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Program Notes: The Bell Études

To celebrate 75 Years of Music, the Music Academy commissioned guest composer Nico Muhly to compose a series of études dedicated to Music Academy teaching artist Conor Hanick. Below, Muhly details his process and each of the études that will be performed this evening.


The Bell Études is a set of fourteen short pieces for solo piano. Each one has a technical function, something to be worked out and fussed over. As a set, the études have a shared set of large-scale musical references, all the result of long conversations with Conor Hanick, their dedicatee. I kept a running list of things we both liked, and it started to function as a giant shopping list for the études — “inner voices” was underlined, “Britten sea interludes” thrice underlined, emphatically, “Messiaen” circled, but then struck-through (I could never compete!), and so on.

I wanted to write music which has a specific pedagogic function, but whose reference points are broader and more abstract. For instance, a sense of chiming, tolling, and crystalline chords pervades the set, whence comes the title; a few imply specific physical movement (Sarabande, Berceuse), and others are heavily specific about what techniques they’ll challenge (Tenths). 

This evening’s set represents half of the complete set, and comprises:

Lilt, arguably the simplest of the set. A rising fourth (F to B-flat) appears in each bar of the piece; the pianist’s job is to make this line distinct, ever-present, but never unwelcome, like a distant lighthouse spinning. Keeping the chorale-like inner voices smooth requires precisely calibrated voicing.

Sarabande does what it says on the tin; it’s a little dance piece in triple meter with a slight stress on the second beat. This one has occasional hiccoughs, where a bar of three is truncated, giving a sense of instability.

Big B Energy is a meditation on a single pitch, here, a loud, tolling, droning B. This pitch shades and antagonizes and resolves the stately chorale around it, and the pianist is required to maintain several simultaneous rhythms and dynamic contours at the same time.

Teacher-Student is a four-hands étude, with the inner arms often dangerously close. This is a simple-sounding piece with a complicated rhythmic scheme requiring a good deal of trust between the players; oftentimes, something that sounds like a downbeat is actually not, or there will be a downbeat with nobody playing. Occasional phrases nod to Britten.

Wide Bells is all to do with chiming and ringing; the consistency of the bells is undercut by heavily abstracted birdsong, and towards the end, a vigorous, cacophonous peal.

Now Honey is a étude in memory of Mary-Anthony Cox (1932-2019), who taught both me and Conor ear training at Juilliard in the early part of the century. Even though she deployed the friendly and disarming affectation of calling everybody “honey,” she was also terrifying, hilarious, brilliant, and although her methods in the classroom might register now as extreme, or at least bizarre, not a day goes by that I don’t think about something she said or taught me. There is a very very slow, consistent cantus firmus in this étude, derived from a French pedagogical sight-singing book by Georges Dandelot; this isn’t meant to be audible, as it’s basically just a numerical exercise, but having that little proto-melody weaving through the whole piece allowed me to write a simple chorale, offset by fragments of a Bach chorale we were all made to sing in her classes.

Sharp Focus is an eye exam taken in a fast-moving train. It consists of very fast patterns, sometimes played in unison between the hands, and sometimes displaced by just a fraction of a second. It’s jagged and in constant motion, and after a very short middle section alternating between little sculptural figurations and loud bell chimes, it ends with a very fast reïteration of the original canons.

-Nico Muhly