“Keep in touch.” With those three welcoming words, whether quietly spoken from inches away or shouted across a crowded subway platform, a connection extends beyond the limits of the space and time initially afforded it. Nadia Sirota and Nico Muhly have kept in touch since their days as students at Juilliard, and the latest manifestation of their long creative connection, Keep in Touch, is a compact album of two pieces Muhly wrote for Sirota that reaches out from the inside, decisively modern in its embrace of technology and undeniably human in its burning, tender spirit.
The Viola Concerto’s solo instrument emerges from a softly sparkling cloud of string pops and percussion rings, evoking the comforting glow of a phone screen late at night, the user alone but not lonely. Cast into the larger world, the viola is as a wanderer in an intimidatingly loud and large landscape, humming sometimes in concordance with the current, sometimes fighting against it in determined interjections of arpeggios. The pulse of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra lashes forward and almost swallows the soloist’s sound at points before the encouraging, soft pings return at the end. The second movement is the work’s apex, beginning with a tender but tense eight-note theme, then letting Sirota’s viola sing out above a shimmer of strings and anxious Morse-code tattoo of woodwinds. The sound gathers momentum until it turns into an avalanche of strings and percussion, and after the last crash, the silence echoes for a prolonged moment before the players try to reconnect. The eight-note phrase returns again in a dark echo.
The third movement begins in a flutter and flurry, Sirota’s solo riding on a piano-driven post-minimalist march. The writing leaves no time for introspection as the solo runs along a wire, sprinting up variations on the same staircase of notes. The percussion pings of the first movement return, but more demanding. When the cadenza arrives, it comes as a moment alone with jarring and jagged thoughts, then a pensive song in double stops. The piece plunges headlong back into the whirl, and ends unresolved. Especially listening in this surreal year, the shortness of breath recalled our constantly scrolling media cycle, with no room to blink between breaking news. Muhly has also written candidly about his struggle with mental illness and anxiety, and it is hard to imagine that particular lived experience did not somehow influence this poignant piece.
Keep in Touch (2016) springs out of another collaboration, Alarm Will Sound percussionist Chris Thompson having arranged a notated, live version of the 2006 Keep in Touch for viola and tape. It follows in the tradition of Alarm Will Sound performing musique concrete such as the Beatles’ "Revolution 9" (appearing on this year’s Modernists) or the stark, spacious electronic music of Aphex Twin. After a meandering solo, the texture thickens and begins to move slowly, the ethereal voice of Anohni (of Antony and the Johnsons) fading in and out of the foreground. The Viola Concerto is a piece to lean into, but the foggy Keep In Touch asks that the listener lean back and let go.