Everyday Hum Goes Classical: Listen to Nico Muhly's 'Drones and Violin'

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An exclusive premiere of the composer's new EP, which meditates on the idea of "singing along with one's vacuum cleaner."

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Nico Muhly's music is about craft, community, technology, and the domestic. The 30-year-old who's been deemed "the ebullient star of New York's young-composer scene" by The New Yorker has woven white noise into American folk songs, juxtaposed cycles of psalms with cycles of computation, and in the past year alone debuted two operas—one about the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints and the other a murder mystery that depicted the Internet as a kind of masked ball.

His newest work takes on similar themes. The four-movement Drones and Violin, premiering today at The Atlantic, is the third in a series of EPs examining the power of drones in all forms.

The open, strange, American frontier-church of folk art is summoned by the first movement's water-like tremolo and robust, halting violin. In the second movement, the strings settle into a hum as jutting, jarring piano shouts above them. The piano always seems about to resolve, but never does. The effect is of an uneasy dialogue, and of voices warping into each other.

In Muhly's own explanation, his themes underwent a similar warping. "I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure," he says. But then he turned that abstract contrast into an everyday object:

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. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them.

These, it's clear, are the drones of the city, of the jackhammer, and the diesel motor. But they're also the drones of music, of the digeridoo and La Monte Young and plainchant organum.

They could also, perhaps, be the drones of the sky—the new, autonomous killing machines that our government has come to rely upon and that our culture has been hesitant to fully ponder. Many of these pieces were composed before the US weapons program began, but they were all released after it became famous. Despite the militaristic implications of the word "drones," the titles remain, as does the tension. But the titles remain, as does the tension. After all, Muhly decorates his own site with woodcuts from the English Renaissance, a period known for its referential and well-crafted art, technological flourishing, and intellectual persecution. He seems to revel in explorations of how tools extend human behavior without changing its capriciousness. In the sly, resolute violin of third movement, and the arpeggios and guile of the fourth, there's a well-controlled lack of control—a commentary on what background hum can do.

The violin here was performed by the Finn Pekka Kuusisto, joined by Muhly on piano and Nadia Sirota on viola. Sirota herself was featured as well on last month's Drones and Viola. (The first EP, Drones and Piano, came back in May and featured Bruce Brubaker.) Both are available for purchase (and free listening online) and work as companion pieces, but Violin can also stand on its own.

Drones have always been connected to divinity and anxiety. As I wrote last month, sacred renaissance music was filled with hums and buzzes, and both the pop and the avant garde of the 1960s used drone as a stand-in for Far Eastern cosmic transcendence. Where Drones and Violin finds the cosmic, though, it is in the common; where it finds the divine is in its craftsmanship. The overall effect of is of colorful fabric in a stream—a stream that's somehow knowing and playful and fierce. These are drones with an intellect.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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