Muhly and more
Nico Muhly's "Skin, Bone, Hair" concert at the Kitchen this past weekend -- I went to the early show on Friday -- was a delight. For me, though, with my categorizing mind, it was a delight even better appreciated in context.
That context is cuteness, or more exactly cuteness masking deep emotion. Muhly has worked for Philip Glass and loves Renaissance English church music. Yet his music owes more, it might seem, to a whole skein of 20th-century experimentation that veils whatever seriousness may be intended in a shining coat of charm and fey allure. One thinks of Cowell, of Partch, of Nancarrow, of Cage's prepared-piano music. Or more recently of Golijov and Stephin Merritt and Laurie Anderson (who was sitting behind me on Friday; Lou Reed was enraptured -- by Muhly, not by sitting behind me).
Muhly's style stems from American experimentation leavened by Francophile composers reacting against German ponderousness -- a ponderouness perpetuated deep into the 20th century by the American serialists. Post-modernism of this sort is everywhere now: in art, one thinks of Murakami (behind whose Hello Kitty cuteness lies real terror) or Sarah Sze. Or of rock bands going back to Talking Heads and the B-52's and including today not just Merritt but in all manner of preppie indie quirkiness. Tom Waits is not exactly cute, but his quirky instrumental backup is full of bones, as in his "Bone Machine" CD. Two of Muhly's Kitchen musicians are in a band called Doveman, which I haven't heard. Vampire Weekend was on Saturday Night Live this weekend, too. The rock-classical crossover is organic and complete.
The danger is that things can get too cute, and Muhly courted that danger in a hairy sort of way with his "Hair Passacaglia," in which he brushed the long red hair of three sirens lying above him on their backs: one might have thought the brushings would be lightly amplified, but instead he just seemed to be "brush-synching," as oppose to lip-synching, to ensemble sounds. Or the bit in which he leaned behind him on his piano bench and brushed the hair of his electric keyboardist, Thomas Bartlett.
But mostly Muhly created a world of sounds and sights that was magically beguiling. He has a strong Bjork connection: his only CD so far, "speaks volumes," was produced and mixed by Valgeir Sigurdsson, Bjork's Icelandic producer. "Skin, Bone, Hair" unfolded in an environment created by the wonderfully named Hrafnhildur Arnardottir, which sounds like a character straight from "Beowulf." Based in New York, she goes by the equally wonderful nickname of Shoplifter and is another Bjork collaborator. According to the program notes, she has "an obsession with vanity, self-image, beauty, fashion and fetish." At the Kitchen that meant an array of bone ladders, a spider web of ropes, skulls, hairy objects, the siren platform and a spectacular, full-szied, jewel-encrusted model of a white horse. Maybe Bjork and Matthew Barney showed up at a later show, unless she was still off laudably insulting the Chinese about Tibet.
The Muhly concert was short: 50 minutes, most of which was a charming warm-up for the last piece, "The Only Tune," which must have lasted some 25 minutes. I am vague about the length because it was so compelling that I lost track of time. It's rare to see a sheaf of note papers on the piano, to watch the composer leaf streadily through them, and to realize with increasing regret that when he reached the last page, the heavenly music would be over.
Aside from Muhly and Bartlett, there were Nadia Sirota, violist, and Samuel Z. Solomon, percussionist. But the last piece was built around Sam Amidon, who had played banjo and guitar earlier on but here became a singer -- plain, folkish and deeply compelling. He sang the same song, over and over, about two sisters walking by a river and one of them pushing the other in to drown. Eventually he mounted the horse, singing all the while, and whacked at a drum next to the horse raised up on pillars of bones.
Cuteness can backfire, and I suppose some might find Muhly's incarnation of it cloying, or careerist-calculated. A few days before I had gone to a depressing Alarm Will Sound concert at Zankel Hall. All those earnest conservatory-trained musicians trying to ape the Kronos Quartet and the raft of cutely named ensembles that have followed in their wake. The Alarmists wandered around in clumsy choreography, often playing raggedly from memory, and transcribing all kinds of odd music (Josquin, Nancarrow, the Shaggs) for their oddly configured assortment of instruments. Only when they sat down and played real music (Birtwistle, Adams) from music stands did the concert transcend the self-consciously cute.
Then later last week I heard a dispiriting concert of the New York Philharmonic conducted by its music director designate Alan Gilbert. It started off dispiriting because, as Allan Kozinn detailed in the Times, the horns played loudly and horribly in the opening Haydn "Maria Theresa" Symphony. Kozinn thought Gilbert and the orchestra redeemed themselves in the concluding Beethoven Fourth; I thought it was utterly ordinary. More interesting, for this disquisition on cuteness, was Berio's "Folk Songs" in between. The songs are nice, and Dawn Upshaw sang them with studious enthusiasm. But at this late date in the evolution of multicultural eclecticism, Berio's curious bloops and bleeps sounded less like an elevation of folk music into art than a besmirchment. He took powerful, sad, joyous songs and cutesified them.
Berio composed "Folk Songs" in the pioneering eclectic era of San Francisco Bay Area music of the 1960's. Muhly is of his time, after AIDS and 9-11 and everything else that has gone down in the last 45 years; he wasn't even born until 1981. The cutting, ironic sarcasm of the 1980's has become part of his idiom, in a way that doesn't stop him from digging down into powerful emotion. He is young and imperfect. To my taste his orchestral commission for Benjamin Millepied's ballet "From Here on Out" for the October 2007 American Ballet Theatre season at City Center sounded dull and genteel. But he has a new CD out in May, "Mothertongue," which he promises will consist of "three large vocal dramatic works." He seems born for opera, or at least musical theater, and is indeed one of the composers jointly commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre to produce a score that might wind up as a music-theater work at the Vivian Beaumont or the Mitzi Newhouse or as an opera at the Met.
In the meantime, Muhly has another New York concert, this one May 8 at the Merkin Concert Hall paired with Phillip Bimstein, billed as a "'found sound' composer and former MTV rocker," whatever an MTV rocker might be. Bimstein's music may be well worth hearing. Muhly is one of the few composers out there to whose latest work I look forward with passionate curiosity.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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