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November 09, 2007

Maybe we are overthinking this

At the recommendation of a good friend, we attended a classical music performance headlined by young American composer Nico Muhly last Monday. Nico had been commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to compose a piece for the MusicNOW series.

Nico's composition, Step Team, was uncharacteristically rhythmic for modern classical music, yet at the same time sufficiently removed from any direct reference to the physical act of its namesake. Any further description written here won't do the piece justice, so we'll stop while we're ahead.

To quote the evening's program, "Step Team takes its name from step-dancing, a form of percussive dance in which the participant's entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps." Just before it was performed, he described his intention with the piece as creating a "common rhythmic objective" that would keep the ensemble together throughout the performance.

After the conclusion of the concert, I had a chance to talk to Nico and learned something interesting; he researched before sitting down to write this piece.  Research meant something along the lines of watching and listening to step-dance performances via YouTube, which he mapped (right hand slap, left foot stomp, etc) to different instruments in the ensemble.  Nico developed a sense how the literal activity of stepping could be abstractly represented musically.  He said that all of that methodical analysis got stale when it came time to write, so rather than transcribe this research note for note, Nico just sat down and wrote a song. 

I couldn't help but add to the conversation that his process, research then compose, shares aspects of the design process. In fact, composing music is a lot like design in that you have practical limitations, aesthetic concerns and, if you are lucky, lots of users. Nico's homegrown process is not really that different from what we always call the ID process, but we saw a great synthesis of research and design in his work. He did the research to internalize the subject matter, after that, he worked from his gut.

Chuck Owen would remind us that in big, complicated projects, where more is at stake, we should not delude ourselves that we can internalize the entire project space without a little more structure. However, the process of abstracting understanding from research was made very apparent in that concert hall. The composition was about the research just as much as the research had been about the composition, but in the end he created something beautiful that improved our lives, at least for a moment.

Your editors,
Jordan and Alex

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