by Jack Curtis Dubowsky,
Monday, August 18th, 2008. Look at this crowd! Rarely have I seen such a mix of people: hippie intellectuals and super-young music scenesters. Not anyone I recognized from sfSound or the improv scene or from SF Conservatory, although my drummer/percussionist Fred Morgan did. The house was full but not sold out; it depressed me for an instant to think that you could be Talk of the Town and not sell out the Swedish American Hall. Nevertheless, I found the crowd remarkable. Where did they come from? The elders must be from Mill Valley, and the youngsters must all must have moved here last week from Brooklyn. I took it on myself to inquire, how did these people hear about this? Why were they there?
Besides the obligatory “my girlfriend brought me here,” people of all ages claimed to have known about Nico Muhly for as long as two years either from friends, living in NYC (natch), the New Yorker write up, or from blogs; the one blog uniformly mentioned being Alex Ross.
I first heard about Nico Muhly in March 2008 when my soundtrack label, Movie Score Media, released Muhly’s score to Joshua. Turns out Nico and I are labelmates on Movie Score Media, who distribute my Rock Haven soundtrack. The wonderful Mikael Carlsson who runs the label from Sweden regularly sends out emails about new releases, and the young prodigy’s bio and sound samples piqued my interest. Right after that, I happened across the New Yorker piece, and next thing ya know, his name seems to be everywhere.
Nico is touring with two other names I’ll admit I was completely unfamiliar with, although a minimum of internet research reveals they have labels and publicists of their own. It was nice to see “Sam” playing banjo. As my cohorts in The Winsome Griffles will attest, I’ve been playing banjo (or attempting to play banjo) way before it was hip.
In addition to Nico, Sam, and Doveman were a violist and a drummer, as well as an occasional guest electric guitarist. (And, on one Doveman number, a guest singer who sat terrified onstage and sang deliberately off mic, looking askance. “Awkward!”) The three principals of the concert traded off pieces more or less round robin. It was enjoyable when the music drifted and you didn’t notice where one piece ended and another began. It amused me that the group covered the keyboard’s manufacturer (I’m guessing CASIO) with gaffer tape, but the Apple logo was left unaltered. (Especially since the sounds were coming from the Apple not the controller.) Most segments of the show were a bit on the poppy side, as Nico is travelling with two pop musicians in the twee / canadian / quiet is the new loud / brooklyn vegan vein of things.
Doveman and Nico were physically very close onstage. They shared a piano bench. Nico bonked him with his nose once, and brushed his hair, on mic, as a percussion instrument for one song. As Nico is now a famous homosexual, I had to wonder if they were special friends, or if they were just exhibiting the small personal space that young people are more comfortable with, like puppies or kittens. (Ou des minets.)
Nico’s own music was the most interesting and dynamic of the concert. It is evident he is a talented conductor and ensemble player from his eye contact and head movement.
Nico’s music bears similarities to that of mentor Philip Glass, particularly a foldness for 2 against 3 in his piano music, hemiolas, irregular rhythms and accents. One number early in the first set featured bright, sharp piano/vla accents, which it was fun to watch them synchronize. More than a few times you could see some counting going on. Nico’s music fits well with current trends in both popular music and contemporary new music. His music requires a high but attainable level of musicianship. His piano solos seem at first repetitive and easy, but with metric modulations, and then you realize they are not all that easy, and yet not too difficult either. Nico’s use of electronics (his published solo pieces often use prerecorded CDs as accompaniment) appears effortless and natural. While pieces of concert music incorporating tape have been around for decades, Nico’s don’t feel as much experimental as something he’s fully integrated, having grown up in a world where pop music has already been electronic. Thus his pieces using electro accompaniment bridge the worlds of concert and pop music very well.
The concert closed with Nico’s tripartite “The Only Tune” (Two Sisters/Old Mill Pond/The Only Tune) from Mothertongue, which features Sam singing in his folksy voice. This was a high point of the evening. Nico’s original music has more dynamics than his tourmates’ compositions. “The Only Tune” bridges genres, being a personal take on folk music, the song cycle, electro acoustic music, and new music. Nico’s strength is not merely his hybridization of genres, but his ability to pick and choose their best aspects, and reconstruct and perform them with strong musicianship and confidence. Nico skillfully combines his exposure to many things: pop music, David Bowie, classical, concert music, church music, tape and electronic music, opera, folk, emo, all these different worlds coming together successfully.
I feel obligated to write a little about Nico Muhly the phenomenon.
There is a line of cute gay student composers from here to the beach in conservatories. Nico is very fortunate. He is talented too. He is doing things the right way: he is pursuing opportunities with vigor and performing with his friends. It’s not clear what direction will claim him most. He could be a pop star. He could write more soundtracks, like Eliot Goldenthal, another Corigliano protégé. He could focus on his classical commissions. He could get a DMA, a Pulitzer, or a Grawmeyer, and become a high profile Professor of Composition like Thomas Adès did. If he can preserve his involvement in diverse areas, in my mind, that is the best. In this tour he shows that he likes to make music with his friends, and that is a powerful and honest thing for anyone to do.
As far as the flak he’s received for his good fortune at receiving a commission from the Met, that sure is grist for the mill. Some comments indicate Muhly is too young, undeserving, or not fully formed enough to merit such an opportunity. We all end up shamed about some things we did or composed in our 20s. It is too early to know which ones they’ll be, or how his style will develop. Well ya know what? Nico writes serviceable music and the story concept, with libretto by Craig Lucas, is interesting and topical. This is today. This is vibrant. This is about our culture. This is what opera is supposed to be. It’s not a dead art form yet. As long as it’s living, let it be truly alive.