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Nico Muhly - A Good Understanding / I Drink the Air Before Me

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Artist: Nico Muhly

Album: A Good Understanding / I Drink the Air Before Me

Label: Decca

Review date: Sep. 7, 2010

Probably more than any other modern composer, with perhaps the exception of his mentor Philip Glass, Nico Muhly has gained some measure of prominence, or at least name recognition, in indie rock circles. Working with Bjork, Grizzly Bear, Bonnie Prince Billy – and even the PFFR guys on an episode of Wonder Showzen – has certainly helped, but there’s something more as well. It just seems like the right time for someone doing this kind of work to get noticed. This isn’t to say that Muhly isn’t talented – lots of composers are though – but that for whatever we’re calling indie rock culture (take that designation with a grain of salt), there’s been a steady progression of accepting this kind of music.

In the 1990s, there were a few bands like Rachel’s and Gastr Del Sol around. Strong classical and minimalist influences, and while not overwhelmingly popular, they certainly set the stage for the acceptance of modern composition. They took it out of its academic context by playing in rock clubs and on college radio, and certainly Drag City and the overlap with the Louisville scene helped. A few years later, the style became friendlier as The Decemberists, and then Sufjan Stevens, made orchestral pop popular. At each stage, more and more people loosened up their genre restrictions, more and more people stopped thinking an indie rock band had to have a certain configuration – the standard drums/bass/guitar set-up that had been the template since the college rock of the 1980s.

Then there was Owen Pallett, playing essentially classical music as indie rock. Again, it’s not that people en masse are seeking out these musicians or that they’re extremely popular. The point is that they’re popular enough and are visible enough (Pallett’s connections to Arcade Fire have no doubt helped) and have deformed the definition of “indie rock” in this direction (while on the other end of the accessibility spectrum, it was being manhandled into a Top 40 marketing term). The fact that Dirty Projectors are played routinely in Chipotle should be an indicator of what is being tolerated by large amounts of people now. Combine this steady progression with kingmaking websites with this kind of music on commercials and teen TV shows, and it all becomes downright ubiquitous.

All of this has, in effect, made someone like Muhly more palatable to mainstream indie rock audiences. His new albums A Good Understanding and I Drink the Air Before Me aren’t strange or academic or out there, even if the first recalls religious choral music and minimalism and the second is a straight-forward piece of modern composition.

Drink is perhaps the less interesting of the two, though still very worthwhile. Muhly was commissioned to create a score for a dance performance for the Stephen Petronio Company’s 25th anniversary. Divorced as it is from the visual, the score is enjoyable – the dancing flute at the beginning strikingly beautiful, the ominousness throughout tensely driving the piece – but never really distinguishes itself fully. In parts, assuredly, but as a full 50-minute composition, it loses the thread.

A Good Understanding, on the other hand, is spectacular. Taking its name from Psalm 111 (“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.”), the piece was composed five years ago for Tim Brown and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge. The piece is especially compelling for its embodiment of and ability to communicate to the listener – religious or not – the experience of the sacred, of having faith.

    (Full disclosure: I have been or at least identified myself as an atheist since high school. And before that, to be completely honest, I wasn’t extremely religious – I went to religious school every Saturday. I had a Bar Mitzvah. I fasted on Yom Kippur and kept pasadic on Passover. – but I never had faith. Whatever it is, whatever faith is, I just never had it. My brain works empirically. That’s how my neurons lined up, how I was acculturated, and in this way, I never really had the experience of having real faith. The best I can get is proximity, being near things that radiate this quality. St. Francis of Assissi’s tomb certainly had this quality, as does listening to certain religious music. It wasn’t a decision I made to be religious or not – one doesn’t decide to have or not have faith – it’s just something I found I wasn’t.)

The last time I discussed Muhly, I talked about the mathematical sublime, essentially a feeling of pleasure we get from our minds not being able to grasp artworks of great complexity. There’s a measure of this in the feeling of having faith, of encountering the sacred, and A Good Understanding beautifully realizes this through the combination of minimalism and choral music. It’s certainly not the same thing as having faith, but perhaps it’s as close as some of us may come.

By Andrew Beckerman

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