3 May 2020

New Horizons: Nonesuch Records #2 – Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 3 May 2020

In a programme celebrating the high-quality releases on the Nonesuch label, William Dart focuses on a new album from Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and Nico Muhly, in which the world of Balinese gamelan melds with memories and dreams of Bartlett's Vermont childhood.

Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly

Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly Photo: Heidi Solander

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

This Balinese gamelan music, introducing my second tribute to Nonesuch Records, sounds as if it comes from a world far removed from most of what I played last week. Far away, too, from the recording studios of either the East or West Coasts of the USA .

This is a field recording, and a celebrated one, made in Bali in the mid-sixties by the British ethnomusicologist David Lewiston and released on Nonesuch Records as part of its Explorer series.

Discovering this disc back then was a deep personal revelation and its very title — Music from the Morning of the World — seemed to be telling us that these were sounds with the potential to change, if not our world, then our musical sensibilities or forever . . . and they did just that for my friend Jack Body.

This is a sound-world that has now been making an impact on western music for well over a century, way back from the time of Debussy in fact.

My featured album today — Thomas Bartlett and Nico Muhly’s Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music was very much influenced by another historic recording from 1941.

A recording in which Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears’s composer partner, and Canadian Colin McPhee formed a four-handed team on two pianos to play McPhee’s transcriptions of Balinese ceremonial music.

This was where Bartlett and Muhly’s project started. In the fact the two men talk of this 1941 recording as being something of an obsession with them. And three of the tracks on the new disc are Muhly’s own renderings of the McPhee transcriptions. But finessed in terms of the colours that 21st-century state-of-the-art recording can draw from pianos.

Nico Muhly, at 36, is a hot property in the world of contemporary music — earlier this year,  the Kings Singers and Voices NZ Chamber Choir included a new commission from the American composer as part of concerts given for Chamber Music NZ.

He turned up on this programme just last year as part of the quartet responsible for a sort of solar song cycle, titled Planetarium, working with Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens ad James McAllister.

Thomas Bartlett was heard on this programme just last week, injecting some pretty potent hand held synthesizer into an Olivia Chaney song.

Bartlett, under the name Doveman, is well known and sought after as a producer and remix man. Last year his skills were highlighted on a magical transformation of a Sufjan Stevens song on the soundtrack of Luca Guadagnino’s movie Call me by your name.

In fact, Muhly and Bartlett have been working as colleagues, off and on for almost a decade and one 2009 gig had the New York Times aptly characterizing Doveman’s piano-driven ballads as having a shadowy, confessional intimacy that was accentuated by his tremulous, nearly whispered crooning.

It’s not everyone who warms to Doveman’s particular brand of laidback. However, Bartlett’s new coming together with Nico Muhly does place vocals over accompaniments that are anything but slumbering.

Muhly’s edgy, restless textures, fuelled by gamelan-like busyness, add irony to a song like 'Festina', taking its title from the Latin work to hurry.  Perhaps to our ears the music is as much Philip Glass as Balinese gamelan, but stretched out over them, Bartlett’s rapt vocals issue timely warnings to our hurrying, scurrying lifestyles.

Although Thomas Bartlett has said that he didn’t want to write in the same voice as he had for Doveman, that of a sad heartbroken boy who can barely muster the will to sing, much of that breathless languor remains.

As for what he’s singing about, best be content with catching isolated words and phrases until you’ve immersed yourself in this world. And it is indeed Bartlett’s world, inspired by his own sayings as a baby, saved from his mother’s baby books, mixed with references to saints and other things that seemed connected with the circle of Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, Colin McPhee and their friends.

It’s impossible not to be carried away and indeed bewitched by the ingenuity of Nico Muhly as he marshalls his small instrumental band under his friend’s vocal outpourings. You might be puzzled by what’s being sung and who are these characters that give their names as song titles —Balthasar, Valentine, Albeus and Dominic.

'Dominic' has the added advantage of an official video in which the song is accompanied by the slow-motion, gold-tinted film of a Balinese dancer which just may be the key to this mysterious, enchanting music.

Check out these tracks and more, including some back-catalogue from both Muhly and Bartlett (bizarre cover of Kenny Loggins's 'Footloose', anyone?), by clicking on "Listen" above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Sekehe Genggong' (Trad) – Unknown performers
Bali: Music from the Morning of the World

'Music of Bali, Pemúngkah' (Trad arr McPhee) – Benjamin Britten, Colin McPhee (pianos)
The Modern "Orpheus Britannicus"

'Pemoengkah' (Trad arr McPhee) – Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly
Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

'Taboeh Teloe' (Trad arr McPhee) – Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly
Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

'Keep in Touch' (Muhly) – Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes
(Bedroom Community)

'Everglade' (Hegarty) – Antony and the Johnsons
The Crying Light
(Rebis/ Spunk)

'Neptune' (Stevens et al) – Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, James McAlister

'Futile Devices (Doveman Remix)' (Stevens) – Sufjan Stevens
Call Me By Your Name, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'Honey' (Bartlett) – Doveman
The Acrobat
(Swim Slowly)

'Footloose' (Loggins/ Pitchford) – Kenny Loggins
Footloose, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

'Footloose' (Loggins/ Pitchford) – Doveman

'Festina' (Bartlett/ Muhly) – Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly
Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

'Eusebius' (Bartlett/ Muhly) – Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly
Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

'Dominic' (Bartlett/ Muhly) – Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly
Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music

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