositions. Steve’s influence is difficult to pigeonhole, extending across so much of contemporary music and well beyond the corners of genre or musical ideologies. He is equally influential in the electronic and rock worlds as he is in the contemporary classical sphere. I often point out, for instance, that his composition for multiple electric guitars, Electric Counterpoint, has had as much influence on my style of playing the guitar as any seminal figure of ’60s rock music.
The past six months have been framed by two earth-shattering events in my life: one personal and profoundly positive, and one public and devastatingly negative. The positive event was the birth of our first child (who arrived three-and-a-half weeks early, consequently delaying by a month or two the completion of this new work). Thus the piece I was writing took on another layer of meaning as I finished the last notes in the middle of sleepless nights while holding my newborn son. Waking up on November 9 in Upstate New York, I found that nothing looked or sounded the same after the election of Donald Trump. Pieces I had begun before the election were discarded, projects I’d been working on for years suddenly felt irrelevant. As I turned back to working on this piece post-election and the birth of my child, I thought about Steve’s powerful Civil Rights–era work Come Out and what it means today when so many of the same issues of that time are still very much with us.
After seeing a powerful clip of Yoko Ono screaming for several minutes in response to the election, I decided to name my piece Skrik Trio. Skrik, which means “scream” in Norwegian, is also famously the title of Edvard Munch’s painting and the many poems he wrote about it. In one of them, he writes, “and I heard, yes, a great scream—the colors in nature—broke the lines of nature—the lines and colors vibrated with motion—these oscillations of life brought not only my eye into oscillations, it brought also my ear into oscillations—so I actually heard a scream—I painted the picture Scream then.” Munch wrote poems about all his paintings, often before he painted them. I thought about this phrase “brought also my ear into oscillations” as a very Reichian description of the effect of his music on me. I also thought about how traumatic events can re-frame discussions around works of art we had long ago made decisions about. In the case of Munch’s Scream, one of the most ubiquitous paintings of the 20th-century suddenly took on a new meaning for me. And in the case of Steve Reich’s music, I find I discover something new in it every time I listen—I imagine that many generations from now, listeners will still be finding new meaning and beauty in it.
My trio begins and ends with a short drone that is interrupted by a series of episodes of varying rhythmic complexity and interaction between the three musicians. The work unfolds with a shifting balance between moments of “dialogue” between voices, and moments of rhythmic unison where the music moves more like choreography. When thinking about this work, I was also considering some of the origins of minimalism. La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958), often referenced as one of the first “minimalist” compositions, served as a reference point for my choice of instrumentation, and my work begins and ends with a drone that is reminiscent of his Trio for Strings. The last bars of my trio also contain a fleeting reference in the violin to the final harmonic sequence of Reich’s masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians.
Last year, I composed solo pieces for all three of the musicians for this new work: Pekka Kuusisto, Nadia Sirota, and Nicolas Altstaedt. Each of them brings an amazing technical mastery and distinctive artistic personality to the project, and this work is written specifically for their unique talents. I recently heard Pekka perform Ligeti’s monumental Violin Concerto and Nicolas perform Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto. My new work utilizes certain string techniques we might associate more with the modernist sound world of Ligeti (who also wrote a piece dedicated to Steve Reich) or Lutosławski, but rhythmically and formally it inhabits a space very much connected to the vocabulary of Steve Reich. While my new work may not sound at all like Steve Reich, his work is everywhere, deep inside my musical DNA.
Nico Muhly is an American composer and sought-after collaborator whose influences range from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. The recipient of commissions from The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and others, he has written more than 80 works for the concert stage, including the operas Two Boys (2010), Dark Sisters (2011), and the forthcoming Marnie; the song cycles Sentences (2015) for countertenor Iestyn Davies and Impossible Things (2009) for tenor Mark Padmore; a viola concerto for violist Nadia Sirota; and the choral works My Days (2011) and Recordare, Domine (2013), written for the Hilliard Ensemble and The Tallis Scholars, respectively.
Muhly is a frequent collaborator with choreographer Benjamin Millepied and, as an arranger, has paired with Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, and Antony and the Johnsons, among others. He has composed for stage and screen, with credits that include music for the 2013 Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie and scores for the films Kill Your Darlings, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and the Academy Award–winning The Reader. Born in Vermont, Muhly studied composition with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at The Juilliard School before working as an editor and conductor for Philip Glass. He is part of the artist-run record label Bedroom Community, which released his first two albums, Speaks Volumes (2006) and Mothertongue (2008). Muhly currently lives in New York City.
No Uncertain Terms is dedicated to Steve Reich and is meant to be a sort of archive of the ways his music has influenced mine. “Influence” in classical music can be deployed in various ways, not all of them complimentary: We like to imagine (or resist) an itinerary from Mozart through Beethoven to the Romantics, but in the 20th century, the giants of classical music started speaking languages entirely their own. Even though its influences can be traced back scientifically, listening to the first five seconds of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians tells the listener, “This is a new place with a new tongue.” So, No Uncertain Terms starts with a direct rip-off of those five seconds and then explodes into a gallery of my own obsessions: a constantly recycling harmonic pattern; widely spaced chords with clear or very opaque pulses, sometimes at the same time; string writing that employs a very Reich-ean non-vibrato juxtaposed with romantic over-expression; and an ecstatic canon built on a single chord. Through this, two phrases from William Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui become present. One of the phrases built on the words “Sion deserta facta est” (“Zion is wasted and brought low,” in a more poetic translation) is a vertical chorale with an outlandish and surprising chord in it. The other borrowed tune, which has been an idée fixe throughout my whole musical life, sets the text “Jerusalem desolata facta est,” and is a linear, yearning, plangent phrase. At the center of this piece is an ecstatic statement of the 14 chords that govern the harmonic language of the piece, but completely off the grid—glossolalic and slightly terrifying. The piece ends with a sequence of pulses, fading in and out. This music is designed to expose in no uncertain terms how important Steve’s music is in my life and work.