Tuesday, June 3, 2008
director's cut, The Times, May 23rd 2008
By Simon Reynolds
Nico Muhly's apartment is a sixth-floor walk-up in Chinatown, New York. During the long ascent, the out-of-breath visitor passes a garment sweatshop operating 24/7 and a discernibly seedy gentleman's club. Sealed behind a steel door, the young composer's home is a haven of refinement. Muhly has even cooked lunch--a first time occurrence for this reporter, despite having interviewed getting on for a thousand musicians over the years.
It's cauliflower cheese, and Muhly decides to pop it back into the oven to brown some more. A willowy figure with a pale boyish face and trendily tousled hair, wearing furry slippers and a loose-fitting brown cardigan fastened with a dainty safety pin, the 26 year old asks me to whisk the salad dressing while he sets the table. We chit-chat about the parallels between music and cuisine, touching briefly on the mystery of why there's never been a symphony about a soufflé ("Because a soufflé speaks for itself?" he suggests), with Muhly concluding that, for him, where cooking and composition connect is "the idea of making something of use. You've been to those restaurants where it's like 'this is petrified squid vagina, with a foam of infant's tears'"--he means the fashion for molecular gastronomy, probably-- "At the end of the day, you have to eat the food, so it can't be that unpalatable. Likewise, I'm not going to make music that you need to have a degree to take apart. "
And nor do you. As heard on his new album Mothertongue, Muhly's work is immediately understandable and attractive, even when it's deploying the musique concrete sonorities of whale meat or drawing inspiration from esoteric 16th Century texts about sea monsters, astronomy, and drunken choir masters. There are gathering expectations that his music, with its rich melody, glistening textures, and rapturous emotionalism, has the ability to reach beyond classical's usual audience. Like his mentor Philip Glass, on whose film soundtracks he's assisted for several years, Muhly criss-crosses with ease between the worlds of classical (writing ballet scores, organizing Carnegie Hall programs of his work, discussing a future opera for the Met) and pop (collaborating with Anthony Hegarty of Mercury Prize winners Anthony and the Johnson, doing session work for Bjork). As much as its draws on the ecstatic flickering patterns of Seventies minimalism and the radiant tones of 16th Century choral music, the loveliness of Muhly's music seems to be an expression of his personality, his deep-rooted desire to please the listener.
Or indeed eater: the cauliflower cheese is scrumptious, and the whole meal is immaculately presented, apart from a few hairs, courtesy his two cats, in the side salad--one of which he plucks off an lettuce leaf on my plate with a quick dart of the hand. Quick and darting could describe Muhly's conversational style: he talks with incredible rapidity, a mercurial flow scintillating with insights and witticisms. He's almost too bright, one of those people whose company makes you feel stolid and sluggish. "Nico's so full of energy, so incredibly well-read," enthuses John Berry, the artistic director of the English National Opera, who's in discussions with Muhly about him composing a stage piece for ENO. "He's one of this younger generation of composers who've spent a number of years crossing between genres--classical music, pop, film, multimedia. Composers who come up through the traditional route of music colleges and the conservatoires don't have the flexibility of someone like Nico, who's equally able to work with orchestral music and electronic music."
It was Muhly's keyboard skills--computer and piano--that secured him an apprenticeship at Philip Glass's film soundtrack company when he was still a second-year student at Columbia University in New York. In five years, Muhly has worked on eight soundtracks, taking the venerable minimalist composer's scores--"written out longhand, because he's old school"--and "playing it into a computer which I then manipulate against the picture and make changes where needed." In the process, says Glass, "Nico has gotten very good at 'spotting' the film--seeing where the music goes--and also how to work with directors, who are often not well-educated about music, to the point where he's starting his own career as a film composer. He's very rapidly developing his own voice and identity as a composer, which doesn't generally happen until you get to your thirties, but Nico is in his mid-twenties and already has a sound that's his own."
Listening to Mothertongue, the influence of minimalism , as pioneered by Glass and Steve Reich, is readily apparent in its bright timbres and repetitive pulses. Muhly describes hearing Reich's Music for 18 Musicians as a life-changing revelation: he thrilled to its compositional clarity ("it's music that literally makes its construction clear") and tensely ecstatic flutter. But Muhly's true passion is for English church music of the 16th and 17th Centuries, composers like John Taverner, Thomas Weelkes, and William Byrd. The ardour was ignited in his early teens when he sang in a boys choir in Providence, Rhode Island. "The boys choir is the most English institution there is," he says. "You only get them in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada."
Although it started as a youthful crush--"I just felt this very serious emotional connection to the music"--as Muhly developed as a fledgling composer at Juillard he began to articulate intellectual reasons for the path he'd chosen. "I liked the fact that this was music for worship, that it didn't call attention to the composer at all. Even erased the composer. Whereas the Romantic tradition in music is so manipulative. With church music, there's all this emotion, but it's not "I feel this," it's "feel this". To me it's almost a golden space to compose in. And it's completely outside all the bullshit arguments about style that you had all through the 20th Century, like Schoenberg versus Stravinsky. While that was happening in Vienna and Los Angeles, you had someone like Herbert Howells just peaceing out in Oxford." When I look blankly, Muhly explains. "Howells was this 20th Century composer who wrote a whole lot of services for the Church of England. It's just pure English stodge--almost the exact consistency of what's hanging off this spoon". And he holds up the serving ladle gloopy with congealing cauliflower cheese.
"The Anglican Church, she has long tentacles" quips Muhly, in reply to a question about how someone growing up in New England got besotted with ecclesiastical music from Old England. He's being interviewed onstage at the Merkin Hall in mid-town Manhattan, in between performances of pieces from Mothertongue. After a few more minutes chat, during which Muhly explains how one of the texts for the piece "Wonders" is a letter from "an angry parishioner written to the Dean of Chichester complaining about Thomas Weelkes quaffing ale and cussing in front of children", his musicians troop onstage. They are mostly young men of roughly the same age as Muhly and with similarly hip hair, plus a punky-looking female violinist and the more conventionally concert hall elegant mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer.
Among the ensemble, freshly arrived from Iceland, is Muhly's record producer and principal collaborative foil, Valgeir Sigurdsson, whose light beard and twinkling eyes make him look like a kindly Satanist. His instruments are a laptop and a sky-blue bass guitar. Muhly himself switches between piano and celeste, the latter played with appropriately quaint and courtly body movements. There's a pink watering can onstage, mystifying at first, until it turns out to be the sound-source for the simulated rainfall of "Shower", the second part of "Mothertongue", the four-part composition that gives the album its title.
Pt. 1 is called "Archive" and on the album it involved Fischer singing a lead vocal against a multi-tracked babble of her own vocal parts. The lead and "back-up" Fischers sing from a libretto woven out of colourless but privately resonant data: all the phone numbers, home addresses, and so forth, that she could remember in the studio. Live, though, this vocal "bed" is provided by two male vocalists, Caleb Burhans and Helgi Hrafn Jonsson, so what they sing is drawn from their own personal data-banks.
"I started thinking about all the information that makes us go," explains Muhly. "If we strip away everything else, what do you know? It was a way to express this huge anxiety we have about the number of numbers we associate with ourselves and the pieces of information we can't forget even if we try to."
The most anxiously ecstatic sequence of "Mothertongue" is called "Hress", a hard-to-translate Icelandic word describing someone who's over-joyous, absurdly excited and "up for it". Muhly learned it when it was humorously applied to him by laidback Icelanders when he came over to work at Sigurdsson's studio. If Anglophilia is Muhly's deep, abiding passion, both musically (he identifies intensely with Benjamin Britten's music) and several other ways (he makes a point of pointing out the cheddar in the cauliflower cheese came from England), his rival infatuation is for the tiny island that gave the world Bjork. It was through doing some piano playing for the latter that he hooked up with Sigurdsson, her studio engineer for many years. Since then Muhly has been a regular visitor to Iceland, working on his own music and other recordings for Sigurdsson's Bedroom Community label, and relishing the mellow vibe of the musicians' community there. He's even learned Icelandic, despite its challenging grammar.
"Hress" isn't the only Icelandic imprint on Mothertongue. There's the whale meat too. Cetacean flesh--banned almost everywhere else on the planet, but something you can buy in the supermarket in Iceland--contributes to the sound-palette of "The Only Tune", Mothertongue's stand-out piece. The composition is based around a macabre folk song about two sisters walking along a riverbank; jealous, the elder pushes the younger into the river; a miller fishes her corpse out and fashions her hair, nose-bone and other body parts into a fiddle and fiddle-bow; but the violin will only play a single, desolately mournful melody. "It's been done in so many versions," says Muhly, clicking on his computer so I can hear one by Jerry Garcia. "But they're all so ploddy and traditional, and I'm like, 'Listen, it's bitches killing each other! It's awful and violent."
Hence the idea of using sound-textures evocative of carnality and carnage: tangled human hair being combed, the scraping of butcher's knives, raw whale flesh. "It was marinating in a bowl, so there was fluid and it made these slurpy sounds as we sloshed it around," recalls Sigurdsson. "That's what we recorded."
Muhly is a whale meat fan ("it tastes like beef, basically") and a convert to the Icelandic position on whale-hunting: he believes Green-minded Western opposition is a sanctimonious waste of energy ("couldn’t you just fight for gay marriage? Deal with that one, and hate crimes, and then we'll talk about the whales"). So did he eat the "instrument" at the end of the recording session? "No, by that point, the meat was disgusting! But it was just scraps I'd cut off a bigger steak. And that, I stir-fried with a little ginger and some soy. It was delicious."