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from Saturday, May30th of the year2009.

This has been a very exciting few months not only for my own music but for a lot of the projects I’ve been involved in as a collaborator. The most immediate and exciting thing is that Nadia Sirota’s CD First Things First has been released on New Amsterdam Records. You can buy it via iTunes here or via ftfNew Amsterdam here. This is an awesome disk not only because it has three pieces of mine on it, but because it’s a very brave statement: a solo viola CD made up of only commissioned works. I guess I say brave because it sounds really depressing if you don’t know better! Anyway, it’s a fabulous CD that everybody should buy.

The next thing that’s been going on is the release of Grizzly Bear’s album Veckatimestgrizzly_bear-veckatimest. Now, everybody’s been freaking out about this album for good reason because it’s totally great. Most exciting for me was that I got to make arrangements for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, as well as the ACME String Quartet, which is my favorite: to keep everything in the family.

Here’s the song Cheerleader:

[audio:05 Cheerleader.mp3]

I managed to sneak in a Security Blanket Gesture:


Did everybody see the weirdly mean-spirited review in the Times of the Grizzly Bear show last night? You know you’re in trouble when a review begins with the sentence:

Music moves; it can’t do anything else.

Ahahahahah. God. What does that even mean? I’ve been thinking about it all day and I still have no idea. It goes on:

There is a nearly suffocating fussiness in this band. It can’t be altered: it’s the life force of the music, which is full and tense, and extremely cold.

Now, I agree with the use of the word Fussy. I like the implications of that word; it doesn’t seem problematically un-musical and I would agree that their music is fussy (the opposite being a Hot Mess, I suppose?) I would say that, you know, Prokofiev is fussy whereas Shostakovich is not fussy. Anyway, life-force. . . I’m a little suspicious of, and “cold” I’m very suspicious of indeed (as a word to describe music, that is).

Rhythm is a frozen concern here, several orders less important than harmony.

What? A Frozen Concern? It sounds like a vegan popsicle.

Then it goes on, and is basically just descriptive, and basically fine, but then comes this horseshit:

But wow, these songs are precious, and they occasionally came spangled with extras that made them even more so. The chorus was one of those elements, sorry to say.

Oh snap! Apology accepted. Now, I have major objections to the word “precious.” It tends to be borderline homophobic in its coded usage, first of all, but second of all, it’s a derogatory adjective with no alternative. It’s reviewspeak. What I mean is: if you say, “that’s ugly” somebody else can say, “no, it’s beautiful.” If you say, “it’s over-stuffed” somebody can say, “really, I thought it was pretty thin.” So the problem with a word like precious is that the scale of adjectives with “precious” on it belongs solely to the reviewer and is just a way of being mean. Case in point: this whole nonsense about Sufjan Stevens’s’s BQE Thing. Words like fey, twee, and precious have become these little nuggets of coded disdain, but they are really just useless self-congratulatory gestures on the part of the reviewer. What is the opposite of twee? Muscular? It all reminds me of the insane misogynist critiques of Jane Austen’s novels. I guess the place for a word like that would be in a larger piece about the music world “” there was an enormous brouhaha in Iceland about the so-called Krútt scene. Krútt is probably the closest approximation in Icelandic of “precious” “” it refers to Múm, kind of Sigur Rós, and a lot of imitators: it denotes little bells, reversed glockenspiels, fairytale vocals, cutely-outfitted brass bands. Now, all of that is just a description and not derogatory; my iPod overflows with this shit. Anyway, to go to a concert of that kind of music and be like, “it’s precious,” all you’re doing is going to a Chinese restaurant and being like, “wow, they were serving mad chinese food up in there!”

Another irritating thing that comes up in reviews sometimes, too, is the word pretentious. Now. Beloveds. The word literally means Having Pretensions, like, the Thing is Pretending to Be a Thing that it is Not. Pretentious is these houses in New Jersey. It’s Madonna’s accent. It’s big entryways in the suburbs. It’s a whole lot of things but 06-10-27-mcmansion1222813904what it always requires is The Object or Person in Question referencing, in his or her head, Another Model, Object or Person. Pretension moves; it can’t do anything else. Monodirectional binary! Anyway, all of this is shorthand for me saying, my show got called pretentious in the Guardian and I was like, okay, maybe you didn’t like it all that much, but it’s the wrong word. (The review actually isn’t that bad). I would love to know what my show is attempting to be; if anything, I have the opposite problem of not having any directional concept for it aside from just playing music well, in a pleasing sequence. There’s something irritating, also, about being called pretentious by somebody who has taken it upon himself to learn how to make an umlaut, and then proceeds to fuck up Valgeir Sigurðsson’s patronymic all in the same gesture. Anyway: my music isn’t a McMansion, I swears it!

Moving on. Everybody should also buy these amazing remixes Son Lux did of My Brightest Diamond. I love her “” one of the things I like about her so much is how she’s not scared of the weirdness of her voice. If I were a female vocalist with an interesting voice, I would find it incredibly difficult to have a solo career ““ especially an electro-acoustic one ““ because of the looming shadow of Björk. No matter what all you want to do, she’s done it already, and done it really, really well. In fact, that whole Krútt business: it all comes from the landscape of Wespertine. You want to scream? She did it before you were even born. Beautiful song with a choir in the back? She got you. Dance anthem that builds slowly? She got that, too. Zap Mama doing Icelandic Folksongs? She’s on it. Anyway. I’d be paralyzed. Good job, My Brightest Diamond, for not giving a shit and plowing ahead anyway! Album & Remixes sound great!


  • ahahahaHAHAHA I got so pissed reading that review in the times and then I thought, “I wonder if Nico Muhly has read it,” and lo and behold you have a post about it.

    And are SO RIGHT about all of the horrible word choices, especially “precious,” which immediately made me hate Ben Ratliff for his rudeness. His incorrect, misguided rudeness.

  • Honestly, most music critics are failed musicians and intrinsically bitter…

    One mcmansion please!

  • Ratliff be lik’n Green Day, also his writing sucks. These two things mean never listen to him


    you know his google alert is blowing up and he’s getting all pissy and embarrassed

  • I hadn’t seen the review, but I thought last night’s show was so delightful for so many reasons. It’s hard for me to understand why so many of the things Ratliff mentions could actually be considered points against GB. Richness = ascetic fragility? Er? Anyway, your contributions were/are absolutely lovely! Thanks for them!

  • There is an alternative to precious, which is careless. When a critic calls Veckatimest precious, they simply mean that its gestures are too carefully curated. There’s a point where refinement becomes arid.

    A Night At The Opera is an example of an album that is just as finely detailed and obsessively constructed. However, it comes off as a freewheeling riot, whereas Veckatimest comes off as a bit of a snooze.

    I didn’t find the review mean-spirited at all (nor do I find anything remotely homophobic about words like twee or precious). The reviewer seemed, to me, quite eager to like what he heard and regretful that he couldn’t be more positive about it.

  • Not a great review by Ratliff, but he’s not a bad writer at all…he’s one of the only guys left at the Times who can write really intelligent pieces on a regular basis. And his Coltrane book from two years ago is spectacular.

  • Sorry, I should say one of the only music critics left at the Times who writes intelligent pieces.

  • O Nico! I opened the paper this morning, ready for a glowing review of Thursday’s show (one of the best I’ve been to in a while, by far). ‘A Night When Harmony Reigns.’ ‘Agreed!’ I thought, ‘Now I’m ready to hear about the amazing vocal harmonies, Ed’s all-round-loveliness, Daniel’s fantastic guitar playing, the Chrises rocking out on either side of the stage, Nico hidden behind his piano, the BYC looking and sounding fabulous, and Here We Go Magic being absolutely wonderful and so on and so forth…’ But instead, that horrendous first sentence. And the review that came after it! What now? Was I at a different show? ‘Cold’? Can music, let alone GRIZZLY BEAR’S Sensitive, Intimate, Gorgeous music, old AND new, even Be ‘cold’? He made it sound as if they were robots, or at least cyborgs, because…wait for it…they aren’t sloppy onstage and get down to business more or less right away? Isn’t that ideal? And then: Wait just one moment Mister Ratliff. Was that a Demeaning, Snarky Comment about Our Chris Bear? Oh no he didn’t. Does Ben Ratliff have a pulse? Chris is fabulous live precisely because he knows when Enough is Enough. We don’t need ten minute drum solos to realize that he’s talented, and he knows it. Chris’ beats steer and anchor the harmonies floating above him… I started seeing red at that point and calmed down enough to see the whole “realease valve” gimmick, “ascetic fragility” (can you call ‘Southern Point’ fragile?), and “murky sound” (wait, what happened to cold precision?). I came to my senses just in time to read this Precious last line: “I left Town Hall grinding my teeth.”

    No, sir, I do not grind my teeth at you, sir,
    but I grind my teeth, sir!

  • I read that article and I just thought it was strange. I recognize the challenge of being a critic and of not wanting to be like “B-minus!” or whatever. But I actually reread the piece because I didn’t know if it had been a good show or not.

  • Jodru, the fact that twee and precious and fey have, in fact, been used in the past as code words for faggotty is not really subject to your opinion. It’s just a fact.

  • Of course it is subject to his opinion! The fact is that twee and precious have been used as code words by some and not by others. Jodru’s opinion is that they are not being used that way here.

  • I haven’t cared much for My Brightest Diamond, but I bought the remixes solely because of the joy inspired by this post.

  • In architecture and landscape architecture, “precious” usually connotes a hothouse quality; a sense of great means put to frivolous ends; deliberately obscure references; or conspicuous consumption in the form of “moves” that rely on an unusual construction technique, material, and/or maintenance regimen. A precious design is brittle, clever, and overly pleased with itself. \nSo the opposite of precious, in the design fields, may be some combination of “robust” and “modest.” \nPreciousness isn’t as concerned with being good as it is with being special, and it relentlessly calls attention to how special it is. Modest robust design can be very very good and very very special, but also has the quality of “just is.”\nOn a different tack, I agree that “precious” is coded, and that coding is consistent with a trope that associates “real art” with heterosexual male procreative power, consigning the homosexual to art that, however skilled and tasteful, forever lacks authenticity. That same narrative has been foisted on women artists forever; it is fallacious and loathsome; and I hope that nothing I’ve said about preciousness plays into it.

  • Graham Anderson
    June 1st, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Re: the Guardian review. The reviewer’s friend who made the ‘pretentiometer’ quip was Crackberrying the whole way through the concert, which makes him – IMNSHO – a complete cock-knocker. I wanted to strangle him.

    To add insult to injury, the Guardian printed your interview with Philip Glass, with the wrong date for the Barbican concert – they implied it was at the weekend. Confusion and much texting to confirm dates and times ensued.

  • I would’ve killed to go to the concert. The thought of GB and a choir and a piano and you just sounds too good. Concerts are hugely subjective experiences, and I’m fine with the fellow next to me eating his frozen concern. Just don’t slurp too loud.

    I’m excited about Nadia’s album. Frábært!

    And thanks for the Björk mini-game.

  • See: Previous irritation about diacritical fault.

    Also, I’m very much in love with you for that entire last paragraph.
    Poor Björk. The woman carries the world of electro-acoustic something something female vocalist acts on her shoulders.
    BUT SHARA. Oh God, Shara Worden is amazing. Those Son Lux remixes, I’ve had ’em for a while, and they’re just fantastic. Everytime she coos/accuses? “You must feel… splendid,” I basically die inside.
    And also “To Pluto’s Moon”. That “wahwahwahwahwah” electronic bit (electronic onomotopoeia are especially difficult) that comes in halfway through. Oh man.

    Oh man.
    That’s pretty much all I have to say.

    P.S. Best song on Veckatemist? Can I hear a what what for “Ready, Able”? Any takers?

  • onomotopoeiae?

  • I’m coming to this a bit late, but I had to add what the late, great Kenneth Tynan said about the whole concept of ‘pretentiousness’ when he reviewed the first English-language production of ‘Waiting for Godot’:

    ‘Hastily labeling their disquiet disgust, many of the first-night audience found it pretentious. But what, exactly, are its pretensions ? To state that mankind is waiting for a sign that is late in coming is a platitude which none but an illiterate would interpret as making claims to profundity. What vexed the play’s enemies was, I suspect, the opposite: it was not pretentious enough to enable them to deride it.’

    I think this hits some kind of nail on the head.

  • This review definitely caught my eye when I came across it, and I’m glad to see Nico pulling it apart as it should be pulled apart. There was some serious weirdness going on in that piece. In addition to the things already mentioned, there was that whole bit about brownness: “when Mr. Rossen sings lead, the songs get browner, based in the harmony of his unusual guitar tunings.” Uhhhh, what does that mean? As my friend said when I showed him this review, only two people get to describe music with colors: Nabakov and Assholes. Anyhow, I found this review vague in the extreme, somewhat mean-spirited – and my sense was that Ben Ratcliff was trying to be contrary, given the reams of positive press the Grizz has been receiving.

  • Alex W: As to the describing music with color, THAT to me is the ultimate pretention. I’m guessing Messaien falls into the “asshole” category with his compositional visions of “blue-orange chords”.


  • Eric Shanfield
    June 9th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Well, Nabokov and Messiaen, like Scriabin, Torke and a number of other artists, were synaesthetes, so I think they at least deserve a pass.

  • Nabakov and assholes! Ha!

    Seriously, that’s pretty great.

  • I would add to the list of quotes:

    “I respect Grizzly Bear for echoing unlikely moments in the history of sound: little bits and pieces in the arrangements of its songs variously suggest, besides Phil Spector, the Partridge Family, Dr. Dre and the ’70s folk band America.

    Here, though disguised as a “murky” complement, Ratliff seems to be inferring “look at me and how clever I am to point out these ‘unlikely’ references.” And really, can one actually say Grizzly Bear references Dr. Dre just because of the intro of Two Weeks?

  • Your Friend Damian
    June 21st, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Nico you nutter (this is a good thing). I’ve got a production in progress with a vocal from Shara on it, and spend many hours working on Björk’s stuff; it had never occured to me whatsoever to draw any parallels between the two at all…. Let alone an overlapping Venn Diagram! Is this a good thing? Or am I in a wood/trees situation?