The reach of modern classical music has widened to the point that it is all but impossible to judge a composition on its technical merits. Some composers choose to employ the Classical-era ideals of counterpoint; some don’t. Some composers reach for the lush chords and melodrama of the Romantic era; others refuse. Some composers delight in following the more modern, minimalist cues of Glass and Reich, integrating phasing and slowly shifting repetition into pieces that may or may not warrant either; most would rather follow their own unique muse than to pay homage to composers who aren’t even dead yet. More than anything, the definition of “classical” seems of late to come down to an issue of instrumentation. If it is predominantly executed by an orchestra or instruments that might come from an orchestra, it stands a very good chance of getting lumped into the classical genre, regardless of what is actually being done with those instruments.
It is in this last that Nico Muhly’s debut solo album, Speaks Volumes, achieves its “classical” distinction; really, what he is creating could just as easily be called “experimental”, though he does what he does by employing primarily live instrumentation, with an emphasis on such traditionally-classical instruments as violins and organs.
What Muhly is trying to do with his use of age-old instrumentation in such a nontraditional manner, then, is to evoke something. The sound of the primarily sad, often scattered cello tones in “Clear Music”, the expansive piano chords in “Quiet Music”, and the frenetic and polyrhythmic toned percussion in “Pillaging Music” are clearly there to evoke something; “Pillaging Music” is especially earnest in its willingness to paint a picture, as it jumps to and fro, taking a break for a moment of calm, but finishing at least as chaotic as it starts. If you think about it long enough, it does start to sound like the raiding of a village, in the way that one’s imagination tends to think about that sort of thing when reading about it in a history book.
It is in that last sentence, however, that the problem with Speaks Volumes exists: you really do have to think to get anything out of it. Now surely, nobody expects to come out of a CD of purportedly classical music without having to do any thinking, but there should also be some sort of visceral, immediate reaction to the music, whether that reaction is a visualization of some sort or the evocation of mood; for most of Speaks Volumes, the immediate association brought forth by the music is that of sitting in a concert hall with a whole bunch of “cultured” classical enthusiasts and watching a small ensemble play on a stage. During “Clear Music”, there’s a dim spotlight on the cellist while the rest of the ensemble plays in darkness, content only to come out of the shadows for a few brief bursts of energetic lightshow technics. “It Goes Without Saying” might have a more evenly weighted lighting scheme, though the stage arrangement puts emphasis on the harmonium and the laptop, as if to point out that these are the sounds we’re not used to hearing from an orchestra.
Even “Quiet Music” and “A Hudson Cycle”, meant in their piano patterns to inspire thoughts of a calm sea and a babbling brook respectively, instead evoke the image of a concert pianist sitting on the piano, who is himself evoking the image of the appropriate body of water. It’s two degrees of separation; it’s meta-evocation.
To this point, Muhly has built his name up on the backs of myriad collaborators, mid-to-high level artists who needed a classical-sounding touch for the purpose of realizing their unique visions. Björk is perhaps the most notable of these collaborators (and to his credit, Muhly goes so far as to thank her in his liner notes, though her involvement in his album is merely peripheral), though the ever-intriguing Antony and the Johnsons aren’t far behind. It makes a bit of sense, then, that Muhly’s greatest success as a “solo” artist is in the form of a returned favor from Antony, the twelve-minute album closer called “Keep in Touch”. To be fair, “Keep in Touch” is very clearly Muhly’s composition, as Antony is relegated to yelps and squeaks and a few lovely little melodic intonations, all of it taking a bit of a backseat to the conflicting consonance and dissonance in the organ chords. A little bit of plonky percussion and some trombone(?!) action are the cherries on top, all of it creating a lovely ode to the distance between us.
Muhly is only 26 years old. He has a long way to go in the music business, and he already has a near-lifetime worth of valuable experiences behind him. As the number that defines his age increases, so too will his grasp of subtlety, of evocation, and of the vast possibilities of the music he is making. We should be so lucky as to have a chance to watch such a process in action.
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