Listen Now: Seeing is Believing

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Nico Muhly has a flair for entrances. His 2007 album, Speaks Volumes, opens with a cello towards the apex of its register that quickly takes a multi-octave plunge. 2008’s Mothertongue launches with a repeated high-octane read-through of the alphabet. Last year’s I Drink the Air Before Me pierces with a series of staccato arrows paired with more luscious, ominous rumbles, while its sister release, A Good Understanding, is heralded by a bracing organ flourish.

Civitas sancti tui by William Byrd Varied though these opening salvos may be, they always signal a true listening experience. And with his newest disc for Decca, Seeing is Believing, Muhly does not let us (or our eager ears) down: A repeated arabesque on a violin curves and twirls as several other layers of strings and percussion are added to the dervish, at once complementing and contrasting the title work’s first four notes, culminating with the addition of winds. It’s not unlike the ever-expanding universe, the mapping of which inspired this concerto for solo electric six-string violin. For nearly 30 minutes, Muhly holds our rapt attention, referencing influences from former mentor Philip Glass to Stravinsky circa Rite of Spring and Ravel at his most impressionistic.

Muhly boasts a refined sophistication tempered with a cheeky sense of humor that allows the listener to trust his impulses and musical whims implicitly. For such an invigorating piece, it’s a comfort to be able to slip into Seeing is Believing and go along for the ride, not once worrying about missing a turn or stopping for gas. Thomas Gould and the Aurora Orchestra, in tandem with the composer, are in complete control of this transformative work, pairing it with a trio of shorter but equally engaging works, (Motion, By All Means and Step Team) that show Muhly to be an obsessive student of music history (By All Means is, for example, a response to Webern’s Concerto for 9 Instruments) but possessive of his own unique, and uniquely complicated, voice.

Seeing is Believing will be released June 21, 2011 but you will be able to hear it streaming on-demand here and at NPR Music: First Listen until then.