Sweet Air

Unknown-38David Lang’s Sweet Air (1999) is like a musical mosaic. Small fragments, combined in interesting ways, sparkle and shimmer, playing tricks on the ear. The piece suggests an altered sense of reality and time. Here is Lang’s description:

During a trip to the dentist my oldest son Isaac was given laughing gas. The dentist called it sweet air, a gentle name to take the fear out of having a cavity filled. It worked. My son experienced something—a drug—so comforting that it made him ignore all signs of unpleasantness. This seemed somehow musical to me. One of music’s traditional roles has always been to soothe the uneasy. I must say I have never been that interested in exploring this role. It is much easier to comfort the listener than to show why the listener might need to be comforted. My piece ”sweet air” tries to show a little bit of both. In ”sweet air,” simple, gentle musical fragments float by, leaving a faint haze of dissonance in their wake.

Pay attention to the way the parts fit together. How is the music flowing and developing? Does the atmosphere of the piece suggest something soothing, troubling, or a mix of both?

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Sweet Air is part of a collection of related pieces called Child. Learn more about David Lang (b. 1957) and his music here.

Singing Along with the Vacuum Cleaner

composer Nico Muhly
composer Nico Muhly

What inescapable sounds surround us in the twenty-first century and how do they influence music? Nico Muhly’s 2012 albumDrones, is music which seems to emerge from the hum of the refrigerator or vacuum cleaner.

Muhly (b.1981) studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Julliard, served as Philip Glass’s copyist, and has collaborated with Björk and Usher. Like Gabriel Kahane, his style, which blends elements of rock and electronic music, is hard to pin down. Read an interview with Muhly about the music here.

Listen to Drones and Piano and consider how the music flows and develops. As I listened, I remembered that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  emerges out of silence with a similar open fifth drone…a raw musical element which embraces all possibilities.

Here is what Nico Muhly says about the piece:

I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them…The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e.

The final track on the CD is called Drones in Large Cycles:

Drones in Large Cycles gradually develops, becoming increasingly complex (listen to the multiple rhythmic layers around 5:08). It’s flowing through time, but is there any musical goal? Like many pop songs, and minimalism, this music is about enjoying the moment.

Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence…I find “observed silence” to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody’s basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents’ house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof.  Heaven.

-Nico Muhly