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Nico Muhly


(Bedroom Community; US: 22 Jul 2008; UK: 16 Jun 2008)

Mothertongue, the second solo album of work by America’s most talked-about young classical composer, is subtitled “3 Large Vocal Works with Twitching” on his website. The description’s accurate, sort of. The three suites on the album do have a fidgety motion, but there are also moments of spare beauty. But these works aren’t large-scale in the way that Philip Glass’ work is, and each idea is dealt with in a mode that shares more with indie pop than classical music. The instrumentation, though wide-ranging, retains the chamber intimacy of Muhly’s first album Speaks Volumes—in its eagerness to include electronic effects it occasionally recalls the Books’s found sound collages. More obviously, Muhly takes Bjork’s vocal explorations of Medulla into stranger and more conceptual territory.

The “Mothertongue” suite is Muhly’s most conceptual work—vocals, whether the babbled phone numbers and street addresses of “Mothertongue I: Archive”, or the overarching vowels of “Mothertongue II: Shower”, are employed here in purely symbolic guise. The other two suites, “Wonders” and “The Only Tune”, attack the folk song tradition from opposite ends: the first takes a verse plucked from a Renaissance ballad and deconstructs it, or overwhelms it with muddy brass dissonance; the latter, builds up from individual syllables. The trope of jumbled words from “Mothertongue” reappears on “Wonders”, in the form of some Scandinavian language.

Mothertongue may be more difficult to evaluate as modern classical music than Muhly’s debut, Speaks Volumes, whose more straightforward chamber ensemble arrangements outlined the composer’s background in minimalism. (That album, and the ideas that went into its construction, are outlined in an excellent New Yorker article about the composer from February). Though Philip Glass and other minimal composers are essential to understanding where Muhly’s music comes from, it’s hardly minimal. Muhly makes more pastiche-y compositions, whose power comes from the incongruity of the comparators: Renaissance folk with minimalism, e.g. It’s a conceptual position that’s rich with possibility, and Muhly conveys his take on these incongruities with undeniable style. As he matures as a composer, Muhly will likely find the golden place where conceptuality and emotion coincide—then he may become the next classical composer, after Glass, to woo a whole new generation towards modern classical music.


Dan Raper has been writing about music for PopMatters since 2005. Prior to that he did the same thing for his college newspaper and for his school newspaper before that. Of course he also writes fiction, though his only published work is entitled "Gamma-secretase exists on the plasma membrane as an intact complex that accepts substrates and effects intramembrane cleavage". He is currently studying medicine at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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