It's been another big year for the young, classical/pop mediator, Nico Muhly. The New York composer has been going strong on a recent string of successful pop arrangements, commissioned compositions, and personal record releases. This year's list included writing all the orchestral and piano arrangements for Jonsi's Go, playing on The National's High Violet record, and releasing two albums of his own work, which combined have made it to #9 on my countdown. I Drink the Air Before Me is a work commissioned by Stephen Petronio to accompany his dance of the same name, inspired by a raging sea storm and a line from Shakespeare's "Tempest". I Drink the Air Before Me is a stunning expose of Muhly's musical language and technique which manages to find a satisfying balance between postminimalist romanticism and pop aesthetics. Armed with a small, but convincing character chamber ensemble, Muhly uses jerky rhythms and contrasting melodic and harmonic styles to create a unique sound that is both forward-looking and collaborative. The different instruments are meant to represent a quirky cast of characters that might live by the sea: "a busybody flute, a wise viola, and the masculine, workmanlike bassoon, trombone, and upright bass. The piano acts as an agitator, an unwelcome visitor, bearing with it aggressive electronic noises and rhythmic interruptions." These different personalities and styles are clearly shown in what might be the best track from the album, "Fire Down Below". Using energetic, Stravinsky-like clashes on both piano and electronics, Muhly disrupts his majestic choral melodies and minimalist chamber techniques in the same way that Sufjan Stevens plays an electric guitar solo in a folk song. In other tracks Muhly sounds more distinctly like a younger, more edgy Steve Reich, ("Music Under Pressure - 1 Flute"), while in others he shows off his impressionistic lyricism with melodic choral passages and drone-based influences ("One Day Tells Its Tale To Another"). Although I haven't seen the dance number that this album is based around, the unfortunate dancers that must move to these sounds will have a hard time keeping up with this astounding piece of music.
A Good Understanding is a collection of choral work that feels much more standalone then the dance accompaniment of I Drink the AIr Before Me. The first seven tracks of the album are Muhly's interpretation of contemporary composers' interest in ancient church music, here written in a cleverly traditional fashion that makes A Good Understanding is a great introduction to Nico Muhly for the classical world. You won't find anything here resembling Arvo Part, but this is certainly one of Muhly's most tranquil and settled works, standing in stark contrast to the spastic behaviors of I Drink the Air Before Me. While the first eight tracks deal with strictly religious traditional themes, the final series of songs entitled "Expect the Main Things From You" set three Walt Whitman poems to exciting and visceral backdrops that don't shy away from being big. I Drink the Air Before Me and A Good Understanding are both choral works, but present two very different sides of Muhly's ever expanding rubix cube personality. While in many of his other releases and arrangements he gracefully allows other artists and collaborators to shine through, here, Muhly is at the top of his game and finally sits comfortably in the spotlight. In many ways, Muhly hasn't written a seminal piece of music yet, but with each album he releases he is simultaneously redrawing the lines of classical music and tracing out his own profile as one of the most adaptable, exciting, and focused young musicians, not only classical composers, in the world today.
Here is "Fast Twitchy Organs", an excellent added bonus track to the album. It was the only thing I could find online!