The Street: Nico Muhly & Alice Goodman

The Street: Nico Muhly & Alice Goodman

Between 2010 and 2013, while studying for a history degree, Parker Ramsay served as organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. Many former scholars went on to forge successful organist and music director careers from their times up in the great Chapel’s organ loft. Ramsay, however, chose a different musical path. If it’s possible, the US-born musician possesses equally formidable, if not even finer, skills as a harpist, his 2020 recording of his own arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations a testament to a very special talent. For his second album, the now confirmed harpist and self-professed “recovering organist” has partnered with Nico Muhly for The Street. The concept for the piece was already in Ramsay’s head before he first met the American composer, who eventually wrote the music in the summer of 2020. “My recording of the Goldbergs was doing really well, and King’s College, Cambridge, where it was recorded, was already talking to me about doing another project,” Ramsay tells Apple Music. “King’s is my alma mater and doing a large-scale sacred work for the Chapel was in the back of my mind.” Muhly has King’s College connections, too, having previously had his music performed by the Chapel’s famous choir, and written for its organ. So, there was no hesitation when Ramsay broached the idea of a work for solo harp to him. “I immediately said yes,” adds Muhly. The basic structure of The Street is provided by the Stations of the Cross, a sequence of 14 episodes charting Christ’s path to Calvary on the day of his crucifixion. Attached to each “station” is a meditation written by Alice Goodman, an Anglican priest and the librettist for John Adams’ operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. “I grew up listening to the two Adams librettos and can recite every word of them,” Muhly says. “Alice and I had met before and fantasized about working on something together, so when Parker suggested this project, it seemed perfect.” The third and final component in The Street is the inclusion of 14 plainsong chants sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Each movement in the work consists of Goodman’s meditation (spoken by a narrator), a chant, and Muhly’s music. The result is a piece that is both alluringly beautiful and deeply moving. Performing the UK and US premieres in April and June 2022 required an obvious emotional commitment from Ramsay, but it was demanding on a physical level too. “The most challenging part of the work is stamina,” he says. “The Street is, in all likelihood, the largest-scale work for solo harp, and like trumpeters, harpists are generally trained to not play more than five minutes at a time, because the harp is quite heavy on your body. So, stamina in this piece is a major issue.” Ramsay’s recording of The Street comes as a double-album release, with two versions of the piece included. One is of Muhly’s music only, while the other is a full-length sequencing-together of the meditations, chants, and music, the form adopted at the work’s first performances. “I would love for a first-time listener to at least have access to the text in some meaningful way,” Muhly says. “Just to be able to think about the relationship between the words and the music and the musicianship. I think that would be the ideal way because Alice’s texts are so good and Parker’s performance is so moving.” Muhly, though a prolific composer, had never written a piece for solo harp before. The learning curve was steep, as he began to translate his musical ideas for The Street onto a largely unfamiliar instrument. “Parker and I talked and FaceTimed a lot, and I studied a bunch of music written for the harp, which is how you learn to write for any instrument,” Muhly says. “I would send Parker random scraps of what I’d written and ask him whether it worked on the harp, and if not, why not. I’m very happy to be told I’m doing something wrong, and I was able to work out how not to make the same mistake again. It was a very collaborative process.” While Ramsay concedes that The Street is technically difficult to play in places, he emphasizes how completely Muhly has absorbed the technical idiosyncrasies of the instrument and the soul of what it is capable of expressing. “So many contemporary pieces for harp work under the fingers of the person they were written for and not really anyone else,” Ramsay comments. “What Nico has done in The Street is create a beautifully idiomatic work for the harp, but not just for me as a harpist.” Composing for an unfamiliar instrument, Muhly adds, can subtly influence the type of music he ends up writing. “And you let it do that—you encourage the instrument to tell you what it’s about,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in doing the same thing I normally do, just on the harp. As a composer, you basically harness the history of the instrument and the power of all the hours Parker took to become a harpist. And you figure out how that will move your compositional style forward and drive you somewhere you wouldn’t drive on your own.”

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