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Kennesaw State hosts new-music festival, including Eighth Blackbird for a Nico Muhly premiere

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Nico Muhly is white-hot just now, a 29-year-old New York composer with an ear-friendly and disciplined aesthetic, big-label CDs and commissions hither and yon. His latest will be given its world premiere Saturday at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Center with the new-music sextet Eighth Blackbird. The concert is the finale of KSU’s weeklong Festival of New Music.

The festival includes performances by students and faculty from Kennesaw State, Georgia Tech and Georgia State universities, plus free public master classes and scholarly lectures. On Saturday night, Eight Blackbird will hold the stage, with music by John Cage, Philip Glass, Stephen Hartke and Missy Mazzoli — the last of these a much-discussed young composer whose music hasn’t been heard in Atlanta.

George Herbert

The whole festival is built around Muhly’s new work, lasting 10 minutes, called “How Soon?,” a setting of George Herbert’s poem “Mortification.” It’s a co-commission with KSU’s School of Music and Chicago’s Anima Young Singers.

There are two main components to “How Soon?” The first is choral. “I’m always eager to work with younger singers, young voices, young choirs,” says Muhly, reached at his home in New York’s Chinatown. It has been a central obsession for him. In the notes to his Decca album “A Good Understanding,” the composer writes: “Choral music is one of my greatest pleasures in life; I was a boy chorister with an addiction to the textures and rapturous moments that define the Anglican choral tradition from the 16th century to the 21st. My sense of line, melody and harmony all come from strange, specifically choral sources.”

When the idea of a commission came, Muhly started dipping into one of his favorites, George Herbert (1593-1633), an English poet appreciated by modern critics for expressing the ineffable subtleties and complications of the spiritual life. His poem “Mortification” — published, like all of Herbert’s works, after his death — begins “How soon doth man decay.” (You can read the complete poem on Muhly’s website, and while you’re there, browse around to discover the composer’s antique’d interests and fertile creativity. He’s also a master Twitter artist.)

“Mortification,” says Muhly, “is obsessive and fractal-ish, the way it’s laid out and where each stanza ends with the word ‘death.’ But it isn’t so complicated that you can’t understand it when you’re singing it. It’s a fabulous text to set.”

The other main element in the new work is the famous sextet, which visits Atlanta regularly and recently performed (and recorded) Jennifer Higdon’s “On a Wire” with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Members of Eighth Blackbird reach into the piano for Jennifer Higdon's "On a Wire" with the Atlanta Symphony last June. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

“Eighth Blackbird is so hyper-totally virtuosic that composers give them pages of music so dense it looks like a star chart,” Muhly says. “And because that’s easy for them, they’ll have to hang upside down or reach into the piano while playing it. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could relax for a minute?’

“So I thought it would be great to capture a little of how an organist accompanies a singer in church, in terms of tone and gesture and playing to the room — all the subtle things. So Eighth Blackbird’s role is ornamental and straight accompanying, and they offer little commentaries on the text. It’s actually a very simple hymn. It requires a lot more contemplation than virtuosity, I think.”

Bobby Asher, who used to run KSU’s Bailey Center and is now at the University of Maryland, was central to the commission. In an email to me yesterday, he laid out the process, offering a glimpse into how music actually gets commissioned: “in a van on the way from the airport.”

“The idea really came about during Eighth Blackbird’s first visit to the Bailey Center in February ’09,” Asher wrote. “In the van on the way from the airport, we were talking about composers we liked, and discovered that they and I were both really into Nico’s music. His disc ‘Mothertongue’ had been released the year before, and I’d been listening to it nonstop. We’d been talking about commissioning a work for the [Bailey Center’s] Premiere Series, and the ‘birds were interested in doing something with a chorus, which was exciting to us because it meant that we could get our students involved in the performance.”

The KSU Women's Chorus
Alison Mann, KSU women's chorus director

Asher continued: “Their other commissioning partner was a children’s chorus [in Chicago], so over several conversations the piece evolved to be for SSAA so that it could be performed by children’s chorus or treble adult chorus, in this case the KSU Women’s Chorus, Dr. Alison Mann is the conductor. [KSU honchos] really got behind the project and we were able to build a new-music festival around this project…”

He concluded: “The exciting thing about Nico’s music, to me, is that he bridges all of these musical worlds in his collaborations: he’s worked with Bjork, the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros, and the Grizzly Bears, but also worked with Philip Glass and has commissions from the Metropolitan Opera and the NY Philharmonic; he’s also done movie score work [including “The Reader”]. I think he’s representative of a whole new generation of artists and listeners who are more culturally omnivorous than previous generations — and who don’t distinguish as much by genre as by what they like.”

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