World Premier of “The Street”: Cambridge UK, April 16 2022
April 14, 2022
We are very pleased to supply a harp for the world premier of Nico Muhly’s The Street, which will take place on Saturday, April 16 in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. It consists of fourteen meditations on The Stations of the Cross: scored for harp, plainchant, and narrations written by Alice Goodman, and premiered by Parker Ramsay (harp), Rosie Hilal (narrator), and the Choral Scholars of the King’s College Choir.
A constellation of circumstances sparked the work. Ramsay wanted a piece about the Stations of the Cross – “with texts, because I’m a big fan of Dupré’s Le Chemin de la croix, and other large cycles by Olivier Messiaen.” Muhly and Goodman had been thinking about working together. King’s College, the commissioners, wished to involve the Chapel Choir. The collaboration has seen elements passed between the three artists, in “mutual trust” (Goodman). Muhly and Ramsay selected the plainchants, while the score began with Goodman’s meditations, to which Muhly wanted to react in music.
“Writing about the stations of the cross is like painting a Madonna and Child”, says Alice Goodman. “You know what has to go in the picture. Each of the fourteen sections has things that have to happen in it. In some, you’re on the edge of the scene; others are more “we”, we become the people on the street or the people in the church. I’ve set them in modern Jerusalem because this is the curious thing about having a religion based on a series of historical events. Jesus was an actual person who was born and died. But you’re always living and walking through these events by seeing them in the time in which you live. I prised the oyster open the best way I could.”
Nico Muhly, meanwhile, “grew up on Alice’s libretti for John” [Adams: Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer]. “There’s no greater gift to a composer”, Muhly continues, “than these two libretti which take the music to a different place. For me they have been a gateway into thinking about the sacred and the geopolitical. And now somehow transforming those layers of things to react to with the harp, which is delicate and hardcore and severe and mechanical.”
Nico Muhly is no stranger to sacred music, or that inspired by it (his other non-orchestral harp work, 2005’s Clear Music for harp, cello and celesta, explores a measure from John Taverner’s Mater Christi Sanctissima motet). For Muhly, “one great thing about sacred music is it happens at specific times of the year or day, nobody claps – you write it so that it can function in a similar way to a sacred building. You don’t go in for a Wagnerian experience of being ravished, it’s anti-Romantic, there isn’t a big climatic structure. Obviously, the inherent structure of the Stations is not Romantic at all and nor is what Alice has done with them.”
Ramsay agrees that The Street‘s focus goes beyond the instruments and performers. “I had a long obsession with Messiaen”, Parker Ramsay explains. “Despite being an organist, I can listen to Messiaen’s organ music without once thinking about the organ. Extending this to my life as a harpist, pieces do sometimes become About The Harp but I don’t want music to be about that/myself. Perhaps that’s also why I wanted a cycle based on religious themes, although my Messiaen obsession contributed to that too.”
“Sacred music has a place in a world that has art in it, but which is not itself the world of art”, says Goodman. “This is why musicians and writers love to do church music. It’s structured around reverence, not ego. That’s why there isn’t any kitsch.” “Alice wrote a line in the twelfth station that simply says ‘Isn’t it enough that he died’”, adds Muhly.
Correspondingly, The Street is not a virtuoso showpiece for the harp, although it is a challenging one. “I didn’t want a lot of spooky effects”, Nico Muhly remarks, “but I do always try to challenge myself, and that translates into a challenge for the instrument. To write for the harp, I studied it, I looked at a lot of successful and unsuccessful writing and I always want to understand why something works or doesn’t work. I think it’s dangerous for a composer to start from the premise they have to break new ground technically. That’s not necessarily going to come out well. In any case, Parker wanted a piece that other harpists could play if they have the core repertoire, like the Britten Suite and the Hindemith Sonata. A propos, The Street has some quotes from both because I know Parker loves these pieces. Great writing lures you in, and then you have many things to think about.”
“Something I love about Nico’s harp writing”, says Ramsay, “is how he manages to create resonance so it moves through the harp continuously. Station X for example, he creates a slow, very rhythmic build-up from the bottom to the top of the harp. This is where Jesus is stripped of his garments and musically that really brings out the humanity and vulnerability in this Station.”
Muhly, Goodman and Ramsay all agree that some instruments possess a secret language, and pieces only those musicians know. Ramsay speaks “the secret languages of harpists and organists…I think I also wanted to work with Alice and Nico because they speak the secret language of church music. As well as mutual trust there is a mutual curiosity there.”
“When Parker is playing”, Alice Goodman observes, “there is so much going on. He is thinking and also his hands are thinking. If you were to write down all the different intelligences at play, you would never be able to do it.”
Nico Muhly: The Street
16 Apr 2022 – 6:00 pm to 7:15 pm
King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
Box office: link