Named for the concentration camp that was home to a shockingly rich cultural life, the Terezin Music Foundation is dedicated to preserving the music of the composers who were prisoners there, and, more broadly, music that was banned by the Nazis as degenerate and dangerous. But the foundation’s mission goes beyond safeguarding the past; it frequently commissions new works. “It’s my hope that the commissions serve as an ongoing memorial and homage to [the censored composers’] unfulfilled gifts,” wrote director Mark Ludwig in an e-mail. “I want to honor the Terezin legacy by inspiring and nurturing the emerging voices of music.”
At the foundation’s annual gala, on Monday, pianist Simone Dinnerstein will premiere “You Can’t Get There From Here,” a 16-minute work by New York-based composer Nico Muhly. At 31, Muhly already has a sterling resume that includes two operas, a number of important commissions, and collaborations with ensembles that range from the American Ballet Theater to Grizzly Bear. His blog and Twitter feed show him to be a sharp and humorous observer of matters musical and otherwise.
He’s also a busy guy. When reached last week, he was in Reykjavik, having just performed at the Iceland Airwaves festival. Asked about the new composition, Muhly said that while he was honored by the commission, he didn’t want the piece to refer directly to the music the Terezin foundation is involved with preserving.
“In anything that has to do with memorial or remembrance, there’s so many ways to get it wrong,” he said by phone from Greenhouse Studios. “For me, it’s much more about writing a piece that’s sort of exactly right in tone for their mission.”
When he and Dinnerstein began discussing the piece, he said, “one of the things that we both agreed would be appropriate for the specific commission would be to have the music reference the music of the past, and to be, in a sense, a memory piece.” They discovered a shared passion for the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a compendium of keyboard music from the 16th and 17th centuries. It consists of fully fleshed-out works as well as fragments, including bits that look almost like counterpoint exercises.
So, said Dinnerstein, speaking from her home in Brooklyn, Muhly took “a little snippet of a tune, you could call it, and created a kind of loose set of variations and fantasy on it.” The piece is highly sectionalized, “so there are parts that sound very rhythmic, in a kind of Steve Reich-minimalist kind of way, and there are parts that are almost neoclassical. And there are parts that are extremely free, rhythmically, and parts that are looking back to very early counterpoint.”
“It’s sort of like you never actually see the thing,” Muhly said of his source material. “You see it through many layers of grime.”
Muhly is widely known for bringing together the styles of 16th-century music and minimalism in his works. It’s a crude and somewhat reductive way to describe his output, which is substantial and more diverse than that description captures. Muhly, though, seems cheerfully resigned to the label. “I’ve come to love it like a sort of wacky uncle,” he said, laughing. “People decided that’s what was going on, so, there it is.”
But he had a more serious point about the underlying commonalities of those two eras. “In a lot of cases, Baroque music, which is the fundament of most music we know, is music with repetitive structures, music with patterns,” he explained. “There’s a kind of riff that’s continued. In a lot of ways, it’s the same way a lot of early American minimalism worked, where you kind of get yourself into a pattern, and it’s the deviations that become the story, not the pattern itself.”
There’s also an emotional component that binds those two styles together, he continued. “What Romantic music does is to say, I’m going to tell you exactly what to feel at this particular time. Whereas music of the 16th and early 17th century, and the [minimalist] music of the 1960s, says, here is a space. Here are patterns that you can perceive and watch as they slowly shift. And that becomes more ritualistic, how we deal with time. I think those things bring them together.”
For Dinnerstein, “You Can’t Get There From Here” feels both simple and complex. At the gala she will also play Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” and Bach’s First Partita, two works of poetic understatement “where every note is meaningful, in a way that in a very short poem, each word and how it’s constructed into a sentence or line . . . is extremely thought through.”
They should make for a fascinating complement to the new work. “I think Nico’s piece has a lot more fire in it than the Schumann and the Bach — there are a lot of fast and loud parts to it. But at the same time, I think he’s dealing with those issues of how you pare down a piece of music to its essentials.”David Weininger can be reached at globeclassical