nonclassical speak to composer Nico Muhly about the composition of his piece ‘Keep in Touch’, the weirdness of violas, and collaborating with Anohni.

‘The viola is an odd instrument,’ says Nico Muhly. ‘It’s the wrong size for its sound, as it were, and they’re all different sizes, and it is a strange, awkward instrument to play.’

Stephen Upshaw

Stephen Upshaw

This awkwardness is part of the appeal of ‘Keep In Touch’, Nico’s piece for viola and electronics, and featuring the haunting voice of Anohni. It’s being performed on Wednesday 14 November by Stephen Upshaw, as part of nonclassical’s ongoing residency at The Victoria, Dalston.

It’s a work that’s concerned with human connection – its abundance in opportunity, and the fear of ever truly attaining it. This is a subject Nico’s more than familiar with – he’s a hub for an enormous and international network of friends and collaborators. Indeed, the piece’s programme notes describe him as a ‘virtuoso of keeping in touch’.

The composition of Keep in Touch – originally written for violist Nadia Sirota – was suitably multi-layered and collaborative. ‘I thought it might be magical to embed the viola in a large architecture of electronic sounds and voices’, explains Nico. ‘At that time, I started the piece on paper. Then, Valgeir Sigurðsson, the wonderful Icelandic producer, recorded not just Nadia’s part, but also a bunch of the small, intimate noises she makes when playing: fingers clicking, breathing, tapping on the body of the instrument. Those became part of the texture of the electronics, so there’s a sense of looking inwards.  The whole process was quite layered and happened on paper, on Sibelius, in my studio, in Valgeir’s studio, in ProTools, in Garage Band, in Iceland, in London, in New York. It was so fun!’

This exploration of the viola and its imperfections was of enormous appeal to Stephen Upshaw, who wanted his performance at The Victoria to comprise ‘pieces that all use the viola as a starting point and aim to highlight its unique and unusual characteristics’. It’s performed alongside ‘NEW HYMNS’ by Aaron Holloway Nahum, as well as Edmund Finnis’s ‘Veneer’, a piece that highlights the extra resonant tuning of the viola.

Anohni (photo by Colin Whitaker)

Anohni (photo by Colin Whitaker)

‘Keep in Touch’ also features the stunning voice of Anohni (Antony & the Johnsons). Nico Muhly had previously worked with the singer on a few projects, and saw a likeness in the timbre of her voice and the strangeness of the viola: ‘her voice is such a similarly impossible thing – people write about it as if it’s a falsetto voice or a countertenor, but of course the legitimate range of it is much more a tenor; there is a gendered assumption about what’s going on.’

Her voice and the original viola were recorded separately, with the two parts entering a virtual dialogue upon performance – a parallel for maintaining human connections in the modern world.

It’s fitting, given the themes of the piece, that Stephen and Nico have known each other for years. Perhaps the performance is their way of keeping in touch.

Stephen Upshaw performs ‘Keep in Touch’ alongside a performance by Benedict Taylor, Wednesday 14 November at The Victoria, Dalston – find out more