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Mothertongue (Pitchfork)

by Jayson Greene, , Pitchfork Media, 8/08.

At 26 years old, the uncannily poised and precocious Nico Muhly has already reached a level of success most classical composers only dream about. He studied at Juilliard under Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano; he works for Philip Glass; he writes string arrangements for Antony Hegarty, Will Oldham, and Björk; and he was recently the subject of an eight-page New Yorker profile, in which Rebecca Mead followed him around Chinatown, reporting on his apartment décor, iPod playlists, and ragù-making methods. (The photo accompanying the article, an arresting shot of Muhly’s impossibly wide blue peepers, was captioned: “Muhly’s eclecticism is facilitated by both Google and iTunes.”) Muhly’s works are practically ubiquitous on new-music programs in New York these days, and Peter Gelb, the hotshot new general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has alluded to plans to commission a Muhly opera.

In other words, Muhly has attained certifiable whiz-kid status in an impossibly short time. He’s become the de facto poster boy for a growing movement of young composers divorced from the rock-vs-classical culture wars of the 1970s. (In their genre-blind abandon, such composers have, on occasion, been known to go so far as to publicly endorse the music of both Radiohead and Björk.) The wide-ranging catholicism of Muhly’s resumé is heartening, and he has done exquisite work on some seminal indie records. The unearthly strings on Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s The Letting Go are his, for example, as are the revolving, John Adams-like choral harmonies on songs like Björk’s “A Hidden Place”. But Muhly’s solo albums– the recently released Mothertongue and his previous record, Speaks Volumes– suffer from glib imitation and facile pastiche, common failings among talented and clever young musicians.

The problem is most evident on the album’s opening “Mothertongue” suite. Over a distinctly Dntel-sounding electronic buzz (sync it up with “The Dream of Evan and Chan” for reference), mezzo-soprano Abigail Fisher speak-sings a series of numbers and place names– a jumble of all the different addresses Muhly has called home during his life, the liner notes inform us. The four-movement piece lights briefly on some promising notions in its twenty minutes– found-sound samples of mundane morning routines (the crunch of breakfast cereal, muttering during the shower), for example– but flits away distractedly before anything interesting is allowed to materialize. The suite is a tepid wash of atmospherics, ebbing away with the same air of dreamy inconsequence with which it drifted in. You know you’re in trouble when the audio sample of a burbling coffee machine or the sound of a knife scraping butter on toast exerts as great a hold on the listener’s interest as everything that preceded it.

The second full piece on Mothertongue, the three-movement “Wonders”, opens with tinkling harpsichord and the ethereal vocals of Icelandic singer Helgi Hrafn Jónsson, paying tribute to the choral music of Renaissance-era English composers like William Byrd and John Taverner. On paper, the work is a riot of ideas: to this regal setting, Muhly adds samples of whistling wind, the sound of butcher knives scraping together, and whale fat sloshing around in a bucket. Yet the curiously faceless result reflects none of this anarchic, try-anything spirit– again, mostly because Muhly seems unable to let any of these ideas settle or gather any weight. Instead, they come and go leaving little impression– after having listened through the piece several times, I’d still be hard-pressed to tell you where that bowl of whale flesh comes in.

The record’s single striking moment comes when Muhly lets friend and singer-songwriter Sam Amidon croon a plaintive, simple folk song over a plunking banjo in “The Only Tune”. Even then, Muhly doodles irritatingly with the song, under the impression, apparently, that randomly isolating vocal lines and surrounding them with Reich-aping repetitive figures represents, as he puts it, “an explosion of the folk song.” Here and elsewhere, the music’s glassy surface never reveals greater depths, and the result comes off like minimalism for the age of “continuous partial attention.” (Interestingly enough, in the same New Yorker profile, Mead mentions that Muhly, while composing, will often simultaneously maintain “multiple online conversations” and “many games of Internet scrabble.” Irrelevant, maybe, but one wonders: If the composer doesn’t bother to give this music his undivided attention, why should anyone else?)

To his credit, Muhly has talent and an eager curiosity; the problem is, this inquisitive intelligence often finds more meaningful expression in his interviews (or on his gabby, regularly updated blog) than in his music. His best work remains in the indie sphere, where his skillful arrangements and expansive musical vocabulary offer welcome dimension to pop songs. He has also demonstrated himself to be a musical ambassador par excellence, a patient, generous, and enthusiastic bringer-together of worlds. This skill was eminently on display in the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s transcendent concert with Antony and the Johnsons last fall, for which Muhly wrote the arrangements. Thanks to Muhly’s irreverent streak, the concert’s encore included a fully orchestrated take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” that transformed the original’s synapse-fusing excess into mournful, restrained chamber pop. It was the sort of unlikely alchemy at which Muhly excels. When he tries to work on a larger canvas, however, he so far falls flat.

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