Restless Essence

Ashley Venegas; 4/11/19

Nico Asher Muhly

Mothertongue: IV. Monster (released June 16, 2008)

For mezzo soprano, oboe, harp, keyboards, violins, viola, electric bass

Restless Essence

Despite the number of works I have encountered, the genre and style of 21st-century music has yet to grasp an absolute place to call “home” as it constantly travels around diverse musical styles and genres. Although we have only come across a handful of recently influential composers, each one of them has presented us an acquired taste of music that lets the palate become fond of the new flavours and leaves us craving more beyond the mundane notes of the past. Nico Asher Muhly, an American contemporary composer, has shown us his unique ability to blend the sounds of classical and popular music; he is fully aware and capable of writing in a classical style, notably choral music, but he also works with chamber pop and electronic music. With the collaboration of several fine musicians in 2008, Muhly was able to produce a four-movement experimental work that incorporates musical speech, electronic timbres, and classical instruments to create an eclectic atmosphere of sounds.

The album Mothertongue is a large three-suite work with 3-4 movements in each set; the first suite is the Mothertongue suite (4 movements) and it is focused on vocal speech interacting in a musical setting. In the first movement “Archive”, Muhly introduces us to familiar classical instruments, such as violins, violas, an oboe, a harp and a mezzo soprano voice yet he also incorporates synthesized keyboards and an electric bass to create a rock band atmosphere. “Archive” doesn’t necessarily have extreme contrasts in terms of dynamics (softs and louds), but rather the work provides contrast in its rhythmic activity and varying texture based upon the main vocal line. The classical instruments and keyboard are the accompaniment (homophony) as they sustain long tones and interject small, repetitive motives to support the vocal line. The overall timbre of the work is a mix between light sounds produced by the voice and classical instruments and a heavier tone that is derived from the low-registered distorted electric guitar. The addition of the distort guitar allows for the work to have an indie-like style and allows for the work to have depth as the other instrument are performed in the mid-to-high areas of their range.

In terms of the main musical line, the vocals do not have “normal” lyrics and there are little too few areas with a single vocal, melodic line. At the beginning of the work, the mezzo soprano enters in with a whispery tone while reciting the English alphabet in a continuous cycle. The singer layers several versions of this alphabet motive in every measure and each version is sung within the diatonic scale of the work itself (like a broken up melodic line). As the song progresses, the voice takes on a small melodic role by singing on the pitches “Re” and “Do” while simultaneous establishing a straightforward 3/4 time meter, as compared to the beginning of the work. Unexpectedly, the singer switches over to reciting a flurry of telephone numbers and addresses that continuously layer upon while the alphabet motive is recited beneath it.

Although the voice is only repeating letters, numbers, and addresses, the words themselves have become both a percussive and melodic element within the work. The singer must maintain an awareness of pitch as each entering voice is repeating lyrics on specific diatonic tones, rather than relying on regular speech, which often varies in inflection and speed. In addition, while each entrance of the alphabet motive does not always enter on the downbeats of the work, the singer maintains a level of rhythm that is even in note length, which allows for the voice to become a percussive element. There is a melodic vocal part around the midpoint of the work as the tempo beginnings to slow down, but the lyrics are simply the singer counting from 1 to 5. However, the voice here has a sweeter character as the singer’s focus shifts from its previous percussive nature. Remarkably, there is a brief moment where the mezzo soprano does not recite lyrics but rather hums a melodic line, thus providing a long-awaited tension-release point from the constant noise and layers of sounds until it is repeated in another round to the end.

When comparing the “Archive” to classical music, one might not consider it to have any semblance to old musical traditions or practices. The repetitious vocals layer upon each other throughout the work and the words seem to have little meaning beyond letters, numbers, and address and create a flurry of “noise”. However, the mezzo soprano vocals are the driving force within the work as it dictates the overall contour and direction of the first movement. The vocals guide the augmentation and diminution of rhythmic activity for the rest of the instrumentation; as the voice maintains fast-paced rhythms, the texture becomes thicker as the constant sounds overlap (vice-versa for slowed rhythms and thinner textures).

While there is only discussion here, on the first movement, the Mothertongue suite is comprised of four movements that follow each other in a sequence and do reinstate motives from previous movements; “Monster”, the fourth movement of the suite, brings back the vocal motive lyrics (telephone numbers and addresses) of the first movement “Archive”. Although “Archive” is difficult to place, in terms of musical style and genre, Muhly does incorporate classical techniques into the mix with skillful hands and ears. Perhaps we are not accustom to hearing numbers and addresses becoming lyrics, but Muhly is able to capture the listeners attention with small moments of tension-release points and creative ways of incorporating speech into music with classical techniques.   

– Ashley Venegas


Muhly, Nico. “Mothertongue.” Bandcamp. April 10, 2019).

“Nico Muhly – Mothertongue- I. Archive – Abigail Fischer. Visuals by Glenn McQuaid.” YouTube video, 5:48. Posted by “Apeofnaples,” January 14, 2009.

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