Nico Muhly: Speaks Volumes

I don’t know how it happened, but it’s the reality of our surroundings: the chasm between high and low art is the size of a canyon. Eh, maybe I’m exaggerating, but for some reason, I can’t shake this habit of separating the two, even though I try to practice a categorical imperative to ignore musical categories.

When I was a would-be composition student back in the early ’90s, the music department of my college made that separation stark. Classical only, please — learn that demon pop music on your own time. My boo-hoo story: it was a composition professor who ultimately turned me off to pursuing composition.

OK. Get to the Nico Muhly review.

Nico Muhly doesn’t work under such notions. The canyon I was trained to see is little more than a pothole to him, if even that much. Muhly’s résumé includes premieres by orchestras and conducting gigs with Anthony and the Johnsons and Björk. He composes works that could thrill the most analytical of music theory masters and appeal to indie rock fans devoted to their Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Sigur Rós.

The liner notes make a big deal of his "vocabulary", and why not? The works on his debut album, Speaks Volumes, feel free of dogma. Yes, echoes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arvö Pärt and John Tavener can be heard in his music, but if you’ve never heard anything from Reich, Glass, Pärt or Tavener, it sounds like the karaoke tracks of an album Björk isn’t weird enough to record.

The music on Speaks Volumes is refreshingly diverse. "Pilaging Music" and "It Goes Without Saying" can get brutal, even as they maintain their lyricism. Both pieces sound like perfect material for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. "Pilaging Music" has a wonderful rhythmic drive, while "It Goes Without Saying" mixes electronics and acoustic instruments in manner both accessible and challenging.

"Clear Music" has its moments of ambiguity, where the melody skitters off the tonal rails, but a celesta grounds the piece without forcing it into fake beauty. "Honest Music" is perhaps the most Björk-like piece on the album. It’s easy to imagine overdubs of the Icelandic chanteuse in place of the overlapping violin melody.

"Quiet Music" almost has the stillness of a Morton Feldman piece, but the octave leaps and sudden bursts prevent the piece from getting that overly intense. (I mean, I like Feldman’s work, but man, I don’t have that stamina.)

"Keep In Touch" features the aforementioned Antony Hagerty vocalizing in whoops and grunts, sampled and manipulated. A violin plays a long melody, while electronics and percussion provided a stuttering, discordant backdrop. It’s a fitting end to an album with a such a broad sonic palette.

Speaks Volumes can be pretty one moment, candid the next. It can feel rhythmically chaotic and controlled simultaneously, and it can be contemplative and unsettling in one gesture.

And while it’s clearly a work of modern classical music, it sounds like indie rock. Speaks Volumes is not afraid to be challenging while singing a tune, and it certainly isn’t recorded like a recital album, as the liner notes so strenuously point out.

New Yorker classical writer Alex Ross listed Speaks Volumes as a classical album rock fans might like, and he’s right. Muhly’s debut sounds new but feels familiar.