Nico MUHLY (b.1981)
Seeing is Believing [24:28]
William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Miserere mei, Deus (arr. Muhly) [3:23]
Motion [7:25]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
This is the Record of John (arr. Muhly) [4:25]
By All Means [9:34]
William BYRD
Bow thine ear, O Lord (arr. Muhly) [4:32]
Step Team [17:51]
Thomas Gould (electric violin) (Seeing is Believing)
Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
rec. 19-20 October 2010, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh
DECCA 478 2731 [73:21]
“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?
Dominy Clements

Very fine, but to what exactly are we connecting?