In popular music circles, Nico Muhly is best known as an arranger, pianist, and collaborator, given his work with everyone from Björk and Ane Brun to Antony Hegarty, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Usher, just to name a few. Of course, this is only a small part of his identity. Muhly is also an internationally renowned composer. He has collaborated with Philip Glass, written film scores, choral and chamber works, and has issued a trio of albums on the Bedroom Community label. Indeed, his chamber and choral works have been released by no less than the stalwart classical label, Decca. He has received commissions from a bevy of international musical organizations. Drones is a compilation album of three EPs released earlier in 2012. Muhly composed the pieces with a different soloist in mind: pianist Bruce Brubaker, violist Nadia Sirota, and violinist Pekka Kuusisto. The composer plays the accompanying drones on stringed instruments and piano. Two of these works, Drones & Piano and Drones & Violin, were commissions. Though based on drones, these works are far from "easy," they reflect his ability to offer many different timbral and harmonic possibilities. Though his drones provide an ever-present "hum," his soloists engage in ambitious pursuits unique to their instruments. Though it is only a shade over a minute long, in "Drones & Piano, Pt. 3: The 8th Time," an almost transcendent melody emerges from a blocky, dissonant, percussive din. In "Drones & Viola, Pt. 2: Material in a Handsome Stack," Muhly's piano offers a two-note chord on which Sirota engages in long, dramatic tones in her lower register, adding tension and dynamic. "Drones & Viola Part IV Material with a Long Cadence," she offers a series of extended statements ranging from the taut to the pastoral; both sit placidly and in dramatic contrast to the middle register piano drones. "Drones & Violin I, Materials in Eb" shifts its tensions from the shimmering piano chord to sometimes languid, sometimes dissonant tonal and timbral accents played by Kuusisto. In addition to the three EPs, there is a new work included here as a bonus, "Drones in Large Cycles." It features Muhly on programmed and glitched synths, as piano, violin, and piano interact to create ever-repetitive cycles that gradually evolve and transform into others; they evoke not minimalism but its memory. They enter and exit without warning. At nearly 12 minutes, it is perhaps the most harmonically and texturally complex piece here, but is also among the most gentle and resonant. Drones is a necessary acquisition for anyone interested in Muhly's work outside pop.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek