Saturday, July 22, 2017

Nico Muhly

No way around it, Sun Kil Moon is folk, a part of a new Americana that includes Fleet Foxes and Lord Huron. Then there are artists who can't be genred.  Bowie comes to mind. We flip through the catalog to find folk (Space Oddity, Hunky Dory), heavy metal (Tin Men, The Man Who Sold the World), Funk (Station to Station, Young Americans), pop (Let's Dance) and hard edged avant-garde (Blackstar, The Next Day). Sufjan Stevens fits the mold as well. One never knows what to expect next, the discography like looking at a dozen artists. From the folky Carrie & Lowell to the vaudevillian Illinois. Sufjan’s latest project is Planetarium, a side project that includes Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister. While it contains the lyrical style associated with Stevens, the music itself was in the hands of the "supergroup" with Nico Muhly at the helm.

You probably found Sufjan on your own, and Bryce Dessner’s The National has received critical acclaim for years, but Nico Muhly may have slipped by. Even as a Sufjan fan, with all its baroque overtones, avant-garde classical may be too far reaching; Nico Muhly is far from accessible. I first stumbled upon Muhly in 2009 with Mothertongue. The LP in particular, sounds like the product of someone in love with language. Voices are treated as exquisite instruments (the click of the teeth, the tap of the tongue, the smack of the lips, etc.) The music itself speaks to deeper meanings and specific ideas and emotions, like words on a page. It's an in your face LP that without the proper context could remind one of a composer child, one all gungho and "let me at 'em", knocking things over in his enthusiasm to get to the controls. Dismiss that context. This isn't the work of a child, but a young genius. 

Muhly says of his work, "After the intense corporeal experience of The Only Tune (which deals with the body exclusively: its two hundred and six bones, its skin, its hair), I wanted to turn my attention inwards to the body's memory bank: all of the things we can remember without searching. I tested myself and managed to write down two pages filled with numbers, addresses, the names of the states, the capitals of the countries in West Africa (surprisingly), friends' phone numbers in other countries, a social security number, my mother's old, old studio number from the mid 80's. The result of this is 'Mothertongue' the song, which mimics this process of discovering all the codes and numbers that make up my - and Abigail Fischer, the singer's - personal archaeology. 'Mothertongue' is in four movements: the first engages the singer with all her addresses and ways to remember English grammar. The second takes place in a shower and at the breakfast table, and features an introspective and congested twitching and muttering. The third section (entitled 'hress,' the Icelandic word for being over-excited and stupidly joyful) is manic, frisky, and eager to please; this spirals into a violent, ecstatic recitation of addresses and zip codes antagonized by a 'monster' made out of over-amplified cereal and synthesizers."

Muhly's latest LP (oops - there are always more than one), LPs are Confessions, a collaboration with Teitur, a peculiar first-person slight of hand collage. Confessions' lyrical content is all lifted directly from YouTube, a patchwork of trimmings and off-cuts salvaged from forgotten, digital landfill video or long-extinguished solar flare comments. Then there's Keep in Touch with Nadia Sirota, a viola concerto of exceptional merit. Nadia Sirota and Nico Muhly are a force to be reckoned with. Muhly's brilliant writing and orchestration shine as Sirota's vibrant, virtuosic playing soars. The combination of their talents was one of the best things to happen to music in 2016. There was also an LP of Muhly and Philip Glass works by Jennifer and Angela Chum; and, of course, Planetarium, my current go to LP. With a little luck (hard work seemingly a given) there will be more of the Planetarium ensemble in the coming years.