Looking for that radical sound

Times Staff Writer

The FIRST vocal lines of young composer Nico Muhly’s new album, “Mothertongue,” consist of a seemingly arbitrary list of numbers and addresses. Sung by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer over aching strings and a distorted sub-bass synthesizer, the arrangement feels like a Stockhausen gag; a misdirection that subverts your expectations about how the work might move you. For Muhly, however, there’s poetry in all that data.

“If you ask someone to name all the phone numbers you can off the top of your head, it’s going to be pretty interesting,” the Manhattanite said. “When I asked the singer to name all of the phone numbers she knew, it was fascinating; it was her dad’s office from 20 years ago, or a friend’s number in Florence. You can tease narrative out of anything. . . . On Wikipedia there are these lists of things like ‘list of horrible ethnic slurs’ or ‘list of famous Canadian homosexuals’. That’s such a poignant way to organize the world.”

Muhly is something of an aesthetic and emotional magpie. His body of work in his mid-20s -- a stint as Philip Glass’ apprentice, composing debuts at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Academy of Music in London and collaborations with avant-garde pop singers Bjork and Antony Hegarty -- resists classification even according to postmodern ideas about popular or classical music.

Tipped as one of the most relevant and promising new composers in formal classical circles, Muhly has assembled a tour for “Mothertongue,” which stops at Hotel Cafe on Tuesday, that’s a different beast entirely. The lineup, which includes members of experimental outfits Doveman and Stars Like Fleas, is essentially a really imaginative rock band.


“We’ve got sampling keyboards and a lot of screaming. I’ll be brushing my friend’s hair onstage -- it all works out,” Muhly said. “We’ve all known each other since the dawn of time, and we all have a very flexible musical intelligence. It’s like cooking at your mom’s house, you know where everything is.”

The advent of minimalism and the New York downtown composing scene around artists such as Arthur Russell and Steve Reich long ago exploded established ideas about what music can be. Muhly’s career has been a pursuit to figure out what comes after every rule has already been broken.

The latter movements of “Mothertongue,” a collaboration with folk singer Sam Amidon, pair Sigur Ros soundscapes and ambient noise with pastoral banjo plucking and cut-and-paste vocal edits of lyrics from a traditional English murder ballad.

It’s a fitting example of today’s free-associative attitudes toward taste and influence. But even Muhly admits some anxiety about what’s left to say musically and if it can do any real good in the world.


“I think the act of choosing to write music now is a political statement. The idea of doing it is so radical and wild,” Muhly said. “You read the paper and think that ‘What I actually should be doing, instead of writing this ridiculous piece for a viola, is join the army or translate Arabic.’ But whenever I’m freaked out about anything, I listen to music, and I’m always happy that somebody else made art.”