by Lauren Harris, Paper Magazine, August 1, 2008.
For decades, classical music has politely languished amongst reams of sheet music. Recently, however, artists like Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood and Björk have pried open its jaws and breathed new life into it, along with old-guard practitioners like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. One of the genre’s most impressive innovators is also one of its youngest: 27-year-old Nico Muhly. With an impressive list of collaborators (Björk, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons and Will Oldham among them), Mothertongue is a stunning meditation on the anxiety of the human experience broken into three movements. “Shower,” from the first movement, while set in the rather mundane locales of the breakfast table and the shower (evidence of both water and food being cooked are audible), is overlaid with a tension created by the recitation of the contents of Muhly’s mind. “Wonders” moves from within the mind to outside of it, enumerating the revolutionary discoveries of the natural world in the 17th century while quoting explorers of the period. Muhly conveys the anxiety of a widening world through multiplying harpsichords and vocalist Helgi Hrafn Jónsson’s prim tones. Finally, in “The Only Tune,” Muhly seamlessly transitions from dredging strings and static-laden synths to banjo-picking and collaborator Sam Amidon’s twanging tale of a grizzly murder, as Muhly excavates his memory and recalls the folk music of his childhood, thus completing the trifecta of his movements with the anxiety of a personal past.