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Speaks Volumes

by Nico Muhly

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Clear Music 09:29
Honest Music 06:19
Quiet Music 04:37


Nico’s generation was born after the premieres of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts. These are pieces that present themselves as purely intellectual exercises, controlled by arithmetical processes rather than emotional narrative, and relying on traditional, “tonal” harmonies and gestures only to provide a greater transparency into their construction. But they are nevertheless remarkably affecting. Whether for cultural, psychological or even physiological reasons, harmony that moves from one triad to another, or merely from a state of dissonance to a state of consonance, is going to resonate emotionally with its listeners.

This record doesn’t sound like most classical records, where the idea is to synthesize an idealized version of live musical perfomance; the disc is a longer-lived and subtly groomed substitute for this authentic experience. Even a wildly innovative classical composer will usually produce a recording intended to conform in key respects to the nineteenth-century experience of classical music. This record was approached from a different direction. Almost all of it could be and will be performed live – Clear Music and Keep in Touch have both reached the concert stage – but live performance isn’t necessarily the ideal context for these pieces any more or less than your stereo at home.

Of course, even terms like “producer,” “engineer” and “programmer” understate Valgeir’s role in a collaboration such as this one. Valgeir’s contribution here is not only technical but creative: in his unorthodox handling of ambience and balance on this album, he’s as much an interpreter of the music as the conductor would be on a conventional orchestral recording; in his sensitive digital realization of the electronic noises in this music, he is as much a performer as any of the other instrumentalists. In this respect, his role is less like that of a traditional classical producer than it is like that of the post-Sgt. Pepper rock producer. For one thing, the instruments are miked “too” closely, letting the listener in on the sort of nitty-gritty lips-on-mouthpiece, bow-on-string mechanics of musical performance that are usually washed away by concert-hall acoustics. Valgeir’s recording and production don’t sit back and let the music sweep the listener away, emotionally; it leans forward in exacting scrutiny and urges the listener to pay attention as well.

This is an especially arresting choice given that the music is composed using a highly expressive vocabulary. What’s being scrutinized, then, but expression itself? “Speaks Volumes,” “It Goes Without Saying,” “Keep in Touch,” “Honest Music”; most of the titles on this album describe an attempt to communicate. The title “Clear Music” could describe the transparency of its musical texture (a texture inspired, appropriately enough, by a Björk album Valgeir recorded), but it could also refer to the insistency with which its musical ideas are put forward. It attempts to “make itself clear.” Likewise, “Quiet Music” doesn’t necessarily describe the sound of the piece – if you’re listening to this record at a high volume, you might even find the entry of the melody a little jarring – but it does describe, among other things, the succinctness and discretion with which it communicates.

No composer can escape the sentimental implications of a musical device; no pianist can escape the physicality of his or her musical performance – an arpeggio up the ivories is going to tickle them no matter what. In fact, the lack of adornment over one of these constructions, in suggesting a reticence towards self-expression, is itself highly expressive. In the hands of someone willing to manipulate these things, the flattest surface, the merest gesture, even the deepest silence speaks volumes.

— Daniel Johnson


released September 10, 2006

All music composed by Nico Muhly
Produced & Mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson

All music recorded by Valgeir Sigurðsson and Nico Muhly unless otherwise indicated.

All programming by Valgeir & Nico

Nico Muhly is published by St. Rose Music (ASCAP) New York, NY

Recorded at
Looking Glass Studios, New York, NY
Studio Manager: Christian Rutledge
Assistants: Ichiho Nishiki, Dale Parsons, David Terry, Bentley Anderson
Greenhouse Studios, Reykjavik
Assistants: Sturtla "Mio" Þórisson, Ben Frost
Woods Road Studio, Palisades, NY
Salurinn, Kópavogi, Iceland

Design & art direction by Lindsay Ballant
Photography by Dorothy Hong except Mossy Rock by Nico Muhly

©2007 Bedroom Community


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Nico Muhly New York

Nico Muhly is a composer of orchestral music, stage works and sacred music. His work for film includes scores for for The Reader and the BBC adaptation of Howards End. Recordings of his works have been released by Decca and Nonesuch, and he is part of the artist-run record label Bedroom Community, which released his first two albums, Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue. ... more

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