Listening Listfully 2010, The Details, Part II:
"Nico Muhly is the Mozart of Our Age" Edition
[Bedroom Community selections]
In this second of four installments detailing some of the what's and the why's of my List of my favorite music of the year, the focus is again on a single record label: Bedroom Community, which takes (at least indirectly) three spots in my personal Top 20.
You read it here first: Nico Muhly is the Mozart of our age.
Now that is a statement that needs to be seriously hedged about with explanations, so I will offer up one or two.
When I use the term "Mozart" here, I am not really thinking of Mozart the actual historical person or Mozart the extraordinary prodigy or Mozart the supreme figure of hitherto unexampled creative genius, although I am thinking of each of those more than just a wee bit. For the most part, though, I am thinking of this Mozart:
That is, of course, Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Milos Forman's film version of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus. Schaffer/Forman/ Hulce's Mozart is all the supreme and prodigious and miraculous things I just mentioned, and at the same time a low, giggling prankster with a fondness for the crudest sort of joke. You know, dog farts and such like. Nico Muhly is kind of like that, too, at least as he presents himself through his blog and especially through his Twitter feed. That blog, I make haste to add, is well worth the following, because it is so often home to seriously sharp writing on the process and inner workings of music making. The savvy and the sulphurous live together happily on that blog, with the savvy tending to win out.
By now, I assume most folks likely to be reading this are already familiar with at least the broad outlines on Nico Muhly: New England born, turns 30 this coming year, double/simultaneous degrees from Julliard (M.A., Musik) and Columbia (Englitch Litt), worked for/with Philip Glass as score preparer and assistant for several years, prolific and serious Contemporary Composer and Collaborator in settings high and low. In that latter capacity, he has contributed arrangements and accompaniments to a range of artists including the likes of Antony and the Johnsons.
It was in his "orchestral arranger" role that I first became aware of Muhly, via Bonnie "Prince" Billy's The Letting Go in 2006. That album (recommended!) was produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson and recorded at his Greenhouse Studio in Reykjavik, and it was there—also in 2006—that Sigurðsson, Muhly, and Ben Frost formed Bedroom Community.
Bedroom Community has a verrrry exclusive list of artists in its stable: basically the three founders plus Sam Amidon and Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. And this year two of those five contribute three selections to my List. Let's examine them, shall we?
#2 [tie] I See the Sign
I See the Sign received a post of its own on Good Friday and I must confess I have little to add to it. Sam Amidon is one of the world's true musical treasures. We would have him bronzed and erected on a tasteful pedestal of local mineral origin in the market square, but he'd be of no further use to us then, would he?
I wrote a year ago almost to the day that Sam Amidon's All Is Well, with Nico Muhly arrangements, would have been my clear Number One Choice for 2008, but for my not having compiled a List in 2008, and I added: "Based upon the one track that is circulating about at the moment, I can predict with confidence that I will be talking about Sam's I See the Sign somewhere on next year's list."
It is interesting, to me, that my Good Friday Sam Amidon post actually mentions ol' Homer's Penelope—apropos of the wonderful "Pretty Fair Damsel" on I See the Sign—given that Sarah Kirkland Snider's Penelope is essentially the only thing standing between Sam Amidon and another Number One spot with me. Coincidence? I think not.
In any event: as was true of All is Well, I See the Sign is a collection of music that simply invests itself into the listener's inner life and stays there. It is the very exemplar of Ezra Pound's injunction to "Make it new." It is fine, darned fine, and not to be missed.
This is my favorite Nico Muhly recording to date, perhaps because it is more performance-driven and less obviously a creature of the recording studio than the earlier Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue. Mind you, those are fine recordings, though Mothertongue especially is, for me, more interesting in theory than in execution (albeit still full of really really good stuff). But I digress—
Some composers find an approach that works for them and simply stick with it, so that their works are almost immediately recognizable as theirs. Debussy almost always sounds like Debussy, for example. More recently, Philip Glass and Steve Reich have done something similar. (This is as good an opportunity as any to point to Kyle Gann's kind o' brilliant Christmas Eve post, "Resisting the Narrative," which gives a hard look at the mixed blessing of being "typed" as a composer of one kind or another. Steve Reich, he notes, has done quite well by being "unbendingly faithful to his brand.")
To his credit, Nico Muhly is not [yet?] one of those composers of whom it can be said "I know him when I hear him." If he has one distinctive calling card/quirk, it is a sort of fluttering/twittering tendency in the woodwinds ... which personally I quite like.
So, what of I Drink the Air Before Me? Well, I wrote about it back in September, and there's not much to add. I do want to quote Nico Muhly's own description of the assignment he had before him, crafting music for a dance performance by the Stephen Petronio Company:
Start small, get big! The rules: a children's choir should begin and end the piece. The work should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety, and coastal living. A giant build-up should land us inside the center of a storm, with whirling, irregular, spiral-shaped music and irregular, spiral-shaped dancing.
Exactly. And here, Muhly has had the advantage (I suspect) of picking who would be the players of the finished piece, and of writing (much as Duke Ellington was able to do) to the strengths of those players. As a result, I Drink the Air features extended segments showing off the Mad Wild Chops of, say, Nadia Sirota's viola or Alex Sopp's flute. And it's all good.
Los Angeles Master Chorale
under the direction of Grant Gershon
This is not a true Bedroom Community project because, while it is 100% devoted to Nico Muhly's music, it is not a Nico Muhly recording. Instead, this is a project of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, released via the mighty Decca Classics label.
Much has been made of Muhly's abiding fondness for the golden age of Anglican choral music, particularly music from the Tudor and Jacobean eras, and it has been claimed, not least by the composer himself, that this choral strain is a huge part of what he does. And yet, I have been able to detect very little of that influence in the works that have previously seen commercial release. If we examine his catalogue of works, we find an abundance of liturgical and choral pieces that simply have not seen the light outside of live performance. A Good Understanding remedies that omission, surveying examples of Muhly's choral writing over the course of his career to date.
"Bright Mass with Canons" does, really, what you would hope and expect from a piece with that title: it offers up the praises of the congregation and reflects the lightborne shower of affection returned by the object of that praise. Comfort and joy, indeed. And it includes one of my favorite little musical gestures here: a full-on Glass pastiche slipped as a special treat in to the closing minute of the "Sanctus."
"First Service", settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, is similarly open and giving music, not far removed from the best bits of Bernstein's Mass—of which Muhly wrote a fine appreciation for Opera News back in 2008. It is followed by his setting of Senex Pueram Portabat, which I praised at Christmas, and the title piece "A Good Understanding," an urgent organ-driven cobbling-together of two Psalm texts.
The set ends, sadly, on what is for me its weakest note: "Expecting the Main Things From You," built on excerpts from Walt Whitman. My quarrel here is much more with Whitman than with the composer: I know how and why he is is Important, but he Does Not Move Me as a poet. Whitman has been the ruin of many a composer. I am prepared to believe he is affirmatively un-settable: his music is not the music of Music, if you follow.
Still and all, A Good Understanding has many more wonderful parts than not in it, and deserves attention from anyone not inclined to run screaming at the sight of an oncoming choir.
I have only just now started listening to Daníel Bjarnason's Processions, which is striking me as a recording that probably would have a spot on my List if only I'd heard it sooner. It is the sort of loud, dissonant music that sends Traditional Symphony-Goers to the exits, but not (if one would only listen) deserving of that reaction. Very intriguing stuff, of which I may have more to say after living with it for a while.
NEXT: In Part III, five albums whose connection with one another lies in each being full of inventive and tricksy rhythms.