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Notes for New York

January 12, 2024
New York, by George Bellows (1911), Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

By Nicky Swett

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho wrote her piano trio Light and Matter in 2014, while she was in New York City. She described working on it “while watching from my window the changing light and colors of Morningside Park. . . . Perhaps that continuous transformation of light on the glinting leaves and the immobile trunks of the solid trees became the inspiration for the musical materials in this piece.” For her 2001 Violin Sonata, Lera Auerbach was likewise inspired by devotion to New York, which had then been her home for a decade. She wrote it in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, remarking on her love for “this great city that can mirror everyone who is not afraid of seeing his own reflection. Since childhood I knew that the only way to deal with pain is by transforming it into a work of art, into music, thus rising from the destructive forces that can be attached to painful experiences. All the different emotions I experienced at that time—from shock to sorrow, from mourning to hope, from anger to despair, from reminiscence to questioning—were embodied into its material.”

New York City has been a home and a source of inspiration to innumerable composers. This playlist features a few aspects of the city that musicians have chosen to express in their works. Many depict the hustle and bustle of a place full of fast-moving cars, trains, people, and ideas. Minimalists like Steve Reich create large structures out of simple rhythmic patterns, often interspersed with recorded sounds of the actual city. David Baker, in his Jazz Suite, hints at stop-and-start traffic on 52nd Street with constantly shifting meters. Cellist Thomas Demenga focuses on the ubiquitous blare of the car horn in New York Honk. And to the lonely, hopeful solo voice in Philip Henderson’s An English Horn in New York, the repetitive rhythms, which embody flashes of the towering skyline, represent hope.

New York’s qualities are not always energetically or optimistically rendered. In New York Skyline, Heitor Villa-Lobos lends the tall buildings a degree of shadowy menace. Like him, many composers show a darker side of New York: the eerie beauty of Central Park in the Dark according to early-20th-century modernist Charles Ives, for example, or the agony of many tragedies that have befallen the city and its inhabitants.

Some also portray New York as a site of fruitful musical encounters. On a series of East Meets West albums, Clarinettist Jun Qian and Sheng Master Hu Jianbing together improvise New York Dialogues. Paquito D’Rivera transforms the sounds and excitement of a 1980s street fair in Greenwich Village into a stylistically wide-ranging string quartet. And Turkish composer Fazıl Say’s Dervish in Manhattan represents an ecstatic meeting between whirling, Sufi dance and avant-garde jazz.


Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.