When trying to capture what it is that ails much modern classical music, several words and phrases slither to mind. Bland, postmodern, minimal to the point of barely adequate, borderline Ambient, complacently sepulchral, supine, confused as to whether the place it lies in right now is a museum or a mortuary. Vermont born Juilliard graduate Nico Muhly, however, represents an honourable exception to all these charges. He has previously worked with Philip Glass but, thankfully, lacks Glass's 'glassier' tendencies. Speaks Volumes, a collection of chamber works for small ensembles with electronics, points the way ahead in several directions.
Titles such as Clear Music and Honest Music suggest an eagerness for transparency and connection, a theme that runs through this collection. But Muhly isn't merely recoiling into a 'simpler' trad-classical mode in order to reach a mainstream audience. Rather, he is constantly probing and surprisingly engaging. Clear Music's flurries of strings sporadically break ranks with protocol, rising against plucking harp strings that are at once buoyant and limpid. It Goes Without Saying, whose unconventional use of knocking rhythms recalls Mauricio Kagel, suggests a composer with grasp of both interiors and exteriors, making a music that is invaded and informed by both it's own history and the context of the present day, rather than defeated by them.
Daniel Johnson's exhaustive sleevenotes are a valuable asset; his positing that when Muhly's titles a piece Quiet Music, he is talking about the state of "quiescence", a revering awe, rather than the mere absence of noise. At just 25, Muhly is perhaps a little short of inspiring that sort of awe himself - right now he's working out new methods, establishing a voice, albeit doing a formidable job of it. All the same, Keep In Touch, a tentative and delicately poised exchange between strings and the electronically treated, taped vocals of Antony Hegarthy of Antony and the Johnsons, not only demonstrates a great emotional subtlety but raises questions of collaboration in classical music, with it's solemn fixation on sole authorship. The role of producer/electronics whiz Valgeir Sigurdsson, sometime producer of Björk and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, is vital here. Why not begin talk of joint composition?
Some people are getting rather over-excited about Nico Muhly. They are right to do so.