Nico MUHLY (b.1981)
I Drink the Air Before Me

1. Fire Down Below [6:09]
2. First Storm [1:03]
3. Salty Dog [6:58]
4. Varied Carols [7:31]
5. Music Under Pressure 1 - Flute [3:04]
6. Music Under Pressure 2 - Piano [3:32]
7. Jagged Pulses [2:05]
8. Music For Boys [2:48]
9. Music For Gino [2:52]
10. Music Under Pressure 3 - Ensemble [8:32]
11. Storm Centre [3:35]
12. One Day Tells Its Tale To Another [5:11]
Alex Sopp (flute); Seth Baer (bassoon); Michael Claville (trombone); Nico Muhly (piano); Nadia Sirota (viola); Logan Coale (bass)
Young People’s Chorus of New York/Francisco Nuñez
Programming by Valgeir Sigurðsson (Jagged Pulses) and Ben Frost (Salty Dog, Storm Center)
rec. No date provided, Clinton Recording Studio, New York City.
DECCA 478 2570 [53.20]

Nico MUHLY (b.1981)
A Good Understanding
Bright Mass with Canons
Kyrie [3:25]
Gloria [4:11]
Sanctus [2:46]
Agnus Dei [3:10]
Tamara Bevard (2), Karen Hogle Brown (3) (sopranos); Tracy Van Fleet (mezzo) (2); Kimo Smith (organ)
First Service
Magnificat [5:20]
Nunc dimittis [2:51]
Lesley Leighton (soprano) (5)
Kimo Smith (organ)
Senex puerum portabat [7:13]
David Washburn, Marissa Benedict, Andrew Ulyate (trumpets); Kristy Morrell (horn); Michael Hoffman, Alvin Veeh, Terry Cravens (trombones); Fred Greene (tuba)
A Good Understanding [6:30]
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus; Kimo Smith (organ); Michael Englander (percussion)
Expecting the Main Things from You
1. I Hear America Sing [10:58]
2. A Farm Picture (Interlude) [4:47]
3. Poets to Come [7:29]
Claire Fedoruk (soprano) (9); Drea Pressley (mezzo) (9); Ralph Morrison, Steve Scharf (violins); Kazi Pitelka (viola); John Walz (cello); Michael Englander, Aaron Smith, Joseph Mitchell (percussion); Kimo Smith (organ); Los Angeles Master Chorale/Grant Gershon
rec. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 10-11 June 2010
DECCA 478 2506 [58.41]

For several weeks, I’ve been listening to these two recent discs and trying to figure out what to say about this music. Muhly is a prolific young composer, who has not only written “classical” music, but has also worked with pop and rock artists, such as Björk and Arcade Fire, and has collaborated with Philip Glass. His music is part of a new generation of compositions that cross boundaries, that don’t see classical music as being “classical”, and that explore sounds and forms that are sometimes considered to be part of pop music. Decca, on the back of one of these discs, touts him as “America’s leading young composer”.

Written as a score for a dance piece by Stephen Petronio, Muhly says in the liner-notes that I Drink the Air Before Me “should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety and coastal living”, and that he “divided up the piece into a series of episodes all hinging around spiral-shaped constellations of notes”.

This is all well and good. I don’t hear the “spiral-shaped constellations of notes”, but I hear an attractive composition that works well as incidental music, that is mostly tonal and agreeable to the ear. Often, there is an interesting counterpoint between the piano - which acts as much as a percussion instrument as a melodic one - and the other instruments. At times the music flows smoothly, and at times it has rough edges. Muhly is very adept at arranging this music, and the small ensemble works adroitly as a unit, with each instrument also standing alone at times. The choir blends well in the sections where it is used, and provides an interesting enhancement to the chamber ensemble. Some of the music can be a bit annoying: the droning viola (with tape?) of Varied Carols is grating, and is about 7 minutes too long, parts of Music Under Pressure 2 – Piano sound like Muhly is just playing random notes, and parts of Storm Center are better skipped. But the closing piece, One Day Tells Its Tale To Another, dominated by piano and choir, is attractive and moving, and is a fitting end to the disc.

A Good Understanding is a collection of choral works by Muhly and features a large choir with soloists, organ, horns, strings and percussion. The texts are biblical, with the exception of the final work, Expecting the Main Things from You, the words of which are by Walt Whitman.

There’s a blandness in this music; it is less angular or edgy than that of I Drink the Air Before Me, and, in fact, it sounds as if it is by a different composer. While Muhly was a chorister in his youth, this doesn’t ensure that the music he composes for choir is anything special.

Recently, a number of discs of choral music by living composers have had a certain popularity. This may be related to the faux spirituality that people hear in this music; that a choir is something people think of in connection with a church. I’m not especially moved by this type of bland choral music, and would much rather listen to the originals, be they Bach or plainchant. One thing that I miss in the works on this disc is any sound of joy. The music is played at plodding tempi – because that sounds more “spiritual”? – and, while the sound of the choir is delicious, it becomes, in the end, little more than an attractive background. Each piece sounds similar, and Muhly’s approach consists, for the most part, of repeating the same types of harmonies and melodic fragments. A bit of raucous organ playing in A Good Understanding provides some spice, but when the choir comes in, they sound just the way they do on all the other pieces.

The longest work on the disc, Expecting the Main Things from You, at 22 minutes in three movements, is the most ambitious. Taking words from Walt Whitman, this notably features more instruments than the other works. There is a string quartet and organ playing behind the choir and soloists. This piece, which might have been compelling, ends up being overwhelmed by the sound of the choir. Perhaps with a smaller group of singers, this could be an interesting chamber cantata.

However, this music in no way suggests Whitman. The poetry here suffers greatly from the lush, layered choral treatment. These are strong, vibrant words, those of an individualist poet:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The woodcutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

In Muhly’s music, the urgency of Whitman’s words is attenuated into that of a smooth choir, which is as far from Whitman’s intentions as possible. The final movement is perhaps the only part of this disc that has character. The tone is quite different from the rest of the piece, and the from the other works; it recalls some of Steve Reich’s works such as Tehillim. If only Muhly had gone further in this direction.

In the end – and this is why it has taken me a while to write about these discs – I’m left unmoved by this music. I’m very interested in the direction that young composers like Muhly are taking. I can understand that they can incite a certain level of enthusiasm among those who see this “new music” as being something that is divorced from the classical canon, but that also rejects the long-dominant atonal contemporary classical music that, for many listeners, is a source of headaches.

This is classical music for those who don’t listen to classical music, and in a way that is admirable. If these 21st century composers – those like Muhly, Timothy Andres, David Lang or Paul Moravec – can attract new listeners to the broader classical genre, then this is a good thing. If they can revitalize a genre that has, for decades, been dominated by atonality, that is perhaps even better. But these discs by Muhly, while interesting, just don’t grab me. I may be wrong, as many others seem to think that this is wonderful. But I don’t find much here to come back to, and I already feel that I’ve listened to these discs more than enough.

Kirk McElhearn

Classical music for those who don’t listen to classical music.