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This Just In: Bigger and Closer (not smaller & further away)

Nico Muhly faces forward, visible from the middle of his chest up. He is wearing a black t-shirt, has short, dark, curly hair and a neutral smile on his face. In the background, part of the album cover of "Bigger & Closer (not smaller and further away)" is visible.
Album photo courtesy of Bedroom Community, headshot courtesy of the Library of Congress and Heidi Solander. Graphical treatment our own.
Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly’s arresting and textural ambient accompaniment to visual artist David Hockney’s immersive exhibit "Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)" finds new life on the Bedroom Community label.

With previous collaborators including Philip Glass, David Lang, Björk, Sufjan Stevens, major commissions from Hilary Hahn, the Metropolitan Opera, The Tallis Scholars, and both the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and roles ranging from composer, performer, producer, arranger, and curator, heir apparent to the post-minimalist throne Nico Muhly has nothing left to prove.

But that hasn’t stopped the composer from trying. His latest collaboration with acclaimed visual artist David Hockney on the immersive exhibit “Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away),” located at London’s Lightroom, marks one of the more significant marriages of classical music and visual art in recent history.

Since at least the end of the 19th century, there has been a well-documented account of classical music influenced by visual art, with perhaps the most famous example being Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which directly evokes the experience of walking through a gallery.

Other notable examples include Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, and Ottorino Respighi’s orchestral triptych Three Botticelli Pictures, to name a few. But while these works may contain aural associations to their visual counterparts and are directly inspired by them, none of them were created specifically to accompany the art itself.

Further into the 20th century, however, such music began to be composed with the intention of performance alongside conventional visual art - Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is a particularly prominent historical example.

But Muhly and Hockney, both masters in their respective fields, bring an unparalleled level of technical ability and polish to new heights, in a new format.

Contrary to the increasingly popular yet allegedly disappointing immersive art exhibits of late, variously accused of being poorly designed and executed, underwhelming, or just plain ripoffs, Hockney meticulously hand-designed his exhibit digitally, and regularly interacted with a scale model of the exhibit to refine his ideas.

The exhibit was produced to be a uniquely engaging narrative experience of the artist’s life and work, “a sort of self-portrait among other things,” per Hockney, rather than a display of cheaply blown-up images of long-dead artist’s works.

From the New York Times:

They’re dead. I’m a living artist, so I’ve come in and actually done things.
David Hockney

You can see the artist’s enthusiastic response to the exhibit for yourself:

Muhly's album of selected tracks from the exhibit (roughly 30 minutes of the original 60), also titled Bigger and Closer (not smaller & further away), is an ambient feast for the ears, with or without the presence of its visually compelling counterpart.

Throughout the album, Muhly carefully weaves and layers soothing strings against glassy piano and celesta (played by the composer himself), along with a serenely warbling flute and occasionally punctuating piccolo.

Harmonies stretch and surge against one another, gently bubbling and evolving over time, pierced by understated rhythmic ripples and the occasional electronic effect as a subtle undercurrent to the foreground; not disrupting the texture, but enveloping it. Complex rhythmic patterns established in the piano and celesta dissolve against a liquid timbral tapestry, inviting the mind to wander as Muhly enshrouds us in a warm aural blanket.

Though the titles of each of the tracks correlate to sections of the exhibit (Perspective Lesson, Roads and Paths, Drawing with a Camera, Looking Closely, and Pools), it isn’t explicitly clear the extent to which Muhly is attempting to communicate aspects of the art itself. But it doesn’t matter — the music stands firmly on its own, gently humming and whirring along, and stirring our hearts and minds all the while.

William Peacock is a Lead Music Programmer for WCRB.