“The planet’s hottest composer” (The Daily
Telegraph) now has a third album out on the Decca label, the
previous two having already been reviewed here.
Moving on from choral repertoire, this programme gives us the
attractive proposition of a number of chamber orchestra pieces,
including a ‘concerto’ for violin soloist Thomas
Gould, playing a six-string electric violin.
The first thing to say about this recording has to do with colour
and transparency. Decca have managed to create something of
a luminous masterpiece of the musical soundscape, despite the
slightly ‘studio’ nature of the acoustic. This has
to do with the excellent playing and the open quality of Nico
Muhly’s instrumentation/orchestration, with few strings
and single winds, but the sonorities and spectra created form
a feast for the ear.
This is a nicely programmed and satisfyingly full disc and has
plenty of good things to offer. Nico Muhly might perhaps be
categorised as a softer version of Graham Fitkin or Steve Martland
in the punchy, piano-led rhythms of Step Team, and this
card-holding membership of a fairly recent kind of English ‘school’
is one of the attractions of his music. The influence of John
Adams is also never quite further than a whiff away in this
and other pieces, and the good ol’ US of A is even more
strongly invoked via Steve Reich in the virtual homage which
is the beginning of Motion. This isn’t minimalist
or even ostinato based, but then, neither is Mr Reich these
days. Echoes of Reich’s harmonies can be heard in the
fragmented chorale which runs through the opening minutes, though
the main extra-Muhly material comes via Orlando Gibbons’
This is the Record of John which creates some nice new/old
juxtapositions within the work.
By All Means is a response to Webern’s Concerto
Op.24, and reaches furthest into the realms of what one
might call avant-garde in musical terms on this disc, though
even here there are plenty of tonal clues to help you through
the enigmatic textures of the opening and the more violent gestures
later on. The music darts and veers with plenty of nervous intensity,
and is something of a technical tour de force for the musicians.
Each of Muhly’s own pieces is framed by an arrangement
of works by William Byrd or Orlando Gibbons, and this creates
both fine moments of repose, as well as spotlighting the relationships
and affinities today’s music can have with that of 500
years ago. The arrangements introduce one or two fairly innocuous
interventions and variations; what Muhly describes as a “very
liberal” treatment, which respects the material but moulds
it a little here and there to highlight or stretch certain points.
The title track, Seeing is Believing, is a stunning vehicle
for soloist Thomas Gould and his six-string electric violin.
This for the most part sounds like an amplified conventional
violin, perhaps with some added acoustic effect, but by no means
made to sound like a distortion rock-guitar or anything like
that. The way the instrument can dip really low is highly impressive.
The opening of the piece is a fascinating texture which see
the lines of the soloist echo and weave amongst themselves whilst
witty touches from the orchestra chip in, but this atmosphere
is alas short-lived and never really develops, and before long
we’re into Kronos-Quartet off-beat chugging and some fairly
extended periods of rather nondescript meandering, which gradually
builds towards energetic scrubbing. There are some very good
things in this piece and the playing is superb, but with the
material as used it would be better at an intense 10 minutes
rather than a sometimes drippy 24. I won’t gripe on, but
this is the kind of thing one of my old composition teachers
would have called ‘sleeping on both sides of the blanket’,
with a firm encouragement to make up my mind as to what I really
wanted to say, and in which idiom.
Ignoring all the hype, this is an attractive disc which I have
no doubt will please the fans. As Robert Schumann said, “To
send light into the darkness of men’s hearts - such is
the duty of the artist”, and in this regard Nico Muhly
and the Aurora musicians can consider this a good job well done.
Bob Schumann also said, “To compose music, all you have
to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of”,
and this is something I defy anyone to find on this album -
a tune. We don’t always need or necessarily even want
tunes, but it would be a moment of glorious relief if Muhly
were to stop tiptoeing around John Adams and really come out
with something with similar impact to the big “On the
Dominant Divide” tune from his Grand Pianola Music.
There aren’t any really sexy phwoaaar moments like
that here, or even ones which elicit gasps of oooooh
or aaaaah - though that promise is constantly held in
front of us like a carrot on a stick. There is also very little
in terms of any kind of actual ‘message’ per piece.
We are entertained, diverted and stimulated, even affected at
times, but we are never really moved or put through that transformative
mill which has us emerge, sadder and wiser - or even stuffed
fit to burst with joy - by the end of the great work. This is
perhaps the nature of post-post-post-it-note modern music, so
far immersed in eclecticism that we have to be grateful to have
anything new at all. I don’t believe this has to be the
case however. While we’re gathering quotes I think one
of the great survivors of Nazism Karl Amadeus Hartmann was right
to remark, “A man, and an artist in particular, is not
allowed to live day in and day out without having had something
to say.” In these fearsomely dangerous times, what is
Nico Muhly actually saying?