Over the course of the past couple years, Nico Muhly has kept himself insanely busy. In addition to working for Philip Glass as an editor and keyboardist, he's written orchestral pieces for the Boston Pops, the Chicago Symphony, the Juilliard Orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra, and others. He's collaborated with artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Will Oldham, and The National, and even put together a musical score for the independent film Joshua.
Mothertongue is his second official release, following up on last years Speaks Volumes. As expected, his influences and styles are about as broad as they can be, as he pulls from minimalism, folk, church music, and a variety of other styles while also incorporating found-sound, synths, samples, and electronics into his compositions. In other words, it sounds like the work of a young composer who is trying to somehow synthesize old traditions with new styles and mingle the sacred with the mundane.
One difference with this newest release is that Muhly has taken on a slightly more traditional classical approach in creating three long compositions with different movements within each instead of just writing a batch of different pieces (as was the case on Speaks Volumes.). The four-part album-titled "Mothertongue" opens up the release and does many of the things mentioned above. On it, singer Abigail Fischer sings all the different addresses at which she has ever lived (in breathy, frantic phrasing that reminds one of the vocal style that Philip Glass employs). Underneath her vocals (which are repeated and layered over the top of one another in almost dizzying arrays), the different movements all play out a bit differently, opening with largely string-backed section ("I. Archive") before falling off into a spareness where sampled shower noises are practically the only backdrop ("II. Shower"). From there, the piece picks up again with chimes and light strings before building into playful patterns ("III. Hress") and finally the massive closing section ("IV. Monster"), which crackles with bursts of static and noise and features powerful, low chord progressions.
"Wonders" is the three-part middle-section of the album and it finds Muhly deconstructing an English sonnet in his usual way, as everything from banging harpsichord to low bleats of horns, vibes, and samples of weather create a turbulent backdrop for vocals that are alternately frantic and fragile. It could be said that "The Only Tune" does the same with a traditional English folk song, but the results are so vastly different that it's not really fair. On this three-part piece, Muhly teams up with singer Sam Amidon for yet another cycle of unique sonics. Taking the opposite route of the opening piece on the album, it starts out loud with "I. The Two Sisters" as a wall of feedback, plucked strings, and sampled farfisa organ create a somewhat nightmarish backdrop before layers pull back over each of the following sections and the release closes out with the stunningly beautiful "III. The Only Tune," an understated section of lush folk music.
As you can probably gather, Mothertongue takes a huge amount of twists and turns during its nearly fifty-minute running length, and there are so many small details in the music itself that you'll find yourself hearing new things each time you listen to it for some time (including the sound of knives being sharpened). While dipping his feet into multiple genres, Muhly has created something that would likely make most fans of straight-up classical music cringe a bit, but at the same time he's managed to capture the feeling of living in a world where information overload is an almost daily occurrence. An exciting release that deepens with further listens, Mothertongue is a great step forward from Muhly.