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Nico Muhly - Mothertongue

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Artist: Nico Muhly

Album: Mothertongue

Label: Brassland

Review date: Jul. 31, 2008

I’m drawn to minimalism of the non-linear sort, mostly for the phenomenological feeling it inspires within me of the mathematical sublime, a feeling that Nico Muhly’s Mothertongue is particularly good at evoking. In fact, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to place Muhly in an esteemed pantheon including people like Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman, even if he is still very much in his formative phase.

The question then is, what is this feeling of the mathematical sublime and why is Mothertongue good at eliciting it? The concept of the sublime has a long history, but I’m mainly referring to Immanuel Kant’s understanding of it in his third Critique, in which he explains the feeling of the mathematical sublime as a kind of failure of aesthetic estimation, an inability to grasp natural phenomena of a great magnitude, or in other words, the mathematical sublime is a feeling generated by a kind of dissonance between our senses and our Reason. The universe in its magnitude is too great to grasp in our imagination. The best you can do is perhaps imagine bits and pieces of it at a time; here’s a nebula, here’s the Earth and the moon, maybe the solar system in abstract, but even imagining a small section of the universe is nearly impossible. However, by one’s faculty of Reason, the size of the universe is quite understandable, for our Reason contains within it the concept of infinity, and regardless of the size of the universe or the pyramids of Egypt or what-have-you, they don’t measure up to infinity. So, the mathematical sublime is a self-reflexive feeling that results from taking pleasure in our own sense of Reason. Fuck you senses, you suck, but guess what? Reason makes up for your shittiness.

Now, I’m not some Enlightenment-suckling lackey, so my allegiance to the idea that human reason is this awesome tool is nil, and anyway, pretty much everyone that buys into that notion today in 2008 are awesome tools themselves. However, that doesn’t mean this concept has lost all meaning for us. Instead of having to be about Reason though, I think it becomes a much better phenomenological description of the pleasure we feel from not being able to grasp natural or aesthetic objects of a large magnitude or a great complexity. If we want to talk about human-made artifacts, the fact that there are pieces of art created by people much like ourselves that resist any of our attempts at comprehension is satisfying because, for once, Reason has to shut the fuck up and just let our senses become flooded with sensory input. As Reason scrambles to keep up, it instead falls further and further behind, but in that falling behind, it is continually trying to put the pieces together. The mathematical sublime is a mental overload.

With non-linear minimalism, like Mothertongue, the mathematical sublime is constantly being evoked. The idea of a non-linearity comes out of the study of dynamics. In complex dynamic systems that have a number of interconnected parts, when one part changes, it affects the whole. Thus if you have a lot of interconnected parts and all those parts are constantly changing, you’re going to get weird, chaotic behavior. The paradigm example is two pendulums that are coupled together so that the motion from one effects the motion from the other. The relationship between the two pendulums creates new (some call this “emergent”) behavior that you normally wouldn’t get from uncoupled ones. Now, take a piece of what I’m calling non-linear minimalism, say, Steve Reich’s “Electric Guitar Phase” from Triple Quartet. A single guitar melody is played, eventually to be joined by overdubs of the same exact melody, first in phase, then slowly moving out of phase by one or more eighth-notes. What results from the same melody being played over itself out of phase is that the relationships between the notes create new patterns, and out of the chaos new melodies form. However, any attempt to grasp how this happens is quickly thwarted by the limitations of our minds, and thus one must sit back and accept the flux. There is pleasure in the sensory flow, as well as pleasure from the intellectual process of picking out novelties in the music.

What makes Muhly’s work particularly interesting then is not only his use of this style – comprehending the four movements of the title track is particularly vexing as bits of voices mingle and move at different velocities – but the use of the style in a dynamic way itself, reminiscent of Nyman’s compositions. There is movement within movement as the pieces change their demeanor. As a counterpoint, take something like Riley’s “Olson III,” where there is movement but not in terms of the mood of the piece. There is just this constant intensity. Muhly’s compositions on Mothertongue also reveal aesthetic transformations of the minimalist form, as different styles – most notably here, folk music – are incorporated, a natural and intriguing outgrowth of experimentation with non-linear minimalism.

By Andrew Beckerman

Other Reviews of Nico Muhly

A Good Understanding / I Drink the Air Before Me

Seeing is Believing

Drones & Piano / Drones & Viola / Drones & Violin

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