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The Graham Album Review #1880

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Nico Muhly and Teitur: Confessions
by George Graham

(Nonesuch Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/14/2016)

The mixture of classical and rock has been around for a long time. The Beatles were probably the best-known catalyst through their classically-trained producer George Martin, who helped to bring in orchestral touches that were more than just the string background used on many pop records before that. That helped to usher in art rock, which intentionally sought to bring the complexity of classical music to rock. Over the years, such pursuits have largely been interesting novelties, a kind of intentional culture clash. However more recently, there has been a much more integrated approach to mixing classical influence with rock, folk, blues and other genres, as composers and people in the classical field increasingly move back and forth between the musical worlds. So over the last few years we have had notable recordings by Gabriel Kahane, who divides him time between classical and being a singer-songwriter, My Brightest Diamond, including a chamber group, and even alternative popster Ben Folds did a respectable classical pop fusion with the members of the same chamber group, Ymusic, who worked with Sarah Worden on My Brightest Diamond.

This week we have an intriguing album in which it’s hard to tell from which direction the music is coming, starting with classical, or starting with the singer-songwriter aspect. The two genres are represented by the co-billing given on the album. It’s by Nico Muhly and Teitur, and it’s called Confessions.

Nico Muhly is a 35-year-old American composer of contemporary classical music who has a master’s from the Julliard School in New York. He has written commissioned works for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and wrote an opera called Two Boys that was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2013. He also collaborated with Icelandic pop star Bjork in 2004.

Teitur is Teitur Lassen from the Faroe Islands between Norway and Iceland, who has enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in Europe, and collaborated with artists like Seal and Corinne Bailey Rae. Muhly heard Teitur’s album The Singer and was impressed by it. The two had met at about the time of that album.

Muhly was invited to be composer in residence at Muziekgebouw Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and was encouraged to collaborate with whomever he chose. So he picked Teitur. They came up with a rather whimsical concept for the compositions, originally meant to be performed rather than being made into a record. It was about 2008 and YouTube was still rather young and people were uploading all kinds of seemingly banal and pointless videos. So they decided to pick some of the most boring, meaningless videos and weave songs around the dialog they contained. There was a someone concerned about a cat in a tree, someone being unable to adequately describe someone else’s face, and someone who enjoyed the smell of printer ink.

Adding a further twist was that Muhly chose to work with Holland Baroque, a chamber ensemble dedicated to authentic performances of baroque music, with some period instruments and instrumentation like harpsichord, recorder and lute. And yet Muhly created music that has a touch of Philip Glass and more contemporary film scores, often with quirky rhythms, which was not something that the baroque ensemble was used to doing.

The result is a very distinctive recording that is both entertaining and absorbing. The lyrics are frequently whimsical from the sheer banality of the situations they are about. The orchestral writing is very well done and there’s enough musical interest to keep the serious music fan’s attention and enough lyrical quirks to keep others amused. The album contains 14 mostly short songs, with two instrumentals. Muhly conducts the chamber group.

The album opens with one of those whimsical songs about nothing called Describe You, with the lyrics taken apparently from one of the boring videos that Teitur and Muhly drew upon. Muhly’s composition is a distinctive mixture of the Baroque and minimalist in the Philip Glass tradition. <<>>

The album’s longest piece is called Cat Rescue, with an extended musical exposition on the dilemma of a cat up a tree. <<>>

What is essentially the title track is a piece called Her First Confession. The sparse lyrics don’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a wonderful mixture of Muhly’s creative composing and orchestration and Teitur’s appealingly casual vocal style. <<>>

Among the album’s shorter pieces is I Smoke which is essentially the confessions of a smoker unsuccessful in trying to quit. <<>>

One of the two instrumentals is called Dog and Frog, which takes a turn toward darker textures, but with the jolly-sounding recorder featured. <<>>

Also showing a little influence from the minimalists and Philip Glass style is a piece called Coffee Expert, with what seems like stream of consciousness words. <<>>

Perhaps the most endearingly quirky lyrics come on a short piece called Printer in the Morning. The harpsichord gives it a decidedly Baroque twist. <<>>

Don’t I Know You from Somewhere is another imaginative track with some stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a more contemporary musical setting, with the lute playing a kind of folky fingerpicking figure. <<>>

Confessions, the new album by American contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly and Faroe Islands vocalist Teitur, along with Holland Baroque, the Dutch chamber ensemble, is a fascinating and intriguing record with a very distinctive combination of Baroque instrumentation, contemporary compositions that draw on both folk and the minimalist school of Philip Glass, along with the vocals of Teitur who are just right for the quirky, sometimes stream of consciousness lyrics created from banal videos people had posted on YouTube. Not really an attempt to fuse together classical and rock, the project was a cross-genre mixture from the start. The result is quite engaging and often whimsical. Though it’s about as far from party music as you can get.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-plus. It’s well recorded and clean in sound, but classical orchestral music should not be compressed to crank up the volume artificially as was the case on this album.

Classical and rock conglomerations have been around for about 50 years, with varying degrees of artistic success. Nico Muhly and Teitur’s Confessions is one of the most distinctive and entertaining.

(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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This page last updated December 18, 2016