Bedroom Community

Press Reviews for Mothertongue

Nico Muhly is the boy with the heart of Glass

He’s Björk’s pianist and Philip Glass’s protégé, but it’s Nico Muhly’s music that really impresses, finds Simon Reynolds

Nico Muhly’s apartment is a six-floor climb in Chinatown, New York. During the ascent, the out-of-breath visitor passes a garment sweatshop and a seedy gentleman’s club. Sealed behind a steel door, the young composer’s home is a haven of refinement.

Muhly, a willowy 26-year-old, has even prepared lunch – a first for this reporter. As we wait for the food to finish cooking, we chitchat about the parallels between music and cuisine. “Where they connect for me is the idea of making something of use,” Muhly concludes. “You’ve been to those restaurants where it’s like, ‘This is petrified squid vagina, with a foam of infant’s tears’. At the end of the day, you have to eat the food, so it can’t be that unpalatable. Likewise, I’m not going to make music that you need to have a degree to take apart.”

As heard on his new album, Mothertongue, Muhly’s work is immediately understandable, even when it is deploying the musique concrète sonorities of whale meat or drawing inspiration from 16th-century texts about sea monsters. Like his mentor Philip Glass, on whose film soundtracks he has assisted for years, Muhly crosses with ease between the worlds of classical (writing ballet scores, organising Carnegie Hall programmes of his work, discussing a future opera for the Met) and pop (collaborating with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, session work for Björk).

“There’s a lot of wilfully ugly music out there, or just unbeautiful music, that I don’t feel needs to exist,” he muses. “A whole category of music that is not preferable to silence!” As much as it draws on the ecstatic flickering patterns of Seventies minimalism and the radiant tones of 16th-century choral music, the loveliness of Muhly’s music seems to be an expression of his personality.

Quick and darting could describe Muhly’s conversational style: he talks rapidly, a mercurial flow scintillating with insights and witticisms. “Nico’s so full of energy,” enthuses John Berry, the artistic director of the English National Opera, who is in discussions with Muhly about him composing a stage piece for ENO. “He’s one of this younger generation of composers who’ve spent a number of years crossing between genres. Composers who come up through the traditional route of music colleges and the conservatoires don’t have the flexibility of someone like Nico, who’s equally able to work with orchestral music and electronic music.”

It was Muhly’s keyboard skills – computer and piano – that secured him an apprenticeship at Philip Glass’s film soundtrack company when he was still a second-year student at Columbia University in New York. But Muhly’s true passion is for English church music of the 16th and 17th centuries: composers such as John Taverner, Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd. The ardour was ignited in his early teens when he sang in a boys’ choir in Providence, Rhode Island.

Although it started as a youthful crush – “I just felt this very serious emotional connection to the music” – as Muhly developed as a fledgeling composer he began to articulate intellectual reasons for the path he had chosen. “I liked the fact that this was music for worship, that it didn’t call attention to the composer at all, whereas the Romantic tradition in music is so manipulative.”

The most anxiously ecstatic sequence of Mothertongue is called Hress, an Icelandic word describing someone who’s overjoyous, absurdly excited and “up for it”. Muhly learnt it when it was applied to him by laid-back Icelanders when he went to record the album there. If Anglophilia is Muhly’s deep, abiding passion, his rival infatuation is for the tiny island that gave the world Björk. It was through doing some piano playing for her that he hooked up with his record producer and principal collaborative foil, Valgeir Sigurdsson, her studio engineer for many years. Since then Muhly has been a regular visitor to Iceland.

Hress isn’t the only Icelandic imprint on Mothertongue. There’s the whale meat too – which you can buy in the supermarket in Iceland – which contributes to the sound-palette of The Only Tune, Mothertongue’s stand-out piece, based around a macabre folk song. “It’s been done in so many versions,” says Muhly, clicking on his computer so I can hear one by Jerry Garcia. “But they’re all so ploddy and traditional, and I’m like, ‘Listen, it’s bitches killing each other!’ It’s awful and violent.”

Hence the idea of using sound-textures evocative of carnality and carnage: tangled human hair being combed, the scraping of butcher’s knives, raw whale flesh. “It was marinating in a bowl, so there was fluid and it made these slurpy sounds as we sloshed it around,” recalls Sigurdsson. “That’s what we recorded.” So did Muhly eat the “instrument” at the end of the recording session? “No, by that point, the meat was disgusting! But it was just scraps I’d cut off a bigger steak. And that, I stir-fried with a little ginger and some soy. It was delicious.”

Mothertongue is released on Monday May 26 2008 by Bedroom Community.

Simon Reynolds

The Times (May 23rd 2008)

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