(All photos by Timothy Norris)
I’m not sure exactly what “kind” of music the hundred or so lucky souls saw last night at the Hotel Café, but I know I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and that I can’t wait to see it again, and that within ten minutes of watching five musicians perform music from three of the artists up onstage I was already convinced that this would be one of the best shows I'll see all year (and I missed the first half hour).
And I was a tad wary going in. Call it west coast skepticism of an east coast “It” boy (Muhly), or unfair (and now regrettable) dismissal of a singer whose recent album is a recreation of the soundtrack to Footloose (Doveman). Or maybe the fawning over Muhly from most quarters of the modern classical community has been so loud and overwhelmingly positive that I wanted better evidence than Muhly's recorded work. No less than the great critic Tim Page called him “exuberantly talented” and the New Yorker's Alex Ross in 2004 had him pegged as “poised for a major career” (though Bernard Holland in the New York Times isn't fully convinced, based on the artist's 2007 Zankel Hall concert). He's been profiled in the New Yorker by Rebecca Mead, fer chrissakes. Poised, indeed. Muhly's worked with Bjork, has composed for fancy orchestras in both America and Europe. And now here he is in an timelessly elegant little Hollywood club with four others playing music.
Beneath the red velvet backdrop, the five musicians – Muhly (keyboards/computer), Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman, on piano/keyboards), violist Nadia Sirota, Sam Amidon (banjo/guitar) and the great multi-instrumentalist Oren Bloedow (!) on percussion – traded songs throughout the evening, moving from Amidon's work to Doveman's to Muhly's and back, like a song circle, and the casual environment fed a kind of looseness that you definitely wouldn't see in the concert hall.
Bartlett worked his glass of gin & tonic as deftly as he played the piano, and at one point he pulled an impressive triumvirate of simultaneously juggling sheet music, cocktail and keyboard solo. At other times he and Muhly, who were squeezed next to each other and poking on pianos, looked like some four-armed beast conjuring sounds out of an abyss. Muhly even played Bartlett's hair at one point, scratching his head into the mic as he sampled the sound, which then began to repeat in rhythm as the four others circled and stabbed at an old folk song.
Muhly began the second set with two solo piano compositions, both of which suggested one of Muhly's inspirations, Philip Glass (whom the young composer works for). But by his third, the stunning “Etude 1A,” a whole world of inspiration and touchstones became apparent. Viola player Sirota, before performing it, called the piece “Difficult in a very specific way” before tearing through an otherworldly baroque-inspired chase-scene of sorts. Somehow Muhly has connected wildly divergent strands — the Japanese experimental electronic music of Nobukazu Takemura, the wide-open chaos of player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow, the serialism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the minimalism of early Kraftwerk, the grand compositions of electronic duo Matmos (most apparent on the evening's highlight, “The Only Tune”) and the sacred early European music that I don't possess the language or critical skillz to either namecheck or elucidate on without seeming the poseur.
Then it was Bartlett's turn, and for the next 45 minutes we were treated to sublimely challenging … cabaret folk? … sonata pop?… in which the singer and band created this earthen sound that was gorgeous in its timelessness. Honestly, the whole thing flew through my head in such a graceful arc that I'm having a hard time remembering what exactly I heard, but I know that whatever touched my ears was exquisite, and more than once I felt the euphoria of being at the exact right place in the galaxy with exactly the right musicians for my mood. The music — banjo, piano, percussion, piano and synthetic computer tones — was as lush as the velvet, and at the apex of Bartlett's set, a stunning rendition of Neil Young's best song, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” the entire crowd, all as content and stunned as me, it seemed, were whispering along.
The explosive climax was Muhly's epic “The Only Tune,” which he introduced as a song that his parents, both folk enthusiasts, used to play for him. Called “Oh the Wind and Rain (Two Sisters),” the song is about a sibling murder at the edge of a river, and the miller who finds the body and turns it into a violin. It began with Amidon layering sampled vocals on top of each other, sung in with the defiantly flat tone of a depression-era Virginia miner, and gradually expanded out from there into this grand celebration that recalled both Steve Reich's landmarks “Come Out” and “It's Gonna Rain,” and Gavin Bryars' “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (at least in its nod to American-folk-inspired themes). And, in some sort of odd miracle, at the exact moment that “The Only Tune” ended, a door at the back of the Cafe opened as if by design, and a burst of laughter jumped in from the other room. (John Cage would have been proud.) Muhly couldn't have notated a better resolution to this perfect performance.