Nico Muhly & Sam Amidon – Roundhouse Theatre, London, Sunday 24th January 2010

It’s been a little quiet recently because, as I explained on the Monday post, I have been down in London for the last few days. Whilst there I took my parents to see Nico Muhly at the Roundhouse. Nico Muhly is apparently something of a bright young thing as far as the world of classical music is concerned, and of course with my rather less than encyclopaedic knowledge of that particular field of music, I am no position to argue. He was certainly a charming compere for the evening, and came across as a genuinely warm and witty guy. What drew me along to this, however, was not Mr. Muhly himself but Sam Amidon, who was also on the bill.

Essentially, there were six parts to the evening’s performance. Before the interval Muhly performed a Philip Glass piece on the piano, which was absolutely gorgeous, then the Britten Symphonia played a piece by Muhly himself, and then Muhly conducted Britten Symphonia in accompanying Sam Amidon singing three American folk songs. After the break there was something else by Muhly, followed by a twenty minute piece which butchered American folk classic The Only Tune, chopping it up with not just classical parts but also samples and electronic noise performed by Valgeir Sigurðsson (the head of Amidon and Muhly’s record label, Bedroom Community). Finally, Muhly conducted Britten Symphonia playing a Steve Reich piece called City Life.

Now, I am obviously no classical afficionado, so there’s really very little comment I can constructively pass on a fair bit of the evening (try this if you like), but there are still large chunks of the programme on which I have an opinion which I think is at least vaguely worth sharing, so I will.

Firstly, the obvious one: what did Muhly make of composing classical arrangements to back folk classics? Well, the results were patchy, if you ask me. They started with Saro, which was gorgeous. If you listen to the version Sam himself recorded for his gorgeous album All Is Well you’ll get a pretty good idea of what we heard: flute, very gentle brass and gently fluctuating strings providing a gauzy backdrop to one of the loveliest songs you’re ever likely to hear. It was subtly done, and the two aspects of the performance – classic folk singer and lush orchestra – worked perfectly together.

Samamidon – Saro

[audio:http://songbytoad.com/tunes/Samamidon-Saro.mp3]

The other two songs, however, I found a little heavy-handed. Given my lack of classical knowledge I feel far less confident criticising that sort of music than I do pop, but here goes: I think Muhly failed to respect the empty space which is so important in acoustic folk. Basically, he filled every available moment with sound and in doing so I think he rather suffocated Sam’s performance, if I’m being frank. A few moments where the dynamic between orchestra and singer shifted might have served to give a bit more emphasis to both, but as it was it was rather more as if the two were wrestling for ascendancy, not dancing in tandem.

Jumping forward to the Steve Reich piece, City Life, here were more blurred boundaries, as the classical performance was shot through with samples of found sounds from the streets of New York. Once again, however, and I don’t know if this was down to Reich’s composition or Muhly’s arrangement, the two aspects seemed to sit uncomfortably together, with the sampled and electronic noises at first rudely punctuating and then utterly swamping the rest of the instruments. I can see the point being made, presumably about the overwhelming nature of technology and unsympathetic, unidirectional machinistic fervour of cities, which can indeed threaten to drown you at times, but the musical embodiment of this theme seemed a bit ham-fisted to me.

At this point it probably sounds like a had a shit evening, which I can assure you is miles from the truth; quite the opposite in fact. Apart from the other pieces which I am not going to critique because I really just don’t have the knowledge, beyond to say that I enjoyed them a great deal, there was the truly, truly stunning performance of The Only Tune which the highlight of my evening – possibly even of the last five years of regular gig going.

I don’t think I can really come close to explaining to you how incredible this piece was. Firstly, the electronic sounds, the orchestra and Sam’s performance worked perfectly together – rising and falling against each other, creating the kind of complementary, integrated dynamic which the performances I described above didn’t quite manage. Sigurðsson’s use of digital stuff was a masterpiece in understated subtlety – he was a part of the orchestra, not an uncomfortable addendum – and the folk song itself was hacked up into pieces to work with the grandiose arrangements, instead of serving as master to the orchestra, as was the case with the earlier songs. In short, the three elements were all twisted together in perfect balance, which gave each a powerful impact of its own, and made the actual song itself an order of magnitude better. In mathematical terms, resonance was achieved.

And quite apart from the mechanics of the arrangements, the actual work itself was magnificent. The song was chopped into repeating, expanding chunks, all building with the orchestra to achieve a dark, dissonant cacophony. Sam’s vocal got as loud as a holler, and it’s not nearly so pretty at such levels, but just as you thought everything was about to break, his voice would overheat and he would lose the rhythm of the song entirely, it all vanished into a startling silence, cut down to just a lovely solo vocal, sweet as you know it and with the impact of a fucking freight train in its fragile quiet.

I’m embedding the three parts of this song below (from Muhly’s album Mothertongue, which you can buy from him on CD here, or from eMusic here) but honestly, it doesn’t come close to the impact of the live performance. Truly, that was something special, and I am incredibly glad I went along, although I don’t really want my parents thinking I’ve become civillised. Smashing genres together like Muhly does is a risky business, and no-one really wants to end up with another Elvis Costello and Diana Krall album, but when it worked this showed just how incredible the results can be when it clicks, and when it didn’t work it showed just how difficult a thing that is to achieve.

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