Several years ago I got the kind of invitation that people in my line of work dream about. Kathy Panoff, Director of Texas Performing Arts, asked me to join her for lunch with Conspirare’s Craig Hella Johnson to discuss the possibility of a large-scale collaboration.

What Kathy envisioned, however, was much more than I could have imagined. She was in the process of applying for a grant from the Mellon Foundation—a grant with an enormous vision for community arts engagement in Austin. Part of her vision was to bring Austin Classical Guitar and Conspirare together with the commission of a new work, the scope of which would enable us to engage nearly any composer in the world.

Nearly any composer in the world.

We chose Nico Muhly.

A stunning talent with prolific and wide-ranging creations, Nico has composed for some of the most important performing arts groups in the world including the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, Cincinnati Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, American Ballet Theater, Paris Opéra Ballet, Barbican Centre and Wigmore Hall, along with several film scores including a 2008 Best Picture nominee.

The result of that vision and commission is How Little You Are for voices and guitars. The premiere of this work, commissioned by Texas Performing Arts with support from the Mellon Foundation and performed by Conspirare, the Dublin Guitar Quartet, LA Guitar Quartet, and Texas Guitar Quartet, will take place on Saturday, April 18th at 8pm in Bass Concert Hall. Tickets and information are online here.

Here’s how Nico describes the work:

How Little You Are is a large piece, for twelve guitars and choir. I found a sequence of texts written by pioneer women in Texas and in other places in the 19th century expansion to the west. Their concerns range from the agricultural to the spiritual, and from the wonder of the open spaces to the horrors of infant mortality. The camera moves away from the woman in the final section of the piece, towards the cowboys and wranglers working in the far distance.”

Intrigued yet? I think I speak for all of us when I say I was overwhelmed with Nico’s dramatic vision for the piece, and so I asked him to share some of his thoughts on the project as a whole.

Nico MuhlyMatthew Hinsley: What excites you the most about this project?

Nico Muhly: This piece is exciting for a few really specific and nerdy reasons. First and foremost, this is my first exploration of a totally homophonic texture: twelve identical instruments creating a large blanket of sound. This allowed me to really have fun with patterns and rhythms.

MH: What led you to the subject matter of this work: texts written by pioneer women in Texas and in other places in the 19th century expansion to the west?

NM: It seemed like I needed an excuse to use the multiple guitars, and I thought about the old sense of portable instruments: fiddles, guitars, things that could be thrown into the back of a wagon and brought across the country. Also, I’ve worked with American folk music as source material for a large range of compositions, but have never worked with cowboy music, which felt like a noticeable oversight. This piece ends with two old cowboy songs sung in a highly stylized fashion.

MH: Is there anything you wish everyone listening to this piece for the first time knew, or started thinking about, in advance?

NM: I would say to listen to how the guitars interface with another—they are divided up into three equal quartets, but sometimes information bounces between the groups and between individual players. Sometimes the guitars create a romantic environment and other times an austere, shrub-dotted landscape. I would also call attention to how the choir functions—sometimes as a collection of individuals and elsewhere as a giant mass.