Nico Muhly spoke at the Ordway Center Friday night before the world premiere of "Luminous Body,"
Photo by Claude Peck
It was a big step up for Nico Muhly. The composer, who turned 30 last week, was last seen in the Twin Cities at the intimate Southern Theater, where he played solo piano and presented works for a small ensemble.
On Friday night (Sept. 9), Muhly still wore the black jeans, boots and T-shirt of his earlier appearances, but the setting was the Ordway Center in St. Paul, where a near capacity crowd heard the world premiere of "Luminous Body," a 20-minute piece by Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas. The work, performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the male vocal ensemble Cantus, was part of the SPCO's season-opening concert.
Muhly and MPR commentator Fred Child talked about "Luminous Body" before Friday's concert. The commission itself, from the SPCO and Cantus (as well as the Minnesota Commissioning Club), presented a major challenge. "The trouble with nine male voices is that it can end up sounding like a community-theater production of '12 Angry Men,'" Muhly said, in one of many laugh lines. Later, he said that he initially resisted the idea of writing for nine male voices, for fear that it could end up sounding like "people arguing at a barbecue."
Muhly and Lucas first talked about this piece two years ago, but finalized it earlier this year. They decided to adapt ancient religious writings from Zohar, the Gnostic Gospels and Buddhism. The idea was to look for the "weird connections between unrelated texts," and to come up with "a soundscape, not a setting of sacred texts," he said, adding, "I thrive on texts that bear multiple interpretations."
Speaking rapidly and name-dropping everything from Messiaen to Helen Mirren, Muhly told jokes about an aunt who "speaks in half-proverbs, like 'You can lead that horse,' and said that while ironing his pants earlier that evening "I thought Bach's cantata 25 was the only thing that could get me through that."
Another goal of Muhly's with "Luminous Body" was to write music that was less narrative and dramatic than "Two Boys," his opera that was premiered in London this year. The result, Muhly said, was more contemplative and abstract, "the calmest piece I've ever written."
Calm it may have been for Muhly, but he still placed some extreme and unsual demands on the SPCO musicians and the Cantus singers. "I asked violin players to hold a note for a very long time," Muhly said, "as much as five minutes." And he pushed the singers to the outer extreme of their registers to create his desired sound. Only sometimes do the singers sing actual words, while they sometimes create simple open-mouthed vowel sounds against the shimmering backdrop of the orchestra.