Nico Muhly Nico MuhlyA Good Understanding / I Drink The Air Before Me
The first thing the world heard of Nico Muhly was that a twenty year old, dressed in sports clothing, was a composer of pieces for chamber orchestras, and that is, and will be, his first location on the map of contemporary music. His condition as part-time arranger and producer, as when he had a hand in the instrumentation on the last Grizzly Bear record, has to be interpreted as a double necessity on Muhly’s part: the first is to participate in some way in the pop scene, because it interests him –he’s young, open-minded, doesn’t want to be old prematurely– and because he can get experience and new inspiration from it, with which he can use for his own scores. It’s that habit of hunting on different grounds from the ones where other conservatory-schooled producers go that gives Muhly that little extra, something that can be heard perfectly on these two records –one released on the powerful classic Decca imprint; the other on his all-time home label, the Icelandic Bedroom Community, home of folkies and post-rockers. Here we have Muhly, the same guy who worked as an assistant to Philip Glass and declared himself an unconditional fan of sacred music, as the cosmopolitan boy who attends concerts at the Bowery Ballroom and takes note of what he sees.
However, a record like “A Good Understanding” says a lot more even about the Nico Muhly who has studied the history of western music and wishes to bear witness to his great passion for Renaissance and baroque music with a piece on which he has gone all out. The first part is, surprisingly, a mass ( “Bright Mass With Canons”), consisting of four liturgical parts –Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei– and on which the extremes of a mystic thread, with, for example, titans of the Vatican chapels like Gregorio Allegri and Giovani Pierluigi da Palestrina on one end and present parishioners such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt on the other, connect. Muhly is working more with choirs (the Los Angeles Chorale, to be exact) than with brass and organs on this part, and although he instinctively arranges the way Philip Glass would –the way the voices jam sometimes in sharp melodies and how electric key strokes reproduce repetitive loops–, this mass ends up flowing gracefully and personally, taking in influences from both the past and the recent minimalist school.
The rest of the compositions included on Muhly’s first outing on the giant Decca is equally good. The shortest ones – “A Good Understanding”, “Senex Puerum Portabat”– distort the canonic sacred music and even seem to want to allow ballet phases, with an abstruse rhythm which, at times, stand out like the choral mass. As the album develops, it becomes clear that, while learning, Muhly has been able to distance himself from Renaissance polyphonies and even from modern models that have reached excellence in the discipline of sacred music ( Gabriel Fauré, for example) in order to impose his own personality. He’s well on his way to becoming big, occupying the spot –the one of erudite composer with a relaxed attitude that will appeal to a younger audience– once reserved for (and abandoned by) Michael Nyman.
The second album, released simultaneously by Muhly, “I Drink The Air Before Me”, is something else. This really is a work for contemporary dance –a composition commissioned by Stephen Petronio–, and Muhly’s care consists of creating flow in the course of sound and squeezing the timbre possibilities of the small orchestra. There are hardly any voices (they appear on “One Day Tells Its Tale To Another”) and therefore the instrumental complexity increments with continuous games between clarinets, violins, brass and a piano which, most of the time, serves as a continuous bass and sustains the structure of a score that is born from the pieces for ballet by Igor Stravinsky – “The Soldier’s Tale”, “Firebird”– to, progressively, turn sweeter and cinematic. Muhly goes deeper into the dodecaphonic deconstruction, forgets about the meekness and the peace of the other pieces for orchestra and organ (which start from the simplicity of ecclesial music that ends up tearing away from the primitive Gregorian chants), and topples to give the best of himself. The two segments of “I Drink The Air Before Me” –plus the two bonus tracks: “A Long Line” and “Twitchy Organs”– allow for a listening session without stress and even gratifying, but they also demand active listening. It’s not decorative music, there’s great instrumental intensity as well as non-stop changes of harmony and tonality. At the same time, and as a token, this exercise allows him to establish a friendly competition with label mate Daníel Bjarnason, with whom he shares this obsession for spreading the abstruse branch of contemporary composition, which has never reached a wider audience, without betraying his principles of rough notation but searching for the opportunity and the alibi to lighten it’s weight and complexity. It’s more than clear that Muhly’s maturity is overwhelming.
Nico Muhly - Music Under Pressure 3 - Ensemble Nico Muhly - Music Under Pressure 1 - Flute