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Composed: 2020

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd=piccolo), piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd=English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd=bass clarinet), bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales with bow, glockenspiel, almglocken, vibraphone, triangles, woodblocks, whips, Chinese cymbals, bass drum, large tam-tam), harp, strings, and piano duo

About this Piece

In Certain Circles is in three movements. The first contains a little fragment of a piece by Rameau, “L’Enharmonique.” The movement is about uncovering it through various disguises and lifting of those disguises. From time to time, the tune from the Rameau appears and quickly vanishes; while it’s not always meant to be fully audible, there should be a sense of hauntology here, where the simple intervals of the Rameau permeate the texture in oblique and sometimes obscure, ghostly ways. A very simple gesture permeates all three movements: a rising second, forcefully declared by the brass in the very first bar; the brass often insists on these intervals even when they antagonize the pianos. 

The second movement is a pair of dance-suite movements: a sarabande and a gigue. I tried to call on my knowledge of French Baroque music to make something I’ve never done before, which is to say, music that more or less obeys the rhythmic rules of a received form. Here, the pianos go in and out of rhythmic unison with one another—a little mechanical, a little expressive. While the sarabande is quite supple, the gigue is explicitly mechanical and a bit unstable. The normal sets of six and 12 beats are oftentimes interrupted with unwelcome little hiccoughs of four or five beats, creating a sense of anxiety despite the explicitly diatonic harmonies. 

The third movement begins with the pianos in completely different rhythmic worlds from one another. Disconnection is the guiding musical principle here; the music shifts quickly from very dark to very bright, from jagged rhythms to simple ones, and from delicate to quite violent. Every playful moment is offset by something severe and mechanical. After a relatively joyful pulse-based episode, we perceive a final specter of “L’Enharmonique,” and the movement ends abruptly. In Certain Circles is dedicated to Katia and Marielle Labèque. —Nico Muhly