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Emily Chao, Violin and Viola John Muniz, Composer, Piano
June 18, 2024
Emily Chao, Violin and Viola John Muniz, Composer, Piano

John Muniz: Thumos

John Muniz: Sonata for Violin and Piano

John Muniz: Meditation on Constable’s Hay Wain



Thumos is an Ancient Greek word meaning spiritedness—the part of ourselves, seated in the chest, that inspires heroism and great deeds. The writings of Homer and Plato depict thumos as the source of warlike impulses, pride, and the desire for recognition, but also as afflicting us with pain and grief. This composition for solo viola explores the full diapason of emotions attributed to thumos. Its energetic outer sections flank a central strophe in which the pain and lamentation concealed within the warlike breast are allowed to speak. A virtuosic work, Thumos poses a performance challenge that demands warlike courage on the violist’s part!

Sonata for Violin and Piano

The three movements of this sonata contemplate youth, midlife, and old age respectively; together they form a deeply personal reflection on my own life, where I have come from and where I am going. The bright, intensely joyous, and somewhat naive outlook of the first movement—a mostly straightforward sonata form—leads to a more formally and emotionally ambiguous second movement. The latter embodies a search for clarity that finds beauty as best it can amid the uncertainty of existence. Finally, the music dissolves without a pause into the third movement—sorrowing and in darkness but with clearer vision, like Dante’s pilgrim who has emerged from his lost condition “to see again the stars.” This void—empty of both vain hope and anxious seeking—is the space into which there rushes a newfound spiritual ecstasy and peace, recalling the joy anticipated in the first movement and recapturing it in mature perspective. Even the dark night is embraced as the deep, impersonal ground from which life, with its wonder and mystery, surges up.

Meditation on Constable’s Hay Wain (click on image for a larger view)

This meditation on Constable’s masterpiece was inspired in the first instance by the intimate home likeness of the house at the left of the painting, mingled with the gloomy clouds overhead. The opening few minutes reflect this origin. But my conception, and the piece with it, evolved throughout composition. While researching the painting, I came across news coverage of its involvement in a 2022 protest by the environmentalist organization Just Stop Oil. Two protestors glued their hands to the frame; to the painting itself, they affixed a parody image, with a paved road replacing the stream, and skyscrapers in place of the trees at right.

While there is legitimate debate as to whether the protestors’ methods were appropriate (the surface varnish and the frame suffered minor damage), I was powerfully moved by the parody image, which evoked the callous destruction of our natural environment by modern industry and conveyed an ominous warning about climate change. The satire highlights, by contrast, the precarious and precious beauty of Constable’s original landscape. I began to interpret the painting, with deliberate anachronism, as an allegory of the Anthropocene age, with the river of time flowing from our natural environmental home at left to its uncertain future at right, while the cart (centered in the present) traverses time backwards in memory. The later minutes of the composition look to the open space of the future on the right side of the painting. They imagine a regenerating Earth in the aftermath of climate disaster, asking ultimately whether or not the human race will survive to see this rejuvenation come to pass.

Emily Chao is currently acting Associate Concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and also performs with Tucson Pops Orchestra, True Concord Voices & Orchestra, and Borderlands Ensemble. As a member of the Tucson Symphony String Quartet, she presents educational “Music in Schools” programs and quartet recitals for thousands of local school children annually. Emily was a 2021-2022 Artist-in-Residence for the Santa Cruz Foundation of the Performing Arts and performs chamber music regularly at the Benderly-Kendall Opera House as well as other venues throughout southern Arizona with her groups, the Sky Islands Piano Trio and Quartetto Patagonia. She also volunteers as personnel manager and secretary of the board for Tucson Repertory Orchestra. Emily received a DMA from Boston University, where she studied with Lynn Chang and completed a dissertation on Karol Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. She holds BM and MM degrees from New England Conservatory, where she studied with James Buswell.

John Muniz, composer, theorist, speaker, and pianist, is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the University of Arizona. He frequently collaborates with members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, University of Arizona music faculty, and pianist Anna Kijanowska on newly composed works for voice, chamber ensemble, and piano. His recent compositions include music for the Buster Keaton film Sherlock Jr. and a setting of Where the Wild Things Are, both commissioned by Arizona Friends of Chamber Music’s ensemble Chamberhood, as well as a mazurka commissioned by Anna Kijanowska. An eclectic scholar, he regularly gives public talks for nonmusicians and has published research on enharmonicism, the music of Scriabin, rhythm, metal music, and the intersection of music and philosophy in prominent journals such as Music Theory Spectrum and Music Analysis. He holds a PhD in music theory from Yale University, as well as a BA from The College of William & Mary and an MM from Boston University, both in composition. His principal teachers were Paul Zeigler, Sophia Serghi, Joshua Fineberg, and Martin Amlin.