Cheeky Bastard
Randall's Island 10.6.07

Northern Lights

Thanks to Thursday's late-night debauchery, I almost didn't make it to last night's Wordless Music show at the Good Shepherd Faith Church near Lincoln Center. But, I managed to rally, and arrived to find a standby line almost out the door, filled with several excited expressions.Pa050020

I was pretty excited myself by the prospect of seeing young composer-of-the-moment Nico Muhly, who was featured in last year's John Adams-curated In Your Ear Redux at Carnegie Hall, and has worked extensively with Bjork, Philip Glass, and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons). Later this season, his music will be featured on a Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW program, and later this month, he will conduct the debut of his ballet score From Here on Out for American Ballet Theatre.

“I’m at a loss for words to try to describe his music, because the range is so wide,” Adams says. “I think he’s someone we’re going to hear from a lot in the future.”

Pa050009Kicking things off was Toronto's Sandro Perri, who was featured as Polmo Polpo on last season's Wordless Music Series. He has a pretty, high-pitched voice that carried hauntingly over his mix of guitar and electronics, though was occasionally threatened by a thumping bass beat.

Pa050013Muhly came out next, along with co-conspirator Valgeir Sigurdsson, best known as Bjork's go-to producer since 1998 and now a composer in his own right, having just released his debut album, Ekvilibrium (Equilibrium). Muhly is obviously entranced by the progressive music of Iceland, and travels there regularly to work with Sigurdsson and other local musicians. (His debut album, Speaks Volumes, was recorded in Sigurdsson's home studio.)

Pa050025Muhly and Sigurdsson traded compositions back and forth, joined by a succession of prodigiously talented performers, including soprano Abby Fischer, violinist Lisa Liu, violist Nadia Sirota, percussionist Sam Solomon and accordionist Sigga Sunna Reynisdottir. Taken as a whole, Muhly's music is generally minimalist, sounding at turns like all of Glass (in his repeating textures), Reich (in his vocal lines and percussive techniques) and Adams (in his soaring instrumentation). But, Muhly is truly a child of his generation, supplementing his acoustic instruments with a healthy dose of electronic samples, beats and other effects. (Both he and Sigurdsson played a MacBook, along with piano and guitar, respectively.) A sound engineer set up with a huge board in the basement (Dan Bora) was given full billing in the program. Pa050026

Sigurdsson's own compositions were less dense and interesting, until he was joined late in the set by Will Oldham, also known by his stage name Bonnie "Prince" Billy. After some initial tech issues, Oldham's youthful, heartfelt voice took off, belying his gruff, mountain-man appearance. To me, it sounded like the voice of a rended heart, and was both beautiful and deeply disturbing.

Muhly, temporarily taking over for Ronen Givony as de facto host, told us from the stage that they were done, and that we should all go get some wine downstairs. "And then we'll be back, and we'll have just a little bit of Sigur Ros."

Pa050029I assumed he meant they would come back and play a few Sigur Ros numbers as an encore, which I thought was odd, but delightfully appropriate. But then, information rumbled through the audience that Sigur Ros is actually in town this weekend as part of the New Yorker Festival, screening their new film "Heima" at Florence Gould Hall.

Sure enough, Ronen came out after the break and introduced, "one of my favorite bands in the whole world." Apparently, Sigur Ros' management called him just this week, and asked "if it would be ok if they played." (Ronen told me afterwords that he's been emailing them for over a year, trying to get them to play on one of his bills.)

Pa050031The band - which consists of Jón þor (jónsi) Birgisson (vocals, guitars), Kjartan (kjarri) Sveinsson (keyboards), Orri Páll Dýrason (drums) and Georg (goggi) Holm (bass) - played an abbreviated acoustic set, which seemed to suit everyone fine at the end of an already-long evening. Birgisson's piercingly-high voice, one of the most distinctive in all rock, filled the sanctuary like a benediction. Smiles and wide eyes were all around.

Pa050033Once again, the Wordless Music  Series provides an incomparable evening of synergy and awe. One can only hope that the starstruck kids who came primarily for the final act were made aware of the wonder on hand throughout. (Next performance: Nov. 3 at the Society for Ethical Culture, featuring Grizzly Bear and Michael Harrison.)