Nico Muhly: Mothertongue

This album will probably be filed in the classical section, and it should not be.

Nico Muhly has written works for orchestras and chamber ensembles, and while his previous album, Speaks Volume, could be considered a classical album indie rock fans could love, Mothertongue is pretty much a full-blown indie rock album.

Of course, my definition of classical music is pretty narrow. Most classical recordings are recorded live, in a hall or in a studio. The recording process is not part of the composition or performance of a piece.

Mothertongue is a creation of the studio. Perhaps it can be performed live, but the multi-layered vocals, close-miked instruments and compressed synthetic effects are woven too deeply into the fabric of the music.

Sure, but Bang on the Can and Kronos Quartet do something similar. How is Mothertongue an indie album? In context of my current Winamp playlist, it shares more in common with Samamidon and Spangle call Lilli line than with Huang Ruo and Morton Feldman.

(The similarity with Samamidon is more than passing — Muhly orchestrated Amidon’s All Is Well album, and Amidon returns the favor by appearing on Mothertongue.)

All that to say, you can pick up Mothertongue and listen to some nice indie rock while telling your friends it’s a classical album. (As if they’d be impressed.)

The best description of Mothertongue can be summed up by Twitter user April Buchert: "[W]hat I imagine the Battlestar Galactica Cylon hybrids would sound like if they were in a band."

The title piece of the album layers monotone vocal lines of varying, pulsating rhythms to form a dense harmonic tapestry. The accompanying chamber orchestra punctuates the vocals, at times violently with noisy outbursts, but for the most part, the backdrop is darkly beautiful.

The second piece on the album, Wonders, conjures up melodies and harmonies from the Middle Ages — or early music, as it’s called in classical circles — without losing footing in the present. In the same way Alfred Schnittke wove early music into a crush of thick harmonies, Muhly also uses the past as a springboard to move forward.

The Only Tune concludes Mothertongue, gradually piecing together a traditional murder ballad before deconstructing it. Amidon’s casual delivery fits well with Muhly’s tense music. In fact, all of the singers — Abby Fischer on the title piece, Helgi Hrafn Jónsson on Wonders — sound integral to the pieces, as if Muhly fashioned them to suit their voices.

Despite its high-tech trappings, Mothertongue could be considered a complete opus. Muhly even describes it as "Three Large Vocal Works with Twitching". In rock circles, it would be called a "concept album". In classical circles, a recital program.

In any case, it’s an album of spellbinding textures, uneasily melodic and uncomfortably beautiful.