Thursday, 17 July 2008

Mothertongue - Nico Muhly

This is the second album from the New York-based composer, whose music wanders the treacherous, shifting terrain between classical and pop. He’s very much in demand as an arranger and orchestrator, having collaborated with Philip Glass, Bjork and Antony, and his solo work has been exciting a lot of people with its ambiguous genre-credentials; no-one’s actually calling him the Saviour of Classical Music, but you can tell they want to.

Here we have three song suites, built from a diverse selection of texts: “Mothertongue” itself draws from the biographical details of its vocalist, Abigail Fischer, who recites fragments of data from her own memory (addresses, area codes, mnemonics etc), while “The Only Tune” and “Two Sisters” are both based on folk songs, albeit cut up and de-/re-contextualised for the post-modern audience. Not that this is one of those self-consciously hip exercises; Muhly is a serious and sincere composer, although he has a tendency to let his music get wrapped up in its own prettiness. Still, if listening to these suites provokes feelings of listlessness after a while, it’s partially because of the treatment of the lyrics, which robs them of narrative momentum (where there was any to begin with) and leaves them free-floating in a lukewarm sea of shimmery niceness.

Alright, better than nice; Mothertongue is graceful and rich and even (intermittently) exciting. It has Ligeti-like clouds of asynchronous chatter, swooping bass synths, string sections, harpsichords, field recordings of coffee brewing (but not in a field)…the last of the three suites even features a guitar. (The guitar sound is actually a sample of someone licking a photograph of a guitar, digitally manipulated to produce a simulacrum of the instrument’s timbre. (Maybe.))

Unfortunately, it all gets to be a bit overwhelming; for a (post-)minimalist, Muhly has some exhaustingly maximalist proclivities. Listening to this album is like being fed one long dessert, comprising a seemingly randomised string of confections; those without the right kind of musical sweet-tooth will soon find themselves yearning for the meat and potatoes.

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