Nico Muhly & Friends in A Scream and an Outrage at the Barbican

‘I wanna scream and shout…’

Composer, arranger, performer, social media maestro and cook Nico Muhly is a force of nature.

Whilst David Lang’s claim that ‘He’s the missing link between all the kinds of the music in the world’ might be an exaggeration, he certainly has friends in exciting places. Muhly’s allies – including former mentor Philip Glass – turned out in their legions on the Barbican and St Luke’s stages at this weekend’s festival, A Scream and an Outrage.

The three events I attended (after the opening night’s world premiere, An Outrage) seemed to celebrate Nico Muhly’s outré taste and eclectic contacts book more than his own compositions. Some events featured not a single Muhly item. This was perhaps a deliberate and sensible tactic from the 31-year old to differentiate this event from similar Barbican events such as 2011’s Reverberations: The influence of Steve Reich, which was looking back on a 75-year old composer’s long and distinguished career, but it did seem unnecessarily modest from the man who is the leading young light of the classical music scene and a brilliant composer in his own right.

Session Two – 11/05, LSO St Luke’s

The first session I caught was at LSO St Luke’s and began with a performance of Nico Muhly’s Three Songs. The solo parts were performed by maverick violinist Pekka Kuusisto and tenor Allan Clayton, with drone accompaniment by Muhly and friends, sat on a rug with violins, melodicas and Macbooks. In fact, this drone had started up a good fifteen minutes before the concert had begun as we were taking our seats – an effective mental conditioning technique purloined from Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. The songs were similar in arrangement and style to Muhly’s instrumental ‘drone’ pieces (two of which were played in the final session). Counter-melodic gestures in the violin were florid and grand to the point of portentousness against such a static backdrop, but effective nonetheless.

Next up was Terry Riley’s Tread on the Trail, performed by New York’s Bang on a Can All-Stars. The piece consists of a few melodic lines, written for unspecified instruments, as in Riley’s famous work In C. In Bang on a Can’s hands, the work sounded like seriously swampy jazz, with Mark Stewart’s Stratocaster playing evoking Bill Frisell – this most New York of ensembles making a piece by hippy Californian Riley sounds decidedly Mid-Western.

This sense of Americana was explored more thoroughly in Julia Wolfe’s epic Steel Hammer, which received its UK premiere. Wolfe appeared in person to introduce the work and dedicate it to the memory British composer Steve Martland, who sadly died earlier this month. Steel Hammer was pieced together from over 200 different versions of the ballad ‘John Henry’. Bang on a Can and the Trio Mediaeval singers took us on a whirlwind tour of the American musical landscape over a generous running time, perfectly complementing Wolfe’s new text, which had brought the differences and outright contradictions between different versions of the song to the fore. The work seemed to be saying something profound about America’s complex, multi-faceted identity and its uneasy relationship with its past.

Session Five – 12/05, LSO St Luke’s

I passed on the evening session, which showcased Muhly’s more maudlin side, with songs by Villagers, and the classical compositions of Bryce Dessner from The National and Richard Reed Parry from The Arcade Fire. Sunday was dedicated in the main to Philip Glass’s piano etudes – all twenty of which were performed on this day.

Pianist Maki Namekawa was absent through illness, so the first few etudes were played rather unexpectedly by Glass himself. This was something of a double-edged sword as, nice as it was to see the composer in the flesh, his piano playing was pretty shonky. The pieces were executed with a curious, hesitant rubato, and pitches were approximate. It took another stand-in pianist, Huw Watkins, to bring out the colours of the etudes – both the stereotypically ‘Glass-sounding’ seventh, and the more surprising later pieces, some of which sound like they could have been penned by Erik Satie.

A real highlight was young Icelander Daníel Bjarnason’s Qui Tolis played by the incendiary So Percussion. The piece blended percussive and electronic elements well. Two particularly arresting effects were high-pitched mallet instruments being fed through a granular delay in real-time, and a fizzing high-pass synth being triggered from a sample pad.

The rest of the programme consisted largely of noble misfires. Joby Talbot’s Genus Quartet for the Calder string quartet was good in places, but trod an indelicate path between the holy minimalism of Arvo Pärt and the jazzier, rhythmic style he is better known for (he composed the theme to The League of Gentlemen). It seemed to have real difficulty finishing convincingly too. I am an unashamed apologist for late-period Steve Reich, but his Mallet Quartet struggles to sustain itself after a promising opening. This performance was most memorable for the sight of Philip Glass fast asleep in his seat. Michael Nyman’s new string quartet (his fifth) was good, but unmemorable, with some pleasing echoes of the furious scritch-scratching of A Zed and Two Noughts, but little else to write home about. Far more innovative was Tristan Perich’s Octet for So Percussion and the Calder Quartet together, their ‘live’ parts being manipulated in real-time by a self-built circuit board that rhythmically gated the signals in the same manner of Reich’s ‘phase-shifting pulse gate’ of 1967. The concept was more exciting than the outcome – the piece had little development – but it was an interesting one-off.

(So Percussion member) Jason Treuting’s Oblique Music built to an epic finale, after a cutesy, Múm-esque, faux-Icelandic start. It lacked musical substance, but did showcase So Percussion’s group virtuosity and eerie telepathy – one diminuendo was executed with spectacular synchronicity. Despite this, there was no denying that the session had peaked at the start with the etudes and Bjarnason’s revelatory new work.

Session Six – 12/05, Barbican

The final session started in much the same manner as (my) first, Nico Muhly’s cohorts cross-legged on a rug as Pekka Kuusisto and violist Nadia Sirota played Drones & Violin, then Drones & Viola. Muhly was at the piano, providing the kind of wild interjections that Kuusisto had done when performing with Allan Clayton the day before. The viola piece edges it for me, though Kuusisto singing at the same time as playing violin was a neat trick, and one underused by modern composers (Andrew Hamilton does this especially well).

Bedroom Collective founder and noted Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson is an important figure in Nico Muhly’s career, having produced and put out all his recordings to date, but his piece Architechture of Loss for electronics, piano, viola and viola da gamba sat awkwardly in the programme. It felt improvisatory and formless, and a little aimless. When Sigurðsson unleashed a barrage of beats, it was exciting in and of itself, but unrelated to the surrounding material and slightly gratuitous.

Far more tightly constructed was David Lang’s death speaks. Lang had collated every instance of Death appearing as a character in the songs of Schubert, translated and re-scored the lyrics, setting them for female voice, piano, violin and electric guitar. It was sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and her ‘pop’ voice was very effective – an obfuscatory bel canto voice would have been grating in such an intimate work. This new, post-Little Match Girl Passion, respectable David Lang is a world away from that of Cheating, Lying, Stealing or his brattish Velvet Underground/Hendrix covers, but no less interesting. death speaks is well behaved, but the moments where it opens up – Worden tapping at a bass drum as she sings, subtle distortion on the guitar, Pekka Kuusisto repeating his singing-whilst-fiddling trick – are a joy.

The whole of the second half was taken up by the remaining Philip Glass etudes – ten in total. I thought this was going to be something of a slog, not least because Glass himself was to play three of them, but it turned out to be anything but. Glass’ playing was unrecognizable from the old man we’d heard earlier in the day. It was mostly rhythmically secure, relatively mistake-free and sounded positively youthful. Next, the curator turned arpeggiator as Nico Muhly took over to play etudes eleven and twelve. Under his hands, the piano sounded brighter and the rhythmic coordination was superior, but it felt incongruously professional after Glass’s charming amateurism – strange, given that Muhly is not foremost a pianist. Stranger still, it took an actual concert pianist – the dapperly-dressed Timo Andres – to deliver the best compromise. Taking to the stage in suit and (bow) tie, with an iPad for sheet music, and the piano stool rolled down to Glenn Gould height, he delivered eccentric, fast-paced and appropriately impassionate interpretations of etudes 13, 16, 17, 18 and 20 to close out the concert. What had seemed like strange programming – a low-key piano recital to close out a festival of sometimes very noisy music making – turned into something of a triumph.

One can only hope Nico Muhly’s career as a composer continues such that future events like this (of which there will be many) feature a little more of his own music. He still has to convince some people that he is more than just the ‘missing link’ between other, more interesting musicians. It will be exciting to watch him develop as a composer over the next decades, starting to become musically influential in his own right rather than so obviously influenced by the people A Scream and an Outrage paid homage to.

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words Thom Hosken


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