Nico Muhly: Mothertongue

Nico Muhly's lately been on the receiving end of much attention, not only accolades for his 2006 debut album Speak Volumes but also an in-depth profile in no less a publication than The New Yorker. In all likelihood, the accolades will continue to pour forth in praise of Mothertongue but hopefully listeners will not be so swept up by the critical fervour they'll overlook the fact that it's a far from perfect recording. For those new to Muhly, he's collaborated with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Björk (on Medulla), Rufus Wainwright, Will Oldham, and The National, and has worked extensively for Philip Glass as an editor, keyboardist, and conductor on numerous film and stage projects. And how ironic it is that Muhly is an associate of Glass, given that the former's sophomore collection evidences little of the restraint which characterizes his elder's output. Though Glass long ago disassociated himself from the label, his music certainly sounds minimalist when heard next to Mothertongue's maximal style. In short, Muhly's music occasionally lacks the discipline we encounter in the work of a more seasoned composer.

Naturally, Mothertongue concerns language—its various permutations, the different speakers who give voice to it, and the stories they tell. All three of its multi-part compositions treat the vocalist as the nucleus around which melodies and instrumental patterns constellate. In the opening “Mothertongue” part “Archive,” the multi-layered recitations of mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer result in babble so dense its contents blur into indecipherability (the text originated from Muhly writing down all of the things he could remember sans external aid: numbers, addresses, state names, etc.). Reminiscent of John Adams' style, its delicate middle section, where Muhly reduces the music to a single voice and oboe-like accompaniment, reveals how appealing his music can be when restraint is exercised. Despite the constant murmur of voices, the second part, “Shower,” impresses too for the loveliness of its melancholic melodic line (though we could do without the superfluous shower sounds in this part and breakfast sounds in the next). Glass's influence is felt in the voice repetitions of the third part “Hress” (an Icelandic word meaning “over-excited and joyful”) while “Monster” ends the piece with spasms of violence as the titular monster (created from amplified cereal and synthesizers) fights for supremacy over Fischer's feverish recitation of addresses and zip codes.

The middle composition “Wonders,” “a meditation on an anxious time in English imperial history when explorers returned home with tales of whales, volcanoes, and exotic flowers” (Muhly's words), couples Icelandic performer Helgi Hrafn Jónsson's voice and trombones with harpsichord and vibraphones. Unfortunately, it's not terribly satisfying musically, and in general impresses the least of the album's pieces for being melodically undistinguished. While the title piece's subject is memory, the final composition “The Only Tune” (which Muhly refers to as “essentially an explosion of the folk song”) deals with the body, specifically the hair, skin, and 206 bones of the human body. In this case, the vocals, banjo, and guitar playing of American folk singer Sam Amidon are showcased, with the opening line in the first part “The Two Sisters” (“There / There were / There were two…”) borrowing a device used in Einstein On the Beach. Having begun promisingly with a tale about sororicide, “The Only Tune” grows steadily off-putting as Amidon's voice collides with a number of gratuitous sound effects (including, apparently, a butcher's knives scraping against each other, whistling Icelandic wind, and raw whale flesh in a bowl). It's telling that the titular third part is the most appealing, precisely on account of its relatively sparse arrangement.

Without question, Mothertongue's conceptual foundation is striking and the fecundity of Muhly's imagination is impressive. But such strengths don't necessarily translate into music of equal caliber, and one leaves the album slightly disappointed about what might have been. In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Muhly stated that the recording is “filled with jittery, anxious repetitions, and jarring chords that are intended to suggest the nauseating atmosphere of international jet lag and airport stultification, along with more mundane domestic anxieties”—all well and good on conceptual grounds but the idea of musically evoking “nauseating atmosphere” remains a considerably less appetizing proposition. Interestingly, the same article includes the following assessment of Muhly's music by Adams: "He obviously shows influences from the minimalist composers, but his music is not nearly as rigorously designed"—the tactfully-phrased latter point an especially astute observation. The propensity for excess in his arrangements is something one expects will correct itself as he matures. For now, Mothertongue is a flawed recording by a gifted young composer with great potential. It will be interesting to hear the music he's creating ten years from now.

July 2008