Indie-classical composer Nico Muhly's pieces feel like a series of archly posed questions. In their formal inventiveness, love of blank space, and haiku-like neatness, they arouse the part of your brain that suspects it's being outsmarted. Even if you're rarely shaken listening to Muhly, you're usually intrigued: To feel your intellect being playfully, patiently tested, as if he is circling your mind and kicking its tires, can be a wonderfully maddening experience.
His Drones, initially spread across three EPs and collected here as a full-length, toys with the notion of drone in a way that fits Muhly's "cat meets yarn ball" sensibility. Writing about the pieces for his blog, Muhly mentions "singing along with one's vacuum cleaner, or…the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places" and writes, "We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them." He expanded on this idea in a July blog post: "The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e."
Like many of Muhly's compositional ideas, this one suggests a quizzical interest in music that lives in our most arid cultural spaces; his 2008 album Mothertongue began with a recitation of all the street addresses he has called home. Muhly seems at home in this world, and part of the enjoyment of Drones is in how it seems to observe, from Muhly’s serene remove, how others are not. Drones & Piano sets a hard-charging staccato piano line against a soft unchanging hum of piano and violin, evoking someone pacing in an airless space -- the aisles of the taxiing plane, maybe, that Muhly is busy analyzing chordal structures on.
Drones & Viola and Drones & Violin are slight modifications of this scenario; the three pieces seem to sit inside of each other like Chinese boxes. The lulling, fluttering drones, played on piano and violin, smooth over the outbursts of the solo instruments the way a humming dryer might quiet a colicky baby. There are moments of fierce urgency, like the one in "Part II: Material in a Handsome Stack" where Nadia Sirota's sinewy viola rises and lets out a feral cry. You can feel the bow hairs gripping and pulling the strings out of place, but the moment's drama dissolves back into the soft thrum. Even Bruce Brubaker's seething, pacing piano line on Drones & Piano seems to have settled back grumbling into its seat for takeoff by the end. Mundanity has a muffling effect.
What Muhly might think of this situation isn't clear, exactly. Are we being smothered and sedated by all this ambient noise? Does it isolate us from our deeper feelings the way thick plate glass separates prisoners from their visitors? His pieces never step in to comment, and Muhly's not the type to insert himself. He is an observer, humming his observations to himself beneath the constantly changing root note of his vacuum cleaner, and maybe he's suggesting we do the same. We're not getting rid of all this extraneous noise, so we might as well sing along to it.