Unlike the unabashedly fickle world of pop, which falls madly in and out of love with musicians in the blink of a fake eyelash, the emergence of a bright young talent into the comparatively slow-moving field of contemporary music is a major event. This year, 26-year old US composer Nico Muhly is the poster boy sending contemporary music aficionados into raptures. His music has been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra, the Julliard Orchestra, and the American Ballet Orchestra, and premiered at such venues as Carnegie Hall and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He has worked for Philip Glass as an editor, keyboardist and conductor and collaborated with thinking-person’s pop luminaries such as Björk, Will Oldham and Antony Hegarty. Muhly also keeps a frequently updated blog, which functions as much as a diary of his gastronomic adventures as his musical ones (Muhly sees cooking as closely analogous to composition.) As composer John Adams says in Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile of Muhly, published earlier this year, ‘he shows influences from the minimalist composers, but his music is not nearly as rigorously designed. It is very much like him: it is open, it is attractive, it is pleasing.’
This would certainly describe the three works included on Muhly’s new release, Mothertongue. At its best, he makes beguiling use of his pop sensibility and fondness for melody. ‘The Only Tune’ is based on an old English ballad about a sister who murders her sibling, deconstructed and reconstructed for voice, banjo, guitar, piano, butcher’s knives and whale flesh (before you call Greenpeace, it was bought in an Icelandic supermarket). Sam Amidon’s voice – drowsy, cracked and reminiscent of Will Oldham – beds down amongst warm guitar arpeggios, glockenspiels and plaintive, earthy-sounding violin, yet is never too far away from disturbing metallic scrapes, scratchy banjos and occasional stabs of piano and percussion. ‘The Only Tune’ has moments of heart-on-sleeve pathos and gruesome horror (in the final movement we hear how the girl’s corpse is turned into a fiddle), yet Muhly holds both its violence and dulcet balladry elegantly in check.
‘Wonders’ is Mothertongue’s most intriguing piece. Foregrounding Muhly’s love for English choral music, it takes as its starting point a madrigal by 17th-century composer Thomas Weelkes. Spidery harpsichord notes weave in and out of limpid counter-tenor voices and sonorous three-note phrases for trombone. The piece feels woozy and dislocated (Muhly describes the piece as ‘a soundtrack for a cabinet of wonders: eels, counter-tenors, drunks, jetlag’), and the uninflected, Alfred Deller-like vocal passages give the piece a much more English feel in contrast to the folksy Americana of ‘The Only Song’.
The anxiety of influence weighs heavily on the album’s title work. ‘Mothertongue’ features mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer enunciating old addresses and phone numbers from memory over shimmering strings, garlanded by sparkly chimes and bright clusters of high piano notes. Muhly is suspicious of music that relies too heavily on referentiality – ‘this stupid conceptual stuff where it’s, like, “I was really inspired by Morse Code and the AIDS crisis”’ – yet in attempting to express his ideas about memory, the conceptual element of ‘Mothertongue’ comes across as heavy-handed. The music, which clearly bears the stamp of US Minimalist composers such as Glass and Steve Reich, is emotionally over-wrought, making the piece sound rather self-consciously avant-garde-yet-profound – the same demonstrative grandiosity one finds in, for instance, Robert Wilson’s theatre productions or Bill Viola’s video installations. The use of retro-sounding analogue synthesizer in the work’s final movement may be the kind of thing that gets classical audiences excited, yet for anyone with even a passing familiarity of leftfield pop, it sounds merely conventional.
‘Mothertongue’ sounds too eager to prove something, as if written with his mentors or Carnegie Hall in mind. Yet these are early days, and when Muhly is at his most playful and individual – enthusiastically exploring his interests in English madrigals, Icelandic folk music, Renaissance astronomy, cooking or languages – his music, to return to Adams, is open, attractive and pleasing.