How Little, So Big

Composer Nico Muhly's How Little You Are evokes the vastness of the West with a choir and 12 guitars

Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly

What's the remotest spot in Texas you've ever been to? Can you recall the way you felt in that isolated place, land stretching to the horizon on all sides, the vast vault of heaven above? If so, then the title of Nico Muhly's new musical composition should make sense to you. How Little You Are, commissioned by Texas Performing Arts and premiering at Bass Concert Hall Saturday, April 18, speaks directly to that imposing spaciousness of the Western landscape and the sense of insignificance one feels in the face of it. With a dozen guitars and the vocal virtuosity of Conspirare's company of voices, the work will conjure the monumental openness – and emptiness – of the West, as experienced by the first settlers in that region.

Curiously, the West isn't somewhere the young composer knows well or has even spent much time – he grew up in New England and has resided in New York City for years. But the commission – the third in Texas Performing Arts' Mellon Foundation-funded, multi-year initiative to boost the profile of classical music in Austin – was developed with Conspirare and Austin Classical Guitar as partners, and when TPA Director Kathy Panoff approached him about composing a work for a choir of voices and a choir of guitars, Muhly might as well have had Horace Greeley shouting that famous directive at him. "The instrumentation of the piece was the first 'known' I had: It was to be a large work for voices and three guitar quartets, and it was going to happen in Texas," he explained by email. "What I immediately decided to do was look for texts, and I wanted those texts specifically to have to do with the West, and be, even more specifically, 19th century texts, and, even better, texts by women. Recently, I wrote an opera about a separatist polygamist sect in southern Utah, which got me poking around the elaborate history of the various pioneer journeys. For How Little, I settled on a combination of traditional texts – cowboy songs – and texts by various women writers, including Mary Alma Blankenship and the Wyoming-based Elinore Pruitt Stewart. I was drawn toward texts that felt open-ended; I resist, often, the pat symmetries of, for instance, Laura Ingalls Wilder, which, while romantic, always feel like they're obeying a pretty standard set of rules about how narrative should work and how morality informs that narrative," as in a bad thing happens, then a good thing happens. "As we all know, life doesn't work like that at all, so I was drawn toward texts where all the children die and the woman is left alone, bereft, with no money to buy a coffin. I was drawn toward texts that just stop, because the diarist simply dies, leaving us mid-story. In this sense, all five movements of this are a downer" – a fact he admitted to the "people of Austin" on Twitter, "but come!"

That said, Muhly didn't rely solely on diarists for his impressions of Western space and mood. "I drew on various encounters I've had with the landscape in the West to make this piece sing, I hope," he wrote. "As a child, I spent very little time in the West, with a few notable exceptions: My late uncle, the composer Martin Mailman, taught music at University of North Texas, so I had the taste of Denton in my mouth early on. And after my grandmother died, my mother and I met in Tucson to drive her car to the East Coast, which, of course, took us right through the whole of Texas. For whatever reason, the GPS got set on some thing to avoid highways, so we ended up on these crazy ranch roads in the middle of nowhere right at dusk – an incredible spatial experience! For How Little, I tried to expand this moment: the severity of the landscape, the openness, and also the sense that there is a man-made rhythm of roads and crossings, tempered and resisted by the anything-can-happen nature of the geology. In keeping with this sentiment, oftentimes the guitars will be at cross purposes with one another: One quartet will be rhythmic and precise, and the others will have notes without rhythmic content – strange little animals crossing the road, insects, sagebrush."

That suggests the complications awaiting the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Dublin Guitar Quartet, and Texas Guitar Quartet in playing How Little You Are, and the musical landscape will be no less complex for Conspirare. "I knew I wanted to set a cowboy song or two in this piece," Muhly wrote. "I've worked a lot with the folk traditions of the East Coast, in my own work and as an arranger and collaborator with folk musicians, but I've never delved into the entirely different world of Western folk music. So when I happened on a text that describes a woman hearing a distant cowboy song, I thought: A-ha! So you have a stylised version of a solo guitar of the sort that might have been in a pioneer's wagon, and then the entire chorus singing cowboy songs at different speeds. One thing I've always admired about Conspirare is that, of course, they are a wonderful chorus, but they are also a wonderful collection of individual voices. In this sense, the piece explores both ways of dividing up the voices: sometimes as little collections of soloists and other times as a massed block."

How Little You Are will be performed Saturday, April 18, 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman. For more information, visit

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Texas Performing Arts, Nico Muhly, Kathy Panoff, Conspirare, Austin Classical Guitar, Texas Guitar Quartet, Dublin Guitar Quartet, Los Angeles Guitar Quartet

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