Nico Muhly moves like his music. I mean this completely seriously. When he talks, his expressions follow his hands like foreshadow, embellishing his fast words and the sharp inflection of his voice. Curiously enough, when he plays, he has none of that. Completely still behind his piano, he watches his co-players sway to his notes. Yet you know Nico is moving. You can see it in his eyes when he plays. His mind is running alongside the music, flittering about the staffs, getting there before the notes do.
Returning to Iceland to record his second album with producer Valgeir Sigurðson, the twenty-six-year-old New York based composer took a Friday afternoon to perform at the most all-around-lovely concert I’ve ever attended. In the 12 Tónar garden, the pleasantness truly abounded with rose wine and sunshine when more than fifty people squeezed in the garden to watch Nico share his musings on life, music, and his upcoming album.
“When you’re a composer you’re kind of just like a brain in a jar,” Muhly said, introducing his violinist Una Sveinbjarnadóttir. “You kind of just make this stuff and then send it off for some other people to deal with.” In this case, Una, who launched into Honest Music, a song off of Muhly’s debut album Speaks Volumes, which was released earlier this year. The wind blew and three men, Valgeir and Ben Frost among them, jumped from the audience towards the pages on the music stand. The song went on, Nico pushed keys on the piano. Sitting in the grass a few members of the audience contently closed their eyes.
Each song came with a short introduction, a context into which Muhly was enthusiastic to draw the audience. He introduced one song with the anecdote that his first job was as a church organist; another song was from a genre of music he called “hippie drone,” which he explained was inspired by being raised by hippies. “A couple of years back I wrote some music just to completely get it out of my system,” he said.
Nico’s recording process is such that the live versions of his songs sound quite different from their recorded adaptations. On his latest album the instruments are recorded individually, with the microphone intimately close, then mixed together to create an orchestral sound. Live, the philosophy is quite different. Much of the rich, indulgent detail of sound from the recordings is lost traveling across the windy afternoon air. But the music stood up for itself. Taking on a slightly less personal but nonetheless absorbing sound. The concert was over within twenty minutes. There was more rose wine to go around, and people stayed in the grass. Everyone was smiling and looking at Muhly as though they wanted to hug him. He started excitedly towards the standing crowd, moving, like an echo, with a genuinely fascinating softness.
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