Sunday, August 17, 2008

Nico Muhly - Mothertongue (Bedroom Community, 2008)

Bedroom Community 2008

Listen: Mothertongue Pt. 1: Archive

Last year, Nico Muhly released one of my favourite albums of the year. While Speaks Volumes was good, it was still the sign of a promising young composer finding his feet and listening to Mothertongue, Muhly demonstrates that he has so much to offer.

Mothertongue is an album of storytelling, which isn't that strange in itself, music has always been used to spin a good yarn and here, Muhly has in some ways returned to the old-fashioned, man in a pub with a fiddle style of musical narration. The title piece is a four movement work, with elements of Stockhausen's Stimmung as voices overflow, overlap, create rhythm and texture. Mezzo-soprano singer, Abigail Fischer, shouts out numbers, place names, addresses that all stand as a testament to the modern of age of chaotic urban living. But Muhly isn't so much interested in pure intonation as Stockhausen was, but simply the beauty of the human voice and the textures it can create. The other obvious references are to 60s minimalist composers like Glass and Riley as Muhly consistently creates new musical patterns from overlapping melodies of voice, harpsichord, electronics etc.

Mulhy uses the same process in Wonders, a piece inspired by a 17th century English madrigal composer Thomas Weelkes. Here harpsichord, trombone and Helgi Hrafn Jónsson's vocals narrate the rather sinister tale of Weelkes, including a complaint that was sent to the bishop of Chichester regarding the composer's heavy drinking and recklessness. Strange and unusual, but The Devil Appear'd In the Shape of a Man has one of the most exciting interplays between a harpsichord and a trombone I've ever heard.

And then there is the story about the girl who drowned in a lake, because she was cruelly pushed by her jealous sister. On The Only Tune, Muhly really demonstrates his musical prowess in his ability to tell a highly poetic and ultimately tragic story, opening with a barrage of drones, horns and harpsichord as fellow Bedroom Community musician Sam Amidon begins to sing. Beauty in bleakness has rarely sounded so good, drifting from noise to simple guitar melodies to organs to noise and all held wonderfully together by the diversity of Amidon's voice, as he shifts from a sprightly retelling to a darker, sombre version as the piece progresses.

In an age where television shows and movies seem content to deliver formulaic drama, it is a great pleasure to listen to a piece of music that reverts back to 17th century methods not for pastiche, but for experimentation and exploration to tell stories filled with emotional resonance. This is a highly original piece of music, not just for fans of Classical music, but folk and even Indie, challenging yes, but without the brutality and cold intellectualism of other recent classical works.


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