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Thee For One

by Geoff Edgers, The Boston Globe, 8/22/08.

The last time Nico Muhly played Boston, in the spring of 2007, he was put up at the Copley Place Hotel and given a prime seat at Symphony Hall. That’s when the Boston Pops performed his orchestral piece “Wish You Were Here.”

This time, Muhly will arrive by van. He’s going the indie-rock route, coming to the Museum of Fine Arts for Sunday’s concert as part of the 802 Tour, a collaboration with Sam Amidon and Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett.

Muhly is perfectly happy to ramble around the East Coast. His upcoming schedule is packed, with a pair of operas, a dance piece for Stephen Petronio, and a song cycle for soprano Jessica Rivera. This may be the last time for a while he can split drive time with his friends.

“In classical music, the concert experience is this very formalized thing,” explains Muhly in a recent phone interview. “You dress up nicely, you might shower before you go. It’s a special effort and the space is usually gorgeous. With this kind of tour, there’s an idea that the music is a continuum of the day and a more social interaction than not. This tour is more about staying on people’s floors and people’s couches and being more casual about what it means to make music.”

In a sense, Sunday’s gig is the perfect bill for the composer, whose new album, “Mothertongue,” is a study in new school classical. On the recording, he embraces the coolly electronic, mountain folk, and the Steve Reichian school of vocal mashing.

“I’ve been watching Nico for a couple of years now,” says Dan Hirsch, concert program manager at the MFA. “He comes from the classical world, but he really gets the emotional quality of these musicians. This is the first time he’s done a tour like this. And there’s this feeling that this is a very unique thing we may not be seeing much in the future.”

Muhly, who turns 27 at the end of this month, is already considered a leading light of contemporary classical music. As a composer, he’s been praised from the start, “poised for a major career” as early as 2004 by New Yorker critic Alex Ross. More recently, the Los Angeles Times declared that “Muhly’s career has been a pursuit to figure out what comes after every rule has already been broken.”

As a character, Muhly, with mussed-up hair and a conversational style that darts like lightning across power lines, is also irresistible. He’s a social sparkplug as likely to be spotted with composer Philip Glass as he is with indie-rock band Grizzly Bear. In interviews and on his blog, Muhly can sound equally engaged, whether debating the unfair labeling of musical genres or a recent episode of “Top Chef.” In a musical world in which too many are too delicate, he’s also not afraid to be unflinchingly honest.

Take his view of two major symphonies. He admires the daring work of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and bemoans the state of the New York Philharmonic. “You go to the Phil’s website and first it looks like a Tampax ad and then the programming is a disaster,” he says. “A festival of Brahms?”

Dennis Alves, director of artistic planning for the Pops, says that he appreciated Muhly’s attitude when he came to Boston last year. Many composers would prefer to work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not the Pops, who are seen as the lighter, less artistically serious side of the BSO family. Not Muhly.

“He jumped at the chance to have his music played by the Pops,” said Alves. “He was so refreshing, willing to jump into whatever interests him. He’s not limiting himself.”

The 802 Tour – named for the area code in Vermont where all three performers grew up – came about naturally.

Amidon sings on Muhly’s sprawling folk song “The Only Tune.” Muhly did arrangements on Amidon’s new album, “All Is Well.” And Amidon plays on Bartlett’s albums. Muhly admits he’s intrigued by Bartlett’s distinctive voice.

“Every six months, I think of a new way to describe it,” Muhly says. “It sounds like what happens if you squeeze the air out of something. It’s the very last sound that comes out. The only reason you can hear it is because it’s heavily amplified. To me, it’s as if you play a pump organ and you let your foot off the pedal. His voice is definitely an interesting thing and it’s something you have to reckon with.”

Though Muhly has, in recent years, gathered steady acclaim for his compositions, he doesn’t consider himself the star of the tour. He’s one of five musicians taking driving shifts in the van. (A sixth musician, a violist, does not drive.) Instead of separate sets, Muhly, Amidon, and Bartlett decided to break the concert into two chunks, sharing the stage during those times.

There are several songs that stay in the setlist – Muhly always plays “The Only Tune” – but also plenty of wiggle room.

“For the most part, setting the mood is about seeing where the audience wants to go,” he says. “You can usually tell if going into a 16-minute-long solo viola piece that’s very dire is going to be appropriate at any moment. Then you do three fast, really prepared piano pieces or you stick the viola piece at the beginning of the second half. For me, the fun of this thing is that in a normal situation, I have to have committed to the order years in advance. This, for me, is very liberating in not knowing.”

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