(Note: Today's entry is part 4 in a series on the composers of the STRONG SAD project, for more information about the project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1948047402/jonah-sirota-strong-sad-elegies-for-everyday-loss?ref=user_menu)
I first became aware of Nico Muhly’s music at a Juilliard graduate recital by my sister, violist Nadia Sirota (yes, two violists in one family!). She played a new piece by Nico called Keep in Touch that featured a produced audio track including the voice of the fabulously original singer Anohni. As this piece built up a head of steam, it revealed itself to be a chaconne: a series of increasingly florid virtuosic riffs on the viola over a heavy, almost gothic, electronic bass line that kept circling back to the beginning and building in complexity. I was especially impressed with how Keep In Touch seemed to be both existing in a space that sounded a bit like pop music and as a piece of “serious” music, a goal I had long thought was possible but hadn’t heard executed all that well. Not long after that recital, my quartet played a piece of Nico’s for choir, organ, percussion, and string quartet called Expecting the Main Things From You, which was a different texture entirely, and owed a great deal to both the Anglican choral tradition and the music of Philip Glass, with whom Nico had mentored. The seemingly disparate threads of Nico’s music fit beautifully together.
Fast-forward to 2011, and the Chiara Quartet commissioned Nico to write us a new quartet, and to curate a program of music to go with it. We premiered his piece Diacritical Marks at the first season of the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York, and he introduced us, in that program, to the music of Valgeir Siggur∂sson as well (also a composer on the STRONG SAD project, and producer on Keep in Touch).
For this album, I wanted to commission Nico to write a duet for me and Nadia. Her Nico commissions over the years (which include a fiendishly difficult series of etudes for viola and tape, as well as an absolutely stunning viola concerto, co-commissioned by the Detroit Symphony) have added tremendous work to the viola repertoire. I wanted to pay homage to both Nico and Nadia, whose realization of one another’s work has been so inspiring to me.
The resulting piece, called Lean, is barely more than three minutes long, and is so beautiful and haunting that I chose to end the album with it. I haven’t asked Nico about the title. In my mind, it is about the ways that my sister and I, both violists, have leaned on one another for musical and extra-musical inspiration over the years. I am excited to see where our collaboration goes as we continue to evolve as artists and people. Thank you, Nico, for this stunning work!
For more about Nico Muhly:
And about Nadia Sirota:
To preorder and support the STRONG SAD project: