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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 3, 2008

by Manny Theiner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 3, 2008.

Ours is an era in which the formal 19th-century musical concept of the “composer” is nearly dead. Of those notators who still content themselves with poring over scores to be played by large ensembles or orchestras, many inhabit the programmatic world of film soundtracks (an art unto itself, to be sure) while most others toil away in the academic realm, their pieces never to be heard other than through self-congratulatory exchanges with their peers.

Certainly no composer today has attained the recognition and ubiquity of works as those of a Bach, Beethoven or Wagner. However, one of the last New Music movements to impact pop culture was the more accessible work of the minimalists. And there is anchored the saga of Nico Muhly, a 20-something prodigy and Juilliard grad who may be one of the few surprises left to emerge from the classical milieu.

As an indispensable assistant to Philip Glass — for whom he toiled as editor, keyboardist and conductor since his sophomore year at Columbia — Muhly learned the necessary tedium of the composing business, feeding Glass’ transcriptions into a computer program. But interestingly, even as a professed “nonbeliever,” as much of Muhly’s influences came from his days as a church choirboy as they did from the insistent pulse of Steve Reich and John Adams (who calls Muhly’s music “eclectic and nondenominational,” in the sense that it doesn’t subscribe to any orthodoxies).

Another of Muhly’s great loves is Iceland, a country in which he’s spent a lot of time and from which he’s recruited many musicians and producers, including Valgeir Sigurdsson, who co-produced “Mothertongue,” Muhly’s second album. So it makes sense that below the busy, neurotic chatter of the Glass-ish Morse Code vocalizations on the CD’s title track, there’s a tranquil sense of glistening, almost electronic lushness, somewhat like one might find on a record by Icelandic post-rock bands Sigur Ros and Mum (in fact, Muhly did work on Bjork’s “Medulla”), albeit with intentional jarrings and thunder sounds to keep the process disquieting.

The other two pieces on the disc reach further into the past for inspiration. “Wonders” puts to music various Renaissance-era texts, including a sonnet about sea monsters by King James I and a complaint against a drunken cathedral organist, all sung by Icelandic vocalist Helgi Hrafn Jonsson. The unsettling effect of Elizabethan chanson and dissonant harpsichord lumbering against ominous dark brass on “The Devil Appear’d in the Shape of Man” has the effect of reliving horror film scenarios more than it does powdered wigs and frilly waistcoats.

And “The Only Tune,” a setting of “The Two Sisters,” a traditional folk tale with a chillingly scary theme, does much the same, although in the Gavin Bryars style of extracting stark truths from the detritus of Americana. Muhly’s string arrangements and plinky computer programming give the work its necessary gravitas, but Vermont singer/banjoist Sam Amidon really brings this tune to evocative life, reminiscent of the gothic alt-country twang of Will Oldham or even Ralph Stanley’s classic “O Death,” before shifting into a mellow Iron and Wine folk vibe to end the piece. Which is a fine thing, proving that there’s a bit of youthful, mischievous wickedness for the Pitchfork crowd (the guy lives in the 21st century, not the 19th, thus he blogs interminably, hangs out with Antony & The Johnsons, and listens to Hot Chip and Ratatat on his iPod) mingled in with the composer’s amazingly mature pursuit of the beauty locked in his head.

*** 1/2 / 4

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