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Music Review: Nico Muhly – A Good Understanding and I Drink the Air Before Me

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Composer Nico Muhly was the focus of a 2008 New Yorker profile that paints his talent as that of an omnivorous musical intellect. His work is grounded in the classics but is very much of the twenty-first century. The young composer (born in 1981) continues to explore the varieties of contemporary classical with two new discs on Decca.

Nico Muhly hosted a four-part radio series, Obsessive Choral (too bad the word order isn’t reversed) on New York’s WQXR Q2, showcasing his favorite choral music, which ranges from 16th century works by Thomas Tallis and WIlliam Byrd  to Benjamin Britten’s Te Deum in C, composed in 1934. On the disc A Good Understanding, Muhly’s love of church music is matched with the Grammy-winning voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, under the direction of Grant Gershon.

The program begins with Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” which revisits the liturgical music that the young composer revelled in as a boy chorister. Departures from tradition on A Good Understanding are subtle, but the textures here and in his “First Service” are a bit more unusual than what you might hear at Sunday mass, with vocal textures that hint at Brian Eno’s ambient works and repeating organ figures that recall minimalists like Terry Riley. In the “Sanctus,” what Muhly calls an “insect twitching from the upper voices” that may look forward to more experimental music, but seems very much of a piece with the Mass. The suite Expecting the Main Things from You departs from the sacred and sets that most profane of poets, Walt Whitman into an other kind of choral celebration. “The varied carols I hear” indeed.

Like the radio programs that trace its inspirations,  A Good Understaning, is alternately thrilling and contemplative, but it also seems like the modern classical equivalent of roots-rock. For a more daring immersion into the voices that Muhly hears in his head, get thee to the stunning Mothertongue, a 2008 recording whose echolaic multitude of voices come together in otherworldly harmony.

Skylarking meets Stravinsky on the disc I Drink the Air Before Me, a score Muhly composed  for a dance piece by Stephen Petronio. The work, inspired by volatile weather, coincides with the 25th anniversary of Petronio’s company, and the music is appropriately stormy and celebrational, and, as its title suggests, voracious. But this is not a heavy elixir. The music moves from the twee to the discordant, sometimes in one piece, but as a result of this the programmatic arc is so clear that you can almost see the dancers. Which I haven’t, but would like to. The three-part “Music Under Pressure” begins with flute figures that wouldn’t seem out of place on  Stereolab album, but by part three the instrumentation no longer sounds like the future but an inner present, pressure calling up emotion in organic string and piano phrases.

Muhly writes that the work “should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety, and coastal living.” If that description intrigues you, then this musical weather map is for you.

About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.