Muhly: I Drink the Air Before Me (CD review)

Alex Sop, flute; Seth Baer, bassoon; Michael Clayville, trombone; Nico Muhly, piano; Nadia Sirota, viola; Logan Coale, bass; Young People's Chorus of New York. Bedroom Community Record under license to Decca Music Group, Ltd. Decca B0014742-02.

After listening to one of Nico Muhly's earlier albums of largely spiritual choral music, A Good Understanding, this disc of the composer's modern dance music, I Drink the Air Before Me, came as a bit of a shock. As is his wont, Muhly composes parts of the program for chorus--the beginning and the end--but this time the musical accompaniment is sparse and very dynamic. Indeed, it is often the contrasts between the percussive bass, flute, bassoon, trombone, viola, and piano and the sweetness of the Young People's Chorus of New York that  are most astounding. Moreover, during purely instrumental segments, the contrasts among the instruments themselves are what stand out most strikingly.

Mr. Muhly writes in the liner note, "I Drink the Air Before Me is an evening-length score for Stephen Petronio's dance piece bearing the same name. Inasmuch as it was celebrating Stephen's company's 25th anniversary, the piece wanted to be big, ecstatic, and celebratory. Our initial meeting...yielded a sketch...Start small, get big! The rules: a children's choir should begin and end the piece. The work should relate to the weather: storms, anxiety, and coastal living. A giant build-up should land us inside the center of a storm, with whirling, irregular, spiral-shaped music and irregular, spiral-shaped dancing."  Yes, start small, get big.  Indeed, it does. Yet, if anything, it starts big, the opening notes practically jolting the listener out his seat. Nevertheless, the music, divided into a dozen episodes, does get bigger and more ambitious as it goes along.

Here are the names of the twelve selections, their descriptive titles saying a lot about the nature of the music making: "Fire Down Below," "First Storm," "Salty Dog," "Varied Carols," "Music Under Pressure 1 - Flute," "Music Under Pressure 2 - Piano," "Jagged Pulses," "Music for Boys," "Music for Gino," "Music Under Pressure 3 - Ensemble," "Storm Center," and "One Day Tells Its Tale to Another."

There are some wonderfully rhythmic sections along the way, "Salty Dog" and "Jagged Pulses" in particular; and some others have a lovely, graceful, almost old-fashioned lilt to them, the lengthy "Varied Carols," for instance.

At the center of the work are the three movements labeled "Music Under Pressure," in which the music spirals upward, as the composer says. Then, the piece comes to a climax with "Storm Center," a little like Beethoven's storm in the Pastoral Symphony, before subsiding into the elegance and beauty of the final, choral movement, which Muhly tells us comes from Psalm 19. In all, it's a fascinating composition, well played and well executed, that should reward the listener upon repeated hearing.

The studio sound, I assume recorded in 2010 since the Digipak case says Muhly copyrighted the music in 2010, is quite vivid, with excellent transient response and clarity. The instrumentalists are arranged pretty much in a straight line before us, with the chorus seemingly behind them, which may or may not represent the actual arrangement of the performers. In any case, the result is impressive and makes listening to the sonics almost as enjoyable as listening to the music.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa