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Lucy Jones

Lucy Jones writes about music. She joined The Daily Telegraph in 2008. She can be emailed at and is @lucyjones on Twitter.

Classical music dead? Nico Muhly proves it isn't


Do you ever hum along with the vacuum cleaner? Or try and harmonise with the buzz of your fridge? Or even whistle with the wind? It’s fun, if a little weird for people around you. The Manhattan-based composer Nico Muhly – the hottest talent in contemporary classical music – is so attracted to everyday drone noise that he’s composed an album in tribute.

Muhly wrote Drones & Piano “as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure”. He compares the idea to “something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places.” The record, the first in a trilogy of EPs, is an “attempt to honour these drones and stylize them”. Why drones, I ask Muhly?

"I just love them," he says. "I'm constantly recording ambient, unchanging noises. I stayed in a hotel in the Netherlands last month where the elevator shaft had this glorious hum of an open fifth. The air conditioner in my house is this sort of E-flat, the hiss of unconnected electronics, the buzz of a halogen lamp…"

To be clear: we’re not talking about bagpipes or Byzantine chants. Muhly’s pieces wind themselves into the minimalist tradition that was kicked off by Yves Klein (an influence he cites) and his Monotone Symphony in 1949, before catching the attention of LaMonte Young in the late 50s who later worked with John Cale and the Velvet Underground, Terry Riley and others. Other notable drone music makers include Coil, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Philip Glass, Sonic Youth and Kraftwerk. Recently, drone has kind of fallen out of fashion, though Wilco, Boards of Canada and Radiohead have dabbled with it.

Muhly told me that he likes to think his project as paying homage to all the musicians who made drone music in the 60s and 70s. He also made a confession:

"I was thinking about William Basinski, of course, and LaMonte, of course. Kraftwerk is of course there too, as is Aphex Twin's ambient music. I am going to tell you a dirty secret which is that I think I have not heard more than twenty minutes of Sonic Youth, and it was a long time ago at that. I know it's, like, an article of faith with them but for some strange reason it just never stuck with me…"

You may have heard of Nico Muhly because he's so prolific (he told me that he thinks about music even when he’s doing something else) and he's successfully blending the pop and the classical worlds. His opera Two Boys debuted last year at the English National Opera and he hit the Barbican in April for his collaboration with Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner from The National. He’s composed film scores, this year sees a ballet collaboration with Benjamin Millepied, and his discography is lengthy for a 30-year old. He’s already worked with Philip Glass, Björk, Grizzly Bear, Bonnie Prince Billy, Jónsi from Sigur Rós, Antony and the Johnsons.

Drones & Piano is a work of five tracks three minutes long or so, apart from Part III (The 8th Tune) which is just over a minute. You wouldn’t call them morsels; each has its own character, using piano, the viola, and drones made from prepared piano and viola multi-tracked and heavily edited. Muhly chose pianist Bruce Brubaker for his “specific way of teasing the emotion out of seemingly dry music — for instance, Philip Glass's études, or my [Muhly’s] own weird drone experiments”.

Part I starts with a paranoid, hypnotic piano layered over a warm string hum. Viola drones continue into Part II jabbed with staccato jerks and pretty chords. Part III moves forward with brio and speed. Here, the string drones become a bee’s nest and the piano, sounding like a nest of wires, gets more and more tangled before a gentle, quiet coda segues perfectly into Part IV. This track feels like a fresh, dewy dawn. It rides hopefully on a soft and winding melody from the piano, graceful and elegant. Listen out for some gorgeous, mournful chords from 2.52 before it fades like a wisp of smoke. The finale starts with a jolt. Frenetic strings rub against glissando drones before breaking into swelling strings and ostinato chords. It doesn’t feel as if the piece completely resolves itself, leaving room for the sequels.

I was thrilled when Nico agreed to talk to me. In fact the idea for Drones & Piano had come about a while ago but he had two operas and an “unreal pile of chamber music to write” and needed time to build the drones. “I sort of like the fact that Bruce recorded it after he really had it in his fingers, too; sometimes you learn more about a piece if you live with it,” he explained

So how does one make a drone piece in the first place?

"I made a big map of the piece and figured out basically how "far" I was going to stray from the notes that make up the drone. This piano record is just one of a very long series of these droney pieces. I started by figuring out the texture of the drone, and then sort of recalibrated my sense of dissonance/consonance in the tonal language of a piece with two notes always sounding."

What other elements in the world would he like to use as sonic inspiration? I mention Messiaen’s birds:

"Everything! I think everything is fair game. I'm a sort of obsessive mimic and I love language. I just took a trip with my boyfriend to see his family in Maryland, and his sister has one of these gorgeously palimpsestic accents tempered by the mid-atlantic but also informed by Florida etc etc — I love layered language."

At the moment he’s working on a piece called Gait, for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, inspired by the locomotive patterns and rhythms of humans and animals. There’s a very revealing piece on his blog about it. Here’s a snippet:

The initial procedure, here, is to construct a sort of bestiary of the orchestra, and then we’re gonna figure out how to deploy it. There’s something circus-like about the Royal Albert Hall anyway, so this feels, at least for now, totally appropriate.

Silence is traditionally an important feature of drone music. Indeed the last movement of Yves Klein’s Monotony Symphony is 20 minutes without a sound. La Monte Young used silence too, and it’s something that informs Muhly’s thinking about music in a wider sense:

"Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence. My highschool had this terrible problem which was that the music performance area was not soundproofed, so you never really got that necessary vacant audio before music started. I found it very frustrating. That having been said, I find "observed silence" to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody's basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents' house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof.  Heaven."

Heaven for Muhly is also choral music. He says he "lives for Perotin, obviously", a composer of one of my favourite pieces of music. He also loves Byrd & Gibbons and has “a soft spot for English 20th century things like Howells and Finzi”. I ask him who he’d most like to work with today.

"I really really really want to do something with James Blake. I love that voice the most. If you see him tell him to call me."

Can you imagine? James, if you’re reading this, get on the blower.

Philip Hensher recently wrote a piece for the Independent entitled “Will nobody mourn the death of classical music?”. Starting with the lack of coverage for the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition he (rightly) complained about the media’s representation of classical music (Katharine Jenkins) and asked the question: who is listening? I’d tell him to check out the evenings put on by Yellow Lounge, Nonclassical, and The Night Shift for a start. I asked Muhly how he feels about gripes like this.

"Ugh. You've accessed a rather sore spot for me.  The internet is filled with people saying that blah blah classical music is dying blah blah. Chances are, they are being paid to say this. Do you remember that terrible article a few years ago when Joshua Bell played the violin in the subway in Washington and nobody cared [the anecdote is used by Hensher too]? Chances are they didn't care because it's rush hour and people have to get to work so they can save money to pay for concert tickets to see him at a normal time…but anyway, the article descended into this terrible (and terribly-written) thing about the death of classical music. I just don't buy it. Classical music is urgent and vibrant because we are making it that way, and I don't see how Beethoven 7 being used to disperse people is symptomatic of any bigger problem."

Aside from the rather tickling idea that Henry the Hoover can inspire a classical work, Drones & Piano is an expressive, enchanting, moving skein. It would be a good place to start for those who think classical music is dead.



Read Ivan Hewett's interview with Nico Muhly from last summer

Nico Muhly Premiere at the Barbican reviewed by Ivan Hewett

Two Boys at the ENO reviewed by Rupert Christiansen




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