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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mothertongue, 26 July 2008
A. S. C. Richards (Manchester, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Mothertongue (Audio CD)
Mothertongue is the second album from the young, New York-based composer Nico Muhly, who operates somewhere in the ever-shifting terrain between classical music and pop. His professional life outside of composing is split between working for Philip Glass as an editor, conductor and pianist; and collaborating with the likes of Antony Hegarty, Björk and Will Oldham. That description makes him sound like a hipster, which is possibly true, but his interests are far more wide-ranging than it implies: he is deeply invested in the classical canon, particularly sacred music, and he also brings a literary sensibility to bear in his work, having studied English Literature at Columbia University.

The three pieces that make up this release are all vocal-based, and they draw on an intriguingly varied group of texts. `Mothertongue' itself employs strings of decontextualised data (numbers, addresses, mnemonics etc), while `Wonders' and `The Only Tune' are decidedly modern treatments of traditional material: a set of seventeenth-century folk songs and the ballad `Two Sisters', respectively. Muhly makes a point of emphasising the historical dimension of the latter texts by having the singers adopt appropriately stylised deliveries, and also by accompanying them with instruments that embody strong connotations of time and place: a harpsichord and a steel-string acoustic guitar. None the less, he happily deconstructs and reformulates the constituent phrases, subjecting them to the iterative and cumulative procedures beloved of American minimalist composers, so that they are ultimately made to resemble the fragmented exclamations of the title track.

Meanwhile, the music that envelops these vocal manoeuvres is gloriously maximalist: `Mothertongue' pits a mass of asynchronous voices (recalling the micropolyphony of György Ligeti) against the sweeping glissandi of a squelchy bass synth (recalling a lot of house tracks), with a full chamber orchestra in support. As though these elements were insufficient, Muhly soon incorporates field recordings and other electronic effects into the mix, ultimately propelling the four-movement piece to a frenzied climax of electroacoustic vamping. The other two works feature slightly less extensive instrumentation, with lengthy passages of little more than solo voice and individual accompanying instruments, but things still get pretty heavy when necessary.

Overall, this tendency towards excess is the album's defining characteristic; it is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Exciting as the sonic richness of the music often is, there are times when it simply becomes overwhelming. So much is going on that it becomes difficult to follow, and the whole thing begins to feel a little bit indecipherable and remote. This effect is enhanced by the pristine quality of the audio: sometimes the music feels almost too clean and precise, even in passages that verge on electronic noise, and the listener's sense of engagement begins to wane.

Despite these shortcomings, Mothertongue is a very striking work: virtuosic in conception and execution, inventive and playful. Muhly packs a wealth of ideas from across the spectrum of modern music into one fifty-minute recording, and he does wonders in keeping it from collapsing under its own weight.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mothertongue (2008), 17 Aug 2008
Mr. D. N. Reece (Birmingham, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Mothertongue (Audio CD)
Last year, Nico Muhly released one of my favourite albums of the year. While Speaks Volumes was good, it was still the sign of a promising young composer finding his feet and listening to Mothertongue, Muhly demonstrates that he has so much to offer.

This is an album of storytelling, which isn't that strange in itself, music has always been used to spin a good yarn and Muhly surely recognising this, has in some ways returned to the old-fashioned, man in a pub with a fiddle singing about some girl who has drowned in a lake as the story goes on `The Only Tune.' The title piece is a four movement work, with elements of Stockhausen's Stimmung as voices overflow, overlap, create rhythm and texture, shouting out numbers that stand as a testament to the modern of age of urban living, but Muhly is not so much interested in pure intonation as Stockhausen was, but simply the beauty of the human voice. The other obvious references are to 60s minimalist composers like Glass and Riley as Muhly consistently creates new musical patterns from overlapping melodies of voice, harpsichord, electronics etc.

And then there is the story about the girl who drowned in a lake, because she was cruelly pushed by her jealous sister and here Muhly really demonstrates his musical prowess in his ability to tell a highly poetic and ultimately tragic story, opening with a barrage of drones, horns and harpsichord as fellow Bedroom Community musician Sam Amidon begins to sing. Beauty in bleakness has rarely sounded so good, drifting from noise to simple guitar melodies to organs to noise and held wonderfully together by the diversity of Amidon's voice, as he shifts from a sprightly retelling to a darker, sombre version as the piece progresses.

Mulhy uses the same process in Wonders, a piece inspired by a 17th century English madrigal by composer Thomas Weelkes. Here harpsichord, trombone and Helgi Hrafn Jónsson's vocals narrate the rather sinister tale of Weelkes, including a complaint that was sent to the bishop of Chichester regarding the composer's heavy drinking and recklessness. Strange and unusual, but The Devil Appear'd In the Shape of a Man has one of the most exciting interplays between a harpsichord and a trombone I've ever heard.

In an age where television shows and movies seem content to deliver formulaic drama, it is a great pleasure to listen to a piece of music that reverts back to 17th century methods not for pastiche, but for experimentation and exploration to tell stories filled with emotional resonance. This is a highly original piece of music, not just for fans of Classical music, but folk and even Indie, challenging yes, but without the brutality and cold intellectualism of other recent classical works.
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4.0 out of 5 stars modern composition, 7 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Mothertongue (Audio CD)
interesting modern compostion - I got it for the last track and its my favourite on there - but nuff respck for the rest . Not going to be good if you're looking for mainstream
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Mothertongue by Nico Muhly
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