Nico Muhly composed his Drones “as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling places.” The pieces reflect that origin—they are intimate interior monologues, revealing their composer’s ideas about music (harmony in particular) in a particularly direct and relaxed way.
Muhly is associated with New York’s “alt-classical” school of composers. The term deserves the scare quotes because it is a loose and elusive label—loose associations, like tonal harmony and clear pulsation and meter, and a tendency for pieces or movements to be the rough length of a popular (in the broadest sense) song, are all that bind this school together. These pieces, duos for drones and another instrument, played by Bruce Brubaker (piano), Nadia Sirota (viola), Pekka Kuusisto (violin), with the composer on piano and the electronic drones, show Muhly experimenting with harmonic and melodic turns over unchanging drones. The experiments don’t go far afield from the composer’s expanded tonality familiar from his other music. They are appealing and worth returning to.
The highlight of the disc, and the best thing I’ve ever heard of Muhly’s, is the last piece on the program, Drones in Large Cycles. Scored for all of the instruments, the piece is considerably longer than the others, and Muhly uses the time to let his material breathe and kind of sit in your head and consciousness. It took me to a very nice place, similar to that of Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973), probably my favorite piece by a minimalist. I’ll return to it frequently. (Buy it from Amazon.)