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.