Nico Muhly ~ Mothertongue


Released on July 21, 2008
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Featured Collaborators

Nadia Sirota

Nadia Sirota

Nadia Sirota


  1. Mothertongue: I. Archive
  2. Mothertongue: II. Shower
  3. Mothertongue: III. Hress
  4. Mothertongue: IV. Monster
  5. Wonders: I. New Things & New Tidings
  6. Wonders: II. The Devil Appear'd In The Shape Of A Man
  7. Wonders: III. A Complaint Against Thomas Weelkes
  8. The Only Tune: I. The Two Sisters
  9. The Only Tune: II. The Old Mill Pond
  10. The Only Tune: III. The Only Tune



Classical music can be a daunting exercise for those unfamiliar with the genre. Luckily, the composer Nico Muhly prizes communication - both in day-to-day life (note his frequently updated blog at and in his music. It's this sensibility which has inspired the titles of both his records, Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue. Mothertongue, in particular, sounds like the product of someone in love with language. Voices are treated as exquisite instruments. (The click of the teeth, the tap of the tongue, the smack of the lips, et. cetera.) The music itself speaks to deeper meanings and specific ideas and emotions, like words on a page...

From the Composer

On "Mothertongue"

After the intense corporeal experience of 'The Only Tune' (which deals with the body exclusively: its two hundred and six bones, its skin, its hair), I wanted to turn my attention inwards to the body's memory bank: all of the things we can remember without searching. I tested myself and managed to write down two pages filled with numbers, addresses, the names of the states, the capitals of the countries in West Africa (surprisingly), friends' phone numbers in other countries, a social security number, my mother's old, old studio number from the mid 80's. The result of this is 'Mothertongue' the song, which mimics this process of discovering all the codes and numbers that make up my - and Abigail Fischer, the singer's - personal archaeology. 'Mothertongue' is in four movements: the first engages the singer with all her addresses and ways to remember English grammar. The second takes place in a shower and at the breakfast table, and features an introspective and congested twitching and muttering. The third section (entitled 'hress,' the Icelandic word for being over-excited and stupidly joyful) is manic, frisky, and eager to please; this spirals into a violent, ecstatic recitation of addresses and zip codes antagonized by a 'monster' made out of over-amplified cereal and synthesizers.

Voice & Trombones: Helgi Hrafn J?nsson

On "Wonders"

Part of my experience as a musician is informed by exhaustion related to travel; I wanted to see what would happen if I took the historical borrowing techniques of 'The Only Tune' and threw them into the sea, trying to write, in a sense, a soundtrack for a cabinet of wonders: eels, counter-tenors, drunks, jetlag. 'Wonders' is a meditation on an anxious time in English imperial history, when explorers came back with tales of whales, volcanoes, and exotic flowers. The launching point for 'Wonders' is a madrigal by Thomas Weelkes (1575-1623), 'Thule, the period of cosmography' whose text describes the extreme climates of the far north (specifically, Iceland), and concludes with the line, 'These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I, whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.' I love how the (anonymous) author includes the extremity of Icelandic volcanoes into his conception of himself; the heart of the traveler is the end of the journey. Accordingly, I tried to bring the terror of the unknown home; the middle section of the piece depicts the devil harassing a coachman in England, and the piece ends with an anonymous complaint to the bishop of Chichester against the composer Weelkes, citing him for his drunkenness and for his foul temper in the presence of children.

Mezzo-Soprano: Abigail Fischer

On "The Only Tune"

Mothertongue started as an attempt to reconnect with the folk music of my childhood; I remember my parents singing the ballad of the two sisters - one murdering the other in a river - and I remember a disjuncture between the simple beauty of the song and the intense violence of the words. I still shiver at the memory of the miller fishing the girl's body out with 'his long, long hook,' and the ensuing phrases, in which the girl's corpse is slowly turned into a fiddle, are continuously haunting. In writing 'The Only Tune,' which is essentially an explosion of the folk song, I started becoming interested in personal archives - figuring out all the things, physical and otherwise, that define us.

Voice, Banjo & Guitar: Sam Amidon

From "Eerily Composed: Nico Muhly's Sonic Magic,"
A Profile in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead (Feb 11, 2008)

When Muhly composes, the last thing he thinks about is the actual notes that musicians will play. He begins with books and documents, YouTube videos and illuminated manuscripts. He meditates on this material, digesting its ironies and appreciating its aesthetics. Meanwhile, he devises an emotional scheme for the piece - the journey on which he intends to lead his listener. Muhly believes that some composers of new music rely too heavily on program notes to give their work a coherence that it might lack in the actual listening. "This stupid conceptual stuff where it's, like, 'I was really inspired by, like, Morse Code and the AIDS crisis,' " he says. Even so, his own work is informed by his extra-musical interests and obsessions. "Wonders," a track on "Mothertongue," includes the ethereal voice of Helgi Hrafn J?nsson, an Icelandic performer, singing fragments in English from "The Travels of Sir John Mandeville"; a sonnet about sea monsters, composed by King James I; and a 1619 complaint against Thomas Weelkes, the composer and organist at Chichester Cathedral, for his repeated drunkenness. "The Only Tune," also on "Mothertongue," is another Muhly collage - a dismantled traditional English song about a violent sororicide, delivered with affecting flatness by an American folk singer named Sam Amidon, to the accompaniment, variously, of a sampled Farfisa organ similar to that used by Philip Glass in "Music in Twelve Parts," a pair of butcher's knives scraping against each other, a recording of whistling Icelandic wind, and the sound of raw whale flesh slopping around a bowl...

Muhly points out that "Mothertongue," the new recording, is...filled with jittery, anxious repetitions and jarring chords that are intended to suggest the nauseating atmosphere of international jet lag and airport stultification, along with more mundane domestic anxieties. For the title track, Muhly layered the voice of Abigail Fischer, a mezzo-soprano, singing all the addresses at which she has ever lived on top of recordings of another friend taking a shower, eating toast, and frying an egg.