Contemporary composer Nico Muhly and singer-songwriter Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett have teamed up to create a new, Sufjan Stevens-esque album of alternative pop, featuring Bartlett’s whispery vocal, two pianos, myriad percussion (Chris Thompson), and a string quartet (soloists from the London Contemporary Orchestra). Seeing the album performed live allows us to fully appreciate the work and skill of the arrangements and the performers.

The title, seemingly unrelated to the music, comes from the duo’s decade-long obsession with Colin McPhee’s transcriptions of Balinese ceremonial music for two pianos. The album is also named after singer Peter Pears, who lived with Colin McPhee (and Benjamin Britten) and always worked in the spirit of collaboration.

The decade or more of Muhly’s and Bartlett’s obsession with these transcriptions is clear, with one or two fully instrumental pieces. Other songs jangle in unpredictable rhythms and scales of layered percussion, with exquisite arrangements for the strings in particular. As pianists, Muhly’s and Bartlett’s precision and technique appear effortless, making the two grand pianos on stage sound as one, a remarkable achievement.

While the studio recording picks up every crack and whisper of Bartlett’s voice, the live performance in the reverb of the church meant about half the lyrics were obscured. With such phenomenal musicians on stage, it felt unnecessary to drown them out throughout with a backing track (including, weirdly, piano, percussion and strings). But a phenomenal album and a pleasure to see it performed live.

Thomas and Nico are on tour.

The Prickle - About transp