Connection in Isolation: Nico Muhly's "Throughline" and the interconnectedness of all beings past, present, and future

Tim Farrand

Nico Muhly's "Throughline," a work that captures the interconnectedness of all beings past, present, and future, was commissioned by Esa-Pekka Salonen to launch his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony.[1] "Throughline" highlights the connection inherent between all people—across genres and across time—and the power of artistic collaboration. The piece demonstrates that we can come together and collaborate while still maintaining our individuality.

"Throughline" shows us how to turn the darkness into light, find hope amidst the uncertainty, and take the energy from this forced solitude to create something entirely new.

Conditions around the COVID-19 pandemic put certain non-negotiable limitations on the production of Nico Muhly's "Throughline:"

Throughline was composed especially for the legal and physical restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 virus. A maximum of six orchestral players could be on stage at once, none of which could be a breath-based instrument, who had to be recorded individually. Soloists would be recorded remotely from across the globe, and it would all be assembled through an intricate editing process of both video and audio. [2]

In "Throughline," Muhly creates a "seamlessly collaborative musical experience. . [capturing] the vibrant individualism of its performers" while simultaneously creating a cohesive musical and visual experience. Muhly reimagined the orchestra by allowing a view of it from the inside out, focusing on the individuals that make up a greater whole. Muhly says:

"Throughline" is about. . .treating the orchestra as the big organism that is it but also really focusing on individual players.

[. . .]

It is easy to get lost in the idea that the orchestra is just this one gigantic room full of people making a lot of noise, but it really is these individuals. [3]

The first meaning of the title "Throughline" comes from the composer himself who states that this work should be experienced "visually, and with your ears, [tracing] a line through the piece."[4] The visualization of the performance plays just as much of a role as the audio. Through deconstructing the orchestra and reassembling it, Muhly shows us the power of individuals within a group, the power of cohesion, and the amazing things that happen when people work together towards a common goal.

Bridging Traditional Gaps

In addition to illuminating the inner workings of an orchestra, "Throughline" demonstrates the surprising expressive capabilities of bringing together artists from different backgrounds, genres, and sectors of the music industry as yet another layer of individuals connecting into the whole, their unique talents and backgrounds adding to the assimilation of multitudes to create something of even greater power and significance.

One example is having Nicholas Britell—composer of music for films such as "Moonlight," "Succession," and "Don't Look Up"—play a solo piano part accompanied by trumpets and vibraphone followed seamlessly by an electric guitar solo performed by Bryce Dessner—a composer and member of the band The National—accompanied by other members of the SFS brass section:

This combination of different genres was partly a matter of necessity. When taking over as Music Director of the SFS, Esa-Pekka Salonen decided to create an artistic panel of musicians from a broad spectrum of musical backgrounds. The goal is to develop new ideas based upon the different lines of experience each member brings. Salonen states:

“It’s an experiment. . .I’m surrounding myself, at least mentally, with a bunch of talented and creative people.”[5]

Muhly's approach to this piece highlights the individuality of each member on Salonen's artistic panel while maintaining the sense that they are part of a larger whole, such as allowing Esperanza Spalding to create her own part and then adding a simple cushion for that to shine from within the center of the piece.

He creates this throughline of different genres by looking back to the concerto-grosso style of the Baroque period:

The goal was to constantly illuminate individual San Francisco Symphony players as soloists as well as showing the musicians as team-players within their sections; in this sense it functions like a concerto grosso but with everybody shifting teams.[6]

Connecting Past to Future

Muhly creates a line from past to present, in terms of musical style, as well as combining the different styles inherent in our own time. Creating this "Throughline" between past, present, and future resonates with Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," his transcendent ode to the connection not only between all living human beings but of all those that have lived and ever will live—"The similitudes of the past and those of the future". We are all connected by a shared experience:

"These and all else were to me the same as they are to you."

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," section 4

Whitman, like Muhly, recognizes that he is standing here, a poet and a person, the result of everything that has come before:

Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.

For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.

All forces have been steadily employ'd to complete and delight me,
Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 44

Whitman sees the value in viewing himself as one particle dissolved into the infinite succession of life on earth:[7]

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things at all hours of the day,
The simple, compact, well-join'd scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme.

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," 2

When we embrace the present moment and allow the dissipation of our self we are able to more fully see the nature of the world. As we open ourselves to the totality of being, we realize that there are "infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives" all based upon our individual conceptions of the world, of beauty, and our own "ideals of the Good."

From Bach to Artificial Intelligence

Muhly acknowledges his connection with those that came before him by combining different styles of influence with those of our modern present, even looking to the future in the process. Throughout the piece, one encounters the remnants of Johann Sebastian Bach, from the Bach chorale that appears just after Spaldings exuberant manifestation of optimism (see above):

To the Bachian counterpoint composed by artificial intelligence—created in collaboration with computer scientist Carol Reiley—that extends the nine bars written by Muhly (represented visually in the piece when code is running along with the screen, musicians playing behind):

Muhly further connects past to present by using poetry from the 17th century of Thomas Traherne—who would have lived in the United Kingdom during the Great Plague of London in 1665—to comment on our situation today. Traherne's poem embodies the feelings of solitude and darkness that accompany loneliness. Visually, this darkness is portrayed by placing Julia Bullock—the soprano who creates the powerful emotional climax of this work—alone in a darkened room, cut off from town, cut off from her collaborators, and searching through the inner grief we all have felt during these past two years of isolation. Muhly takes the following portion of Traherne's poem, "Solitude":

Remov'd from Town,
[From People, Churches, Feasts, and Holidays,
The Sword of State, the Mayor's Gown,
And all the Neighb'ring Boys;]
As if no Kings
On Earth there were, or living Things,
The silent Skies salute mine Eyes, the Seas
My Soul surround; no Rest I found, or Ease.

My roving Mind
Search'd ev'ry Corner of the spacious Earth,
From Sky to Sky [. . .]

Stemming the boundaries between time and space, Muhly encapsulates what Whitman expressed over a hundred and fifty years prior:

It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," 3

Whitman's imagery of the individuals looking across time upon the natural elements is represented by the amazing, profound, and uplifting shift from dark to light that Muhly creates, combing the final word "Sky" sung by Bullock in the midst of a darkened room, alone and searching, with the open and bright sky of Finland where Esa-Pekka Salonen walks through the forest, 6,000 miles removed from San Francisco, connecting with the trees, rocks, plants, and rivers that flow through his world as they have throughout all generations:

In Traherne's larger poem, "Solitude," the subject never finding solace in Nature, continues on in his misery with only brief glimmers of hope. Muhly, in connecting with writers such as Thoreau and Whitman who advocated for the restorative effects of going into nature, turns this around and shows how a connection, a 'Throughline,' with the natural world allows for a renewed sense of hope and peace; allows us to withdrawal from ourselves and become part of the larger whole, just like he demonstrates with reframing our view of the orchestra. This is the most powerful representation of a 'Throughline' in Muhly's work.

The restorative effects of nature have been a common theme throughout art in all ages. Perhaps the subject of Traherne's "Solitude" was simply interacting in the wrong type of solitude, as the poet Jane Hirshfield writes:

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.

Jane Hirshfield, "Vinegar and Oil"

Maybe Traherne's subject didn't quite find the peace from melancholy he was looking for but at the end of Throughline," when Esa-Pekka Salonen is walking through the forests of Finland, you can see mankind's connection with Nature and undoubtedly see that it was the right kind of solitude which serves as a conduit for the profound connection with something bigger, connection with our natural world, which helps to relieve the melancholy allowing space for time, patience, and healing.

Perhaps Traherne's subject spent too much effort looking for nature to give answers instead of bending his ear to its "gentle will"[8]. In our solitude, we need to take personal responsibility as Mary Oliver points out:[9]

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Thoreau beautifully connects the act of going into a concert hall or a church—both things that were often unavailable throughout the pandemic—with the act of going into Nature, all performing the same spiritual reconfiguration of the soul. We go into nature, into those pure, unadulterated recesses, because of the impact Nature has upon the individual. We go in order to release ourselves and be "dissolved into something larger." We go there to transform ourselves and come into a dialogue with a higher realm of existence, coming closer to true wisdom, taking possession of our lives despite society's hindrances:

Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When the concert halls closed, Muhly disctincly felt the isolation that he represents in the solo of Julia Bullock (whether conciously or not):

“I protested for a minute, listening to basically nothing and going to bed at 8. I was like, if I can’t go to a concert I’m going to bed."[10]

Just as individuals have been going to nature to find solace in their solitude,[11] so does Muhly's "Throughline" with Salonen walking through nature, connecting with it through touch, and finding a sense of hope.

If you have never gone out and connected with Nature—touched the trees, tapped on the rocks, felt the gentle water through your fingers—you are missing the incredible experience of being one within the Universe, one being amongst many, connecting your atoms to the atoms of the natural world around you.

There is a power in the contemplation of the fact we are all made of the same stuff—the atoms within me are the same as those in the trees, the rocks, the insect, everything is made of the same material, as Oliver expresses:

Who can guess the luna's sadness who lives so briefly? Who can guess the impatience of stone longing to be ground down, to be part again of something livelier? Who can imagine in what heaviness the rivers remember their original clarity?

Strange questions, yet I have spent worthwhile time with them. And I suggest them to you also, that your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as you feel how it actually is, that we—so clever, and ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained—are only one design of the moving, the vivacious many. [12]

This harkens back to the end of my favorite poem by Whitman:

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 6

At the end of Muhly's piece, there is a tinge of darkness, a bittersweetness that signals while we find hope in nature, we still need a way to keep that hope going. Repeated visits help. Connection with others help.

Iris Murdoch tells us that art and nature teach us the act of "unselfing," what Maria Popova describes as "a gladsome relaxing of the spirit, of our essential nature, into the shared pulse of existence. There is, as Murdoch points out, a "self-forgetful pleasure in the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees."[13]

Great works of art and time spent within the unfathomable splendor of nature allow us to release ourselves into possession of the present, dissolving away the "turbulent sphere" of society.

O fair, sweet stream, thy undisturbed repose
Me beckons to thy front, and thou vexed world,
Thou other turbulent sphere where I have swelt,
Diminished into distance touch'st no more. [14]

This is the lesson we can learn: even in our own melancholy, we can take solace in the endless stream of mankind that we are a part of and know that many people, from the beginning of humanity to now, have faced challenges and found a way to survive. We, us, our lives at this moment, are living proof of humanity's ability to endure, to adapt when necessary, to find a way through. Even though we are apart right now, we can come together in the way we act and move through this current challenge together so that the future will be living proof of our resilience. What we do now will be represented in the way the generations of the future live.


1. 2020 was to be the start of Esa-Pekka Salonen's first year as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, a year he would have to spend 6,000 miles away, cut off from San Francisco in his home in Finland as the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt of live musical operations and travel.

2. Read more about the creation of "Throughline" on the SFS website:


4. Read more on the SFS website:

5. From the New York Times article "The San Francisco Symphony Plunges Into a New World."

"The project is also an introduction to the eight collaborative partners Mr. Salonen announced when he was named to his new position in 2018, a group whose mission has been kept intentionally vague. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “I’m surrounding myself, at least mentally, with a bunch of talented and creative people.”

They are artists who are collaboration-prone and multi-hyphenate: Claire Chase, the flutist and International Contemporary Ensemble founder; Bryce Dessner, the National guitarist and composer; Carol Reiley, the computer scientist and roboticist; Esperanza Spalding, the jazz musician and opera composer-in-the-making; the violinist Pekka Kuusisto; the soprano Julia Bullock; Nicholas Britell, the composer of “Moonlight” and “Succession”; and Mr. Muhly.

Mr. Muhly wrote “Throughline” as a showcase for the partners, all of whom get solos. (So does Mr. Salonen.) The piece therefore comes out sounding like a set of miniature concertos. With so many specific voices to accommodate, it’s also transparently a pièce d’occasion. But a substantial one: It runs about 19 minutes, with a dense score of pandemic-defying scale."

6. Find full program notes here:

7. Whitman continues this stand in sections 16 and 17 of Song of Myself.

Song of Myself, 16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth

[. . .]

A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

Song of Myself, 17

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.

8. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, edited by Robert F. Sayre, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), 39-40. Library of America, series 28.

At evening still the very stars seem but this maiden’s emissaries and reporters of her progress.

Low in the eastern sky
Is set thy glancing eye;
And though its gracious light
Ne’er riseth to my sight,
Yet every star that climbs
Above the gnarled limbs
       Of yonder hill,
Conveys thy gentle will.

Believe I knew thy thought,
And that the zephyrs brought
Thy kindest wishes through,
As mine they bear to you,
That some attentive cloud
Did pause amid the crowd
       Over my head,
While gentle things were said.

Believe the thrushes sung,
And that the flower-bells rung,
That herbs exhaled their scent,
And beasts knew what was meant,
The trees a welcome waved,
       And lakes their margins laved,
When thy free mind
To my retreat did wind.

It was a summer eve,
The air did gently heave
While yet a low-hung cloud
Thy eastern skies did shroud;
The lightning’s silent gleam,
Startling my drowsy dream,
       Seemed like the flash
Under thy dark eyelash.

Still will I strive to be
As if thou wert with me;
Whatever path I take,
It shall be for thy sake,
Of gentle slope and wide,
As thou wert by my side,
       Without a root
To trip thy gentle foot.

I’ll walk with gentle pace,
And choose the smoothest place
And careful dip the oar,
And shun the winding shore,
And gently steer my boat
Where water-lilies float,
       And cardinal flowers
Stand in their sylvan bowers.

9. May Oliver, "I Go Down to the Shore," in A Thousand Mornings (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 1.

10. From New York Times article listed above. See footnote 5.

11. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Nature" from his Second Series, wrote of the powerful effects of Nature on those beautiful days where it is almost as if Nature is adorning herself for us:

The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes. Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her. We have crept out of our close and crowded houses into the night and morning, and we see what majestic beauties daily wrap us in their bosom. How willingly we would escape the barriers which render them comparatively impotent, escape the sophistication and second thought, and suffer nature to intrance us. The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature.

12. Mary Oliver, "The Moth, The Mountains, The Rivers," in A Thousand Mornings, 33.

13. Quoted from Maria Popova's article "An Occasion for Unselfing: Iris Murdoch on Imperfection as Integral to Goodness and How the Beauty of Nature and Art Leavens Our Most Unselfish Impulses" on here site The Marginalian.

14. William Ellery Channing, "The River," II. 1-7, from The Dial, III (January, 1843) quoted in Thoreau, A Week, 38.

The River

There is an inward voice, that in the stream
Sends forth its spirit to the listening ear,
And in a calm content it floweth on,
Like wisdom, welcome with its own respect.
Clear in its breast lie all these beauteous thoughts.
It doth receive the green and graceful trees,
And the gray rocks smile in its peaceful arms,
And over all floats a serenest blue,
Which the mild heaven sheds down on it like rain.
O fair, sweet stream, thy undisturbed repose
Me beckons to thy front, and thou vexed world,
Thou other turbulent sphere where I have swelt,
Diminished into distance touch'st no more

My feelings here, than does the swaying soft,
(Made by the delicate wave parted in front,
As through the gentle element we move
Like shadows gliding through untroubled realms,)
Disturb these lily circles, these white bells.
And yet on thee shall wind come fiercely down,
Hail pelt thee with dull words, ice bind thee up;
And yet again when the fierce rage is o'er,
O smiling river, shalt thou smile once more,
And, as it were, even in thy depths revere
The sage security thy nature wears.

January 26, 2022

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