When 31-year-old composer Nico Muhly thinks “drone,” he is reminded less of ragas, plainsong or even La Monte Young than of people humming while they vacuum, the constant E-flat of his air conditioner. He recently distilled the buzz of the unnatural world in a compelling trio of EPs, now collected as Drones by indie-classical label Bedroom Community. As proof of concept, “Material in E-flat” opens Drones and Violin with Pekka Kuusisto, which followed Drones and Viola with Nadia Sirota and Drones and Piano with Bruce Brubaker. The title tells only half the story. Drones, sometimes edging into ostinatos, frame all manner of harmonic activity and temporal striations; nocturnal funks and spiky bursts of daylight.
Much perpetual motion lies in the commanding voices of the two string players. Sirota is dark and steely while Kuusisto is sweet and rasping; both heroically wrench out precise, unorthodox timbres when called upon. Muhly’s pianism, most distinctive at its most effortless and excitable, occasionally feels perfunctorily severe. “Material with No Tricks” could maybe use a few tricks. More often, he unleashes shining scrambles of interesting shapes worthy of his mentor, Philip Glass, who hovers like a paterfamilias as Muhly bombards a silver fog of violin with irresolvable sevenths. The collected Drones also throws in an easygoing, electronic-enhanced bonus track that reminds us, after all the enchanting yet rather sinister activity before it, of the impulse for adorableness that also attracts M83 fans to Muhly.