Saturday, May 31, 2008

Universal Language

Nico Muhly - Mothertongue (Bedroom Community, 2008)

At last, versatility and the search for connections between musical forms are becoming laudable qualities in contemporary composers. Nico Muhly is an infuriatingly young protege of minimalists such as Reich, Riley and Glass but might well be better known for his collaborative work with the likes of Bjork, Will Oldham and Antony Hegarty. 'Mothertongue' is the second recorded work in his own name, and one of the most effective examples of modern composition melding electronic and acoustic elements.

The unifying factor between these stylistically diverse pieces is the sound of the human voice and its power as a tool of communication. The title suite abandons conventional language entirely, instead manipulating samples of voices, layering them in rich textures and pitting them against a resonant combination of strings, piano and deep electronic bass notes. It's a compelling work, harking back to Gyorgy Ligeti's nonsense vocal works, albeit in a more contemplative and less theatrical way. There's a meditative, almost spiritual quality to this combination of languid music and fluttering, busy vocal lines.

It's likely that there will still be some purists who resent the use of electronic recording techniques to manipulate the human voice - but why shouldn't new composers at least try to offer something new? It's entirely reasonable that contemporary music should strive to juxtapose unusual instruments, and also make use of modern sounds and effects. There's always the danger of gimmickry, but Muhly's touch is sensitive and assured, and he has used his studio tools as an aid to the composing process, adding to the overall effect. My only reservation is that the bulk of the rhythmic invention in these pieces comes from the voices and the electronics, and the instrumentation is too frequently left to a textural or accompanying role.

The rest of the album is devoted to an audacious deconstruction of folk music, celebrating the rich and powerful language of ballads and folk song. Muhly's much praised label mate Sam Amidon proves surprisingly adept in this context, delivering a murder ballad with admirable candour and expression. There's an appropriate level of detachment in Muhly's music too - such that the folk songs seem almost amoral, and slightly chilling as a result.

Language and cultural theory are clearly of paramount importance to Muhly. He is every bit as capable and nuanced a writer as he is a composer, as his articles for The Guardian and New York Times demonstrate. He also writes a stimulating and provocative blog. With his impressive melding of chamber music, popular folk and modern electronica, he may be opening the doors for a new generation of innovative composers, open-minded to the many possibilities music still has to offer.

No comments: