I'm a huge fan of Nico Muhly and happen to be cool enough to be friends with him on Facebook. This video appeared on my live feed yesterday*: a short new piece, Five Palindromic Phrases on B-O-O-B, performed by the amazing violist Nadia Sirota (buy her CD!) and a pianist (haven't figured out who yet--let me know). The work is a set of palindromes on the words BOOB, and was performed on Wednesday night as part of the event BOOB-AID, which apparently raised money for plastic surgery for singer-songwriter Our Lady J. BOOB-AID is auctioning off the manuscript and dedication of the piece, starting price $400, on ebay.
I interviewed both Nico and Nadia in the fall regarding their collaborative history and how they view each others' musical voices. Nico mentioned that what he valued the most about Nadia's playing is her "sense of phrase...she's one of those players who can make a phrase out of 1+1." Nico's writing for her, especially since Keep in Touch, is often just 1+1: his viola licks are tiny little fragments of phrases, which she plays gorgeously. Looking at the score for the Five Palindromic Phrases, or especially the first two Etudes (which are on Nadia's CD), doesn't reveal much in terms of expressive indicactions. There aren't very many phrasing or dynamic markings. But Nadia knows Nico's style well enough to essentially fill in the rest of the piece and create incredibly beautiful music from these tiny fragments. The bouncy rhythms of the Etudes and their 3-note fragments become lush melodies.
This relationship strikes me as one of the most important of Nico's, because it allows him to embrace this simplicity of writing. Even after the massive triptych of works on Mothertongue, which are often purposefully cluttered with instrumental and electronic effects, he can still work in a very basic, viola and piano medium, and get emotional powerful results. I'm very curious to see how his opera turns out--he's in Cambodia orchestrating it now.
*Hopefully this video is visible without logging into facebook--I don't know who Matthew Brown is, but he posted it and it doesn't seem to be anywhere else on the internet.