If classical music had an award for most overexposed new artist, Nico Muhly would certainly be a contender. The 26-year-old keyboardist and composer has been profiled in the pages of Smithsonian, the Fader, and, to cite the most exhaustive example, the New Yorker. Everything you could possibly want to know about this baby-faced Philip Glass employee—from his collaborative work with Björk and Lou Reed to his odd bohemian upbringing—is now a part of the public record. And yet who can name one of his album titles? Muhly’s 2006 debut, Speaks Volumes, might have stirred up some of this interest, but his second and latest, Mothertongue, is unlikely to sustain it. That’s not to say that the latter is a disappointment; it’s just that the three-composition effort is, at times, a difficult listen. Muhly is capable of producing moments of extreme beauty and Mothertongue is full of glimpses of his talent. The problem is that his music is only beautiful until he tries to unpack the why and how of it all. In his notes on Mothertongue, which he claims is an attempt to reconnect with the folk music of his childhood, Muhly writes that the third and final piece, “The Only Tune,” is “essentially an explosion of the folk song.” Muhly achieves this by deconstructing a pleasant rendition of the traditional ballad “The Two Sisters.” The composition centers on a fairly straightforward banjo-and-vocal performance, sung and played by Sam Amidon, but quickly descends into cornpone shouting and avant-garde abstraction. Were Will Oldham to get drunk on moonshine and warble along to a Stockhausen record, the result might be much the same. So the question is: Do we really want a young New York composer to explode folk music for us? Muhly is on more solid footing when he works in his own idiom. “Mothertongue,” the best (and least folky) composition on the record, is more or less written in the style of Glass and Steve Reich’s minimalist work of the ’70s. The composer doesn’t have the patience of those forebears—there’s a lot going on in this composition and on the neo-baroque “Wonders”—but he uses familiar building blocks: chirping vocalists, pulsating rhythms, and a euphoric sense of melody. Muhly’s own contribution to the style is a sense of bombast that borders on metal territory. There are some amazingly deep bass sounds on “Mothertongue,” which culminates with detonations of piano and electronic percussion. Though certainly not easy on the ears, that finale is, unlike the breakdown in “The Only Tune,” an interesting update of a timeworn sound. What makes one work and not the other is that the lesser composition is more theory than entertainment, more intrepidness than beauty. When Muhly strikes the right balance, as he does on “Mothertongue,” he comes up with the kind of composition that goes a long way toward explaining that thick stack of press clippings.
Nico Muhly performs with Doveman and Sam Amidon at the Birchmere on Thursday, Aug. 21.