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Nico Muhly - Mothertongue


I’m somewhat late in reviewing this album, but immediacy isn’t often the best guide to casting one’s thoughts over such a complex piece. This is a record that has slowly made its way into my affectations through a mixture of sublime melody, daring constructs and sheer force of inspiration. It’s a heady mixture of Glass-like minimalism, obscure story-telling, odes to 16th Century English church music, modern studio craft and central to it all, the power of the human voice.

New York-based Muhly is something of a precocious talent, the 26 year old composer having studied and worked with Phillip Glass, lending his talents to the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Bjork, and now composing his own work, Mothertongue being the follow up to 2007’s Speaking in Volumes. 

It’s fair to say that the presence of Glass and the influence of New York classicism is indelible throughout. With the assistance of producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, Mothertongue is an incredibly crisp and almost skeletal recording and yet at times with the aid of some thunderous bass hums and studio trickery it is digitally intense - the harpischord and brass sections in “Wonders” in particular are so forceful that you’re almost subsumed by their impact. It’s a dense, crystalline album that sometimes threatens to dissolve inwards because of the chaos that descends upon it. 

Divided into 3 sections with 3 to 4 songs each, the album starts with “Mothertongue”, using the voice of mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer in a manner similar to Reich or Glass, layering short phrases over minimal instrumentation. Muhly’s fixation with Iceland, garnered during his work with Bjork, manifests itself in “Hress” (Icelandic for “Up for it”) , a delightful marimba-dominated piece that organically grows to a heady finish before descending into the murky and quite dramatic chaos of “Monster” (field recordings of Whale meat feature apparently), which staggers to a strange, unworldly climax, recalling the vocal tensions in Stockausen’s “Stimmung”.

Muhly’s fascination with the madrigals of 16th Century composers such as William Byrd, John Dowland and Thomas Weelkes comes to the fore in “Wonders”, utilising the ever-so slightly discordant sound of a harpsichord against the sombre tones of a trombone over the course of 3 songs which recounts the tale of Weelkes, a natural talent undone by unfortunate vices. Of the 3 pieces, it’s the weakest, if only because it fails to reach the emotional intensity of the others, and doesn’t quite have the same melodic strength.

The final piece “The Only Tune” sees Muhly in partnership with Sam Amidon deliver something far more rustic and closer to home, and ultimately it’s the strongest work on the album. Taking the classic story of the Twa Sisters, he and Amidon produce a strange mix of Banjos and Fiddles, field recording, musique concrete, the invoking of some Americana vocal styles and merge it into a piece that transforms from something approaching chaotic dissonance to elegaic beauty at the end, their voices whispering the chorus over a delightful mix of plucked strings.

“Mothertongue” is remarkable for its approach, vision and construct. The combination of 16th and 17th century tales and styles with modern studio wizardry and minimalist ideas is one that could fall flat on a bed of absurd pretension, but to his credit Muhly’s sheer audacity carries the project through despite times where chaos threatens to destroy it. It is unlikely you will hear anything quite like it.

Toby Frith

Nico Muhly’s website and Blog (An entertaining read)

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