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Press Reviews for I Drink The Air Before Me

The 29-year-old composer Nico Muhly crossed over into the indie world in part because of his many collaborations with indie artists. He's written arrangements and orchestrations for Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Sam Amidon, Grizzly Bear, and Antony & the Johnsons, among others. It also helps that he worked as an editor, conductor, and keyboardist with Philip Glass, whose eloquent minimalism is already a touchstone for many indie and electronic music fans. But the crucial thing is simply Muhly's compositional voice. His minimal, Neo-Romantic style has a balance of graceful form and emotional generosity that resonates with listeners who are more interested in personal statements than musicology. And his freehanded use of electronics, drones, and fluttering pulses blurs his classicism into accessible shades of post-rock.

Muhly embodies the corroding boundary between classical and popular music, but the two worlds remain distinct in some ways. Classical fans often favor the concert hall, with recorded music as a secondary concern; the reverse is often true in indie and pop. Muhly has proven particularly adept at splitting the difference. He's written lots of music for performance that doesn't appear on any recording. He's also cherry-picked this repertoire to piece together two albums with the kind of modular structure that non-classical music fans are accustomed to, 2007's Speaks Volumes and 2008's Mothertongue. Both of the new albums Muhly released this year are beholden to external forces, so neither is necessarily the pop-friendly artifact you might be waiting for. I Drink the Air Before Me, the score for a dance by choreographer Stephen Petronio, is more esoteric than Mothertongue. A Good Understanding, a choral work written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, might be "too classical" for casual fans. But both have a lot to offer, and taken together, they comprise a fascinating study in adaptability. Appropriately, Drink is as physical as Good is ethereal, though in each case, Muhly's brash, lyrical sensibility shines through.

Working with an ensemble of flute, viola, bassoon, trombone, upright bass, piano, and electronics, Muhly and Petronio made a set of rules for Drink: "Start small, get big"; begin and end with a children's choir; evoke weather with lots of "irregular, spiral-shaped music." The influence of John Adams is palpable in the craggy piano parts. You can hear it on "Music Under Pressure 2 - Piano", and on "Salty Dog", where corkscrews of sharps and flats trouble an otherwise jaunty woodwind line. "Music Under Pressure 1 - Flute", on the other hand, has a Glassian depth and fluidity, with its light flute melody and heavy undercarriage. The overall feeling is neurotic and twitchy, with even the most elegant moments frequently wandering into murkier territory. Throughout, Muhly realizes some magical effects, like transforming string drones into a wilting melody on "Varied Carols". At times, though, the thematic content becomes so disjointed it threatens to break down, and also occasionally errs in the other direction. "Jagged Pulses" is tight and satisfying, though Muhly making a track called "Jagged Pulses" is like Sonic Youth naming one "Arty Guitar Feedback"-- no surprise.

If Drink sometimes feels a mite incomplete away from its intended use as a dance score, A Good Understanding is remarkably whole. Its mostly-religious songs draw upon traditional Anglican choral music, as well as Muhly's recollections of being a boy chorister. As opposed to the pushy and ostentatious Drink, it's calm and centered. Muhly inscribes his personality onto the antique holiness of the texts and structures with uncommon humility and reverence. His personal stamps-- high contrast timbres, deep bass, hummingbird motifs-- are intact, but subordinated to the crystalline vocals of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Muhly's keyboard is mixed low, merely glinting through the first part of "Bright Mass with Canons", and rippling through the second with Terry Riley-like insistence, coloring the tiered vocal harmonies. The chant-like invocation of the word "Senex" at the beginning of "Senex Puerum Portabat" retroactively highlights the traditional choral influences lurking behind the high-modern façade of the first part of Mothertongue. The infrequent instrumental flourishes Muhly allows himself hit harder than on Drink, which can seem nothing but flourishes at times. For listeners who only get down with the most overt crossover attempts in classical music, it might feel uncomfortably like going to Sunday services. For others, it will show a reticent side of Muhly that adds an intriguing dimension to his character.

Pitchfork

Pitchfork (December 8th 2010) ★★★★★★★★

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Discography

Drones
Released on 12 November 2012
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I Drink The Air Before Me
Released on 6 September 2010
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Mothertongue
Released on 25 May 2008
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Speaks Volumes
Released on 25 November 2006
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On the web

  • Find out more on Nico Muhly’s website
  • Check out Nico Muhly’s page on Facebook
  • Follow Nico Muhly on Twitter

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