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“Mothertongue” Has Unique Licks

by Anne Midgette, The Washington Post, 8/21/08.

Nico Muhly is hot. Physically, he is good-looking enough, with the wide eyes and toothy smile and frenetic energy of a mischievous, post-pubescent choirboy. But his real heat is as a composer. He is the flavor of the month, a darling of the media, poised on the cusp of a big career. He’s just finished a commission for the Paris OpĂ©ra Ballet; he is working on pieces for the Claremont Trio and the Metropolitan Opera. And, oh yes, he is playing the Washington area tonight on the tour to promote his new CD, “Mothertongue.”

Muhly, 27, is difficult to write about. Certainly he has already caused a lot of ink to be spilled, including a long profile in the New Yorker in February, at an age when many composers are still in graduate school. It is easy to see why the press likes him. He is smart, verbal, ingenuous, direct. Talking faster than the kinetic rhythms of some of his music, he embeds pointed observations in an agar of “likes” and “you knows,” not unlike the sweet fragments of sound that rise out of the many layers of his likable, involved, yet wholesome music.

But he is difficult to write about because in describing what he does, you come up against the traditional division between “classical” and “pop.” (In June, the Sunday Times of London named “Mothertongue” its pop CD of the week.) And this distinction is, to Muhly, irrelevant. Explaining it, therefore, is already taking a step away from the spirit of his work and back toward the Dark Ages when musical choices and tastes were linked, implicitly or not, to ideologies. For many, of course, they still are. But those “many” are more than 27 years old.

“Basically it’s like, do it all, and don’t make a big deal about doing it all,” Muhly says, sitting in a small studio within the Looking Glass Studios loft complex in Lower Manhattan, where since his sophomore year at Columbia he has worked for the composer Philip Glass; among other things, he enters Glass’s film scores into a computer. (He has also worked for that icon of the alt-classical scene, the Icelandic pop star Bjork.)

Even that “do it all” statement sounds more prescriptive on paper than it does in person. Muhly’s musical touchstones are the choral tradition of the Church of England and ’70s-era minimalism. While he has strong, definite tastes, expressed with gee-whiz enthusiasm — John Adams’s “Harmonium” is “my favorite thing in the universe” — he also relishes what he calls the freedom to “hear an interval and not be offended and have to leave the concert hall.” Adams himself, in the New Yorker article, referred to Muhly’s lack of musical politics by calling his work “nondenominational.”

“The albums aren’t manifestos,” Muhly says. “The albums are just saying, This is possible to do.” He adds, “As I make more of them, they’ll seem less manifesto-ish. Although I actually don’t care if people think they are.”

So what are the albums? The first one, “Speaks Volumes,” is mainly instrumental works for acoustic instruments, with melody lines stretching or burbling in Reich-like patterns over extended drones, often miked so close that the clicks of keys and breaths of the performers become part of the experience.

“Mothertongue” is more liberated and more exuberantly weird. Its title work explores the way that numbers come to define a person’s life by layering multiple tracks of mezzo-soprano Abby Fischer singing and chattering Zip codes, past addresses and other data, interleaved with a range of other musical episodes, from swelling string chords to electronic growls to the static sound of a frying egg.

But the only one of the album’s works that will be included in tonight’s concert is the finale, “The Only Tune,” a deconstruction of a macabre folk song about a woman, drowned by her sister, whose bones and hair are made into a fiddle. The raw, homespun vocal line, delivered in stuttering fragments that gradually aggregate into a whole (juxtaposed with sounds including sharpening knives and raw whale meat sloshing in a bowl) is sung by Sam Amidon, one of the three collaborators on the current tour; tonight’s concert places equal focus on Muhly, Amidon and Doveman (the keyboard player Thomas Bartlett).

Nothing about Muhly is straightforward, not even his concert venue; the show was originally booked at the Birchmere but was moved at the last minute to a setting that reflects a different facet of Muhly’s musical personality, the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring.

Muhly likens his albums to a dinner at home with friends. (A main figure at the table is the producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, whom Muhly met through his work with Bjork and who on many subsequent visits to Iceland has become an important co-conspirator; his label, Bedroom Community, has released both of Muhly’s CDs.) By contrast, the works he writes for classical music institutions are like haute cuisine or, to shift to another of Muhly’s favorite similes, high fashion.

“Think about concert music as the more experimental sculptural pieces, like a Japanese designer will make,” he says. “You’d never really wear it.”

In his musical universe, there is plenty of room for both. He has no interest in trying to change existing institutions to reflect his own point of view, and he embraces the formality of the traditional concert. “If I want something weird, I can do it myself,” he says. The new opera he is writing, based on the true story of a British teenager ensnared in the world of Internet sex chats, will certainly have nontraditional elements. Muhly describes some of the chorus passages, with repeated short obsessive phrases, as “the same way that you imagine the Internet sounds when you turn off your lights.” But he wants to write for real opera singers, not new-music specialists, and he sees one major benefit of the commission as exposing him to the Metropolitan Opera’s “amazing resources.”

Isn’t the classical concert experience off-putting to some people? “It’s hideously off-putting,” he says. “It’s also off-putting and bizarre to put your leg into a leather jodhpur and get into some crazy boot and ride a horse around in a circle for four hours. But it’s also gorgeous and divine.”

For all his strong statements, Muhly presents a certain malleability. His conversation throws up contradictions as he tries on different figurative outfits, his mind seizing an idea and running with it. He melds the cerebral with the sensual: When writing music, he starts with words and ideas rather than notes, and yet the music is striking for its frequent beauty. He says he doesn’t care whether the things he had in mind when he was composing come through, and yet he is openly concerned with what people think of his work.

If the albums “don’t belong to genres,” he says, “they belong to music that I hope you will want to listen to. I hope you like it.” More than anything, that desire to be liked seems to be a big motivation. So far, it seems to be working.

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