Christopher Tyler Nickel: Requiem – Programme Notes by Andrew Farach-Colton

In its nascent form, Christopher Tyler Nickel’s Requiem was a very different work. ‘I originally composed it in 2014’, he says, ‘but that version was scored for a large orchestra, a large choir and solo soprano. I wrote it and then put it away for a number of years.’ So, when he returned to the Requiem a few years later, he ended up recomposing at least half of the score and recast it all for a chamber orchestra: an oboe, an English horn, a pair of French horns and a modest complement of strings. The plaintive sound that’s created from this reduced ensemble is ideally suited to Nickel’s contemplative musical language, and it enhances a sense of intimacy that makes its communicative power feel intensely personal.
Nickel employs the complete standard Latin text of the Requiem without edits or additions. ‘I didn’t feel it was my place to make any changes. It’s such a rich text as it is, and full of drama.’ That said, he generally eschews word painting (where the images and actions conveyed in a text are illustrated through music), and instead focuses on the overarching emotion. At the same time, each section has its own character drawn from the text. The Confutatis (marked ‘Aggressive’ in the score) is breathless and suggests a spiritual struggle; the Pie Jesu’s heartfelt plea for mercy is given a spare, simple setting with aching harmonies. Perhaps the closest he comes to actual word painting is in the Tuba mirum, where the horns play a fanfare-like motive to the images evoked in the text of trumpets summoning the dead for judgement.
One of the glories of the Requiem liturgy, besides the life-and-death drama inherent in the text, is its play of light and shade – from the promise of and plea for heavenly illumination in the Introitus and Gradual to the glowering, fire-tinted clouds of the Dies Irae. Nickel’s setting is shaded with unusual subtlety and notable for its lack of an ‘aha!’ moment. Even the ‘Hosannas’ at the end of the Sanctus offer a diffuse light – a candlelit radiance. ‘I wanted to keep a solemnity to the Requiem. There’s not much bright light in the piece. For me, given the state of the world, those moments of glory and happiness are often tempered – like seeing light through a curtain.’
Nickel’s score seems to marry the flowing lucidity of Gregorian Chant with the rhythmic and metric complexity one finds in, say, Bartók’s music. This is perhaps the result of what the composer has described as ‘an uneasy asymmetry’ between music and text. What this means, basically, is that instead of setting the rhythm and cadences of the texts (whether in English or Latin) in a simple metre (with the standard two, three or four beats to bar) so they would fall naturally, he employs more complex, compound metres (with five, seven or ten beats to a bar). ‘As a result’, he continues, ‘sometimes the stresses aren’t quite where you expect them to be, and this can be used to affect certain elements of the text and how they’re playing out.’ In other words, despite the music’s focus and clarity, one never feels entirely on solid ground. This is made audible in a section like the Agnus Dei –a plea for salvation – where the asymmetry uncovers a nervous tension inherent in the text but often overlooked.
‘Sometimes I feel that what I’m attempting to say with my music is, that essentially, the world may appear superficially good, but if you look underneath the surface, it’s not that way at all. Noble intentions may be rooted in dishonourable motivations. Perhaps that creates a form of cognitive dissonance. In my music, peace and restlessness co-exist continually.’ Yet another by-product of this ‘cognitive dissonance’ is that it generates a steady current of electric energy that gently propels even the most contemplative music ever forward, and draws us in so we become fellow travellers in the Requiem’s musical and spiritual journey.

Andrew Farach-Colton