Music

Nico Muhly: Speaks Volumes

It's two degrees of separation; it's meta-evocation.


Nico Muhly

Speaks Volumes

Contributors: Antony
Label: Bedroom Community
US Release Date: 2007-01-23
UK Release Date: 2007-01-08
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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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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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