"One man with courage makes a majority." —Andrew Jackson
Official White House portrait of Andrew Jackson.
Official White House portrait of Andrew Jackson. Wikimedia Commons
Throughout February, hear new works by contemporary composers based on words of 16 American presidents, in recordings by conductor Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA. Today, words from Andrew Jackson come alive in music by Nico Muhly.
Composer Nico Muhly isn't afraid of large forces or new media. He's at work on an opera with playwright Craig Lucas that's destined for London and the Metropolitan Opera. His Drones and Piano for pianist Bruce Brubaker features sounds from an unusual instrument: the iPod.
But for this installment of the Mr. President series, Muhly worked with voices alone. "I have a soft spot in my heart for Nico Muhly," says conductor Judith Clurman, the instigator of the project. "I directed choral activities at Juilliard for 18 years, and I got to know him as a student, and I'm really fortunate that I brought him back a little bit into choral music."
Clurman assigned the young composer a quotation from Andrew Jackson: "One man with courage makes a majority."
Courage Jackson had in spades. In a duel, he killed a man who had insulted his wife. He was the first Tennessean elected to the House of Representatives. And in the War of 1812, he defeated the British at New Orleans and became a hero, one who would serve as the seventh president.
Muhly crafted a canon out of Jackson's seven words, a melody that the voices layer over each other.
"It's basically one idea," Muhly says. "It's one idea that has to work against itself at different times, which is the nature of a canon. One voice comes in, and then the next voice comes in, and then the third, all singing the same material. So the idea had to be foldable, in that sense — the idea contains pleats that meet up at clever junctions."
Muhly wrote in a clean, declamatory style that has echoes of both early English choral music and modern minimalism. His melody leans into the word "courage" and leaps up during "majority." The cumulative effect is as if women and men all across the country are striving to make themselves heard, and each has something worthwhile to say.
"It's very minimalistic, but it's amazing," Clurman says. "The music just flows out of everybody. And people are singing all over the place. Keeping a steady beat in his piece was not always an easy task. Everybody was excited.
"There are four individual lines, yet they fit together beautifully as a cohesive whole. And the tendency was to rush rush rush rush rush rush rush. I found myself playing metronome during rehearsals of this piece, more than for many of them. And yet, it's one of those pieces that just fits together one, two, three."
The composer says, "The idea is that you should be immediately able to understand what's being said. But it also has a lot to do with Steve Reich's music, where once you've heard the text the first time, it slowly unfolds itself, like a noodle being teased out of a wheat ball — and then you end up with what I think sounds like a very Tudor choral texture at the end."
The last words of the piece aren't the last ones in the quotation. While the other voices hold, you can hear one final "one man" — a reminder of what Jackson's words mean, and where all work begins.
About The Composer
Born in Vermont in 1981 and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Nico Muhly has composed extensively for chorus, including five works for Judith Clurman. His orchestral works have been premiered by the American Symphony Orchestra, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Orchestra, the Boston Pops, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony. Film credits include scores for Joshua (2007), The Reader (2008) and the Argentine drama Felicitas. He has worked extensively with Philip Glass as editor, keyboardist and conductor for numerous film and stage projects. With designer/illustrator Maira Kalman, Muhly composed a vocal work based on Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. He has been co-commissioned by the English National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and Lincoln Center Theater Commissions Program.