Going Between the Notes With Nico Muhly

"That feeling of home but not home, somewhat but not quite—all that plays a part in what I would hope to be the emotional content of my music," says the strange and wonderful Nico Muhly. "There’s always a sense of displacement and longing." Wildly intelligent and feverish in nature, the 31-year-old composer is as prolific as he is talented, with work spanning from contemporary operas and classical chamber pieces to electronic drones and film scores, and just about everything in between. 

Having attended Juilliard and Columbia University simultaneously, Muhly quickly emerged as one of the most exciting young voices in classical music, seamlessly blurring the lines between the genre’s traditional lineage and popular music. Having composed for ensembles, soloists, and musicians of all stripes, Muhly’s work is extremely varied but uniquely his own, with a fervor and kinetic energy that’s extremely well-crafted in its mix of turbulence and space between the notes. But rather than feeling ethereal in their beauty, Muhly’s compositions feel tethered to the earth, structured to score the sounds of the peripheral world around us. And as someone who is in always constant motion, traveling all over the world—whether curating a music festival, playing a concert hall, or recording with Iceland collective and record label Bedroom Community—Muhly’s music is informed by being in a constant state of "flux and alienation," existing in a state of wonder, reeling you in and challenging your senses. 
 
And last Tuesday, Muhly graced Le Poisson Rouge with a taste of his upcoming opera, Two Boys—which will be premiering at the Met in October. Described like an episode of Law & Order, Two Boys tells the story of a police investigation of an attempted murder in which a teenager has stabbed a younger boy. Based on real events, it’s a modern opera that highlights internet age dangers and interactions. With Muhly’s frantic and often hilarious personal anecdotes and introductions, he spoke throughout the evening with a nonchalance and intimacy that felt like you had joined him in his living room for a simple night of fun with friends. It was a brilliant showcase of music that played through a retrospective look some of his older compositions, his fascinating work with violist, friend, and frequent collaborator Nadia Sirota, and featured four songs by incredible folk singer-song writer Sam Amidon. Alongside, we got to hear a preview of Two Boys with the songs "I’m Scared for My Life" and "I’m Only Sixteen," the former sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, the latter by tenor Paul Appleby. And after closing the show with one of his own pieces, he was warmly welcomed back on stage to perform a heartbreakingly beautiful piece from his mentor Philip Glass.
 
Last month, it was my pleasure to get the chance to chat with Muhly about his introduction to musical obsession, the specificity of composition, and his desire for civic music-making.
 
So before Tuesday night, I had seen you recently in Planetarium but absolutely loved when you played with Pekka Kuusisto a few months ago at Le Poisson Rouge.
I love Pekka. He’s absolutely heaven. And he’s such a strange creature, you almost can’t believe he exists. I love the way he looks too. There’s a person online who makes custom throw pillows in the shape of people’s heads, so I had two of them made with Pekka’s face on them.
 
Did you give them to him or was that for your own pleasure?
No! They’re mine, are you crazy? I sent pictures of them to his mom though.
 
Well going back a bit, you’ve been playing music and composing for a long time now. What first sparked your desire to do this?
I’d had this, you should learn the piano thing, that a lot of kids have, but I hadn’t been a particularly dedicated or talented student of it. Then almost simultaneously, I was singing in a boy’s choir in Rhode Island, and it was like in one week everything just emulsified for me into this really exciting, oh my god music is this really great thing. I’m not sure there’s one thing that did it besides being suddenly immersed in the difficulties of playing solo piano music and also playing music for the church—it was this strange juxtaposition. 
 
Were you listening to a lot of classical music at the time?
The thing about making music—and I mean that in the loosest sense, like playing the piano—you can’t be doing that and listening to something else, because that’s what’s in your ears. So I was listening to that music and I developed an obsession with it. My mother worked at Wellesley College and her office was right across from the music library, so I’d print out these insane requests for her—and it was partially because I was really into it and I was obsessed with studying scores and just knowing as much as I could.
 
And then you went onto Juilliard to study?
I went to Columbia and Juiliard simultaneously. They have this weird program where in five years you can do an undergrad from Columbia and a Masters from Juilliard—you just feel slightly more well-rounded human being.
 
At what point did you start deviating from what you’d grown up playing?
It sort of already happened. Having a choral background is itself in the context of concert music, pretty "other." It’s a sort of music that’s virtually unknown outside of its community. There’s some choral music that’s pretty well-known in the world at large, and there’s a lot in the Anglican tradition in which I was a part that really is only ever done in the Anglican community—either in England or the few churches in the states that continue those traditions. But maybe there’s one or two per city, and a big city you’ll have five or six. But then similarly, my interests, and again more as a result of obsessive listening, was in choral music and the American minimal tradition—Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. That itself is not particularly mainstream.
 
I was speaking to Nadia Sirota and she was telling me about growing up learning that those musicians were bad and not proper in any way.
Yes, not proper, borderline evil. 
 
What informs your music the most or inspires you abstractly?
It’s derived from a lot of different sources and a lot of non-musical things. I read constantly and obsessively, so there’s always that. I sometimes do that thing where I read the entire internet. You know, when you just read everything you can find on a topic? I’m reading some things right now about land use in England. So there’s never really a direct correlation between non-musical things and the music that I’m actually making. It’s more of a constant omnivorous attention to everything that is more interesting to me.
 
Does being in a constant state of motion and traveling so frequently inspire your music in any way?
It does but it’s less about the places themselves, as that constant feeling of flux and alienation. That to me is much more productive.
 
Do you enjoy that?
I don’t really have a choice; it’s less an issue of enjoy or not enjoy, because it’s just the reality of my existence. Although right now you’re talking to me during a period of unprecedented New York-ness. I’m here for almost a month. I don’t think I’ve been here for this long in over a year.
 
Do you find Iceland to be a home away from home?
Iceland is but England, as of late, has become a place where I hang out. It’s really wherever the work takes you, isn’t it? It’s funny, I was just on the phone with a friend who lives in Brooklyn and he’s a musician, and I said "When are we going to meet up?" And it’s like "Ah yes, we’re both going to be in Frankfurt next April, see you then."
 
Do you find you run into friends in Europe more frequently than just in New York?
Yes, much more. That was one of the funny things with Bryce and Sufjan: I’ve known them both for years and years but the most prolonged time we’ve spent together has been not at home. But going back to your question before, that feeling of home but not home, somewhere but not quite, all that plays a part in what I would hope to be the emotional content of my music. There’s always a sense of displacement and longing for something.
 
I was listening to a Radiolab bit the other day where they were discussing Beethoven’s broken metronome and they played what some of his most famous work would have sounded like at that tempo and it actually reminded me a lot of your music. I suppose at the time it would have been jarring but now seemed so modern.
I’ve never heard it said that directly; that’s an interesting interpretation. I like music that sounds like perhaps something has gone a little bit wrong with its metabolism. That interests me.
 
Mixing these very classically romantic grandiose sounds—
With the frenetic. I think freneticism is s a key part of my sound. 
 
Also, silence.
Yeah, it doesn’t sound frenetic if it’s all frenetic, you have to offset it with some old fashioned viola writing.
 
Do you think about the context in which a piece will be played when you begin to write it?
I always think its good to take into account the space which it will be performed for the premiere. But it’s almost like an attention to detail; it’s like tailoring. If you buy a vintage piece, even if it’s been tailored really specifically for someone else, it will itself be a better piece just because it’s clearly not been made on a mannequin. This also goes back to church music. Church music is really interesting  because, in a lot of cases, it’s been written very, very specific—like for this building, on this Sunday, at this time of the year—and that’s the only time you would hear it. Most of Bach’s music is actually that way, where it was like you would only hear certain pieces at certain seasons. And that doesn’t mean it’s terrible to listen to it certain times of the year, it just means that there’s this built in functionality to it. The specificity of function makes the object more beautiful, even if you don’t use it. Even now as I’m talking to you, I have a beautiful pair of tongs in my hands, which are meant for snails. It’s a snail tong that I’m using it to hold a hot fucking lightbulb, but the fact that it was designed for a specific snail in the ’50s makes it to me a more beautiful object.
 
Tell me about your collaborations with Nadia?
Nadia’s a recent, future, and past collaborator. We’ve always done some kind of scheme. 
 
She was telling me about the first piece you wrote for her where you put the mic so close to her instrument you could hear every scrape and mistake, which made her uncomfortable at first but eventually realized the beauty in it.
I’m kind of obsessed with that sort of music-making. One of the strangest things about the classical music recording world, one of the models for recording is that you rent this little thing, and it’s like a human torso. You buy it and put it in the best seat in the house and then when you make a recording, it sounds like you’re hearing it in each ear of this fake torso and it sounds like you’re hearing the concert from the best seat in the house. But for me, there’s something very alien about that, because the experiences of hearing music live that I’ve been really moved by, have never been as a result of having bought or conned my way into the best seat in the house. In fact, it’s usually like I’m sitting backstage or I’m playing it myself or watching from outside—this sense of remove. And for me, recording the viola—this is partially my nonsense but also partially Valgeir Sigurðsson’s genius sense of how to do this—when you listen to those pieces, it sounds like you yourself are the listener playing the viola. And all the weird mechanisms are into the fore.
 
How did you and Valgeir begin working together?
I met him because Bjork hired me to play piano on one of her tracks, and he was her engineer at the time. So we met in that context and then we’d been working together for months and months, and he was like "Oh you’re a composer, what does your music music sound like?" And I gave him some—and what I gave him was the thing we all had as kids, which was like a cassette tape they would give you at Juilliard after your concert. And it was recorded terribly, you can hear people unwrapping tan fish sandwiches. So he was like, "This is shocking, I can’t believe this is the only evidence you have of your music." But it’s a funny thing, if you’re a composer and you share your work to other people, sometimes you don’t even bring in a recording at all because the idea is that you should be able to do it all from the score. And there are some old-fashioned composers, and I’m actually sometimes like this myself, where I don’t need to hear a realization of a piece to know from the score how it sounds. But with Valgeir, we just met that way and struck up this relationship and realized very quickly that we were making music and people we knew were making music that didn’t really have a home or an obvious home—both on the business side of recording and how we wanted it to be released and distributed. It became clear that we could actually just do it ourselves.
 
What attracted me to Bedroom Community was a genuine sense of people revitalizing this kind of music in a way that came from passion and talent rather than a desire to simply say something.
That’s very kind. Again, it’s a strange thing because it’s not that complicated to do. It seems less outrageous now than it was then, but back then you really just couldn’t find anyone making albums that were classical music but not really classical music, but not really making a big thing about how there was no genre. That’s the thing that drives me the most crazy. There’s a lot of music that’s genre-straddling but all it does is talk about how that’s happening. It almost seems like the press release is written first and then the music; there’s not the sense of like, in what environment does the music itself suggest that it should be released it? I have recordings with Bedroom but I also have things with Deca, a very, very grand old institution and I knew very clearly which things should be with whom. And that’s part of the compositional process, and it’s part of knowing the acoustic of the space in which you’re trying to release your work.
 
Do you find yourself ever caught between the older tradition of classical music and its more modern counterpart?
At heart I’m really quite at traditionalist. I still write a lot of choral music and music for pipe organ. I’m not interested in breaking anything down. I have an opera at the Met and when you write an opera for the Met you’re not like,"Oh, I’m going to fill it with weird electronic beats and whatever." No, you write something that’s appropriate for the space. That’s why I’m so bristled at this indie classical designation because it’s so dumb, and I can literally think of nothing less independent than a big ol’ classical music institution. It doesn’t get any less indie than the Met. 
 
And this the music is filled with so much of the history that’s informed it.
So, not indie. Worrying about genre and worrying about how people perceive things, probably in the list of things I’d like to do today, is right below my taxes. It’s really not my job to worry about how to classify things. 
 
Then you start writing as if you’re worried about it and trying to do something inauthentic.
Yes, writing like you’re worried about it, and having these press releases and then all the sudden it’s this whole thing, and it’s bad enough as it is. So the trick is just to not worry about it, let it be kind of a mystery. We live in a period of time where it literally could not matter less what to call it. The only people that worry about it or the people that say: "What I do is beyond specification."  That always reminded me of those kids in college where there would be like fifteen Tibetan prayer flags, 18 Buddas, everywhere and you’d be like: this is a mess. When I was a kid, up until—wait how old are you, did you grow up with record stores?
 
I’m 22. I grew up with record stores but everyone was mainly buying CDs.
Oh jesus, you mad young. Well, when you used to go into Tower Records, going into the classical music section felt like you were buying pornography. You had to open a secret door and you walk in and it was a different environment. There were always some skeevy old gay guys over there like masturbating in the Maria Callas CDs, you know what I mean? It was a whole different ecosystem—literally. They were playing different music up in there and you really felt apart from the economy of the place, of the record store. You were in your own little bizarre Vatican city. 
 
I used to listen to a lot of theater music and that was always off it its own section with the classical.
Yeah, so it would be like random Sondheim stuff mixed in. It was always disorganized but then you realized like what if it just didn’t matter? And now it’s so great because you can discover anything. I love the weirdness of the "People who like this also like." And for my own stuff, its so random and when you find it coming from the other direction.
 
How do you find film scoring? Is it restrictive for you and if so, do you enjoy that sense of structure?
Yes, but I’ve never quite bought into the idea that restrictive is a bad thing. I think most people want more restriction, myself included. The weird thing about composers is that no one edits our shit, right? Even the best writers editors but with classical music, you never have anyone telling you anything. So for me, it’s great to enter into a collaborative structure where you’re constantly being criticized. It’s a pain in the ass but it feels great and athletic; you have no time and all the decisions have to be made in like kind of on the spot. I like it a lot.
 
Can you think of a film that you’d have love to write the music for?
What a strange idea. It’s so weird because there are so many where you think that you could, but not because the current thing is bad, but just because it’s such a genius film. I re-watched The Shining the other night and it’s so fucking genius, it’s insane. And it’s a combination of that Wendy Carlos score and all the place music, and it’s just great. 
 
I think anything Wendy Carlos is pretty perfect.
Wendy Carlos is the literal best.
 
I remember seeing Clockwork Orange for the first time when I was quite young and thinking what is the sound.
Oh yeah and it’s funny, I was just listening to James Blakes’s new album and it has this unbelievable slightly retuned synth in it that’s very from the universe of Wendy Carlos.
 
When you’re working on a piece, where do you usually begin? It is from a conceptual standpoint or an emotional?
Well, I should think conceptual and emotional are probably the same, at least in my universe. It’s like what emotion are you trying to illicit, what are you aiming for? That’s both conceptual and emotional. But I usually start from a place of structure, and so that structure and the concept and the emotion are the same thing because the structure is the pace of the thing. And then what that delivers is emotion. Then inside that you can have whatever conceptual bullshit you want to do like, [affected voice] "I’m really into this whole idea like low oboe notes." The notes and the sounds for me come a bit later than the shape; the shaper determines the whole thing. I’ve been writing so much vocal music, both operatic and not operatic, in the last 4 or 5 years and it’s totally changed how I think about instrumental music too. With an opera you really do have a structure given to you.
 
Do you have any large-scale dream projects?
I want to redo all the alert sounds of New York. I would do all the airports, in Penn station, in subway stations—I want to do all that shit. That to me is the dream, a big piece of civic music-making. 
 
Especially as someone whose in transit as much as you are.
Yeah. Oh, and Heathrow would actually be a dream come true. There’s a an unbelievable noise in Terminal 3—which is basically where I spend like half my year—and it’s like every time they make an announcement it’s so piercing. I get why it has to be, but then the question becomes: can’t you have different levels of piercing? Or just different tones so it doesn’t feel like you’re in this constantly? If you’e there for longer than an hour, which you inevitably are, it becomes torturous. 
 
Do you find that this is were you draw your inspiration picking up on these small pieces in waking life?
Yeah, kind of. I haven’t written any pieces that sound like Terminal 3 but I think about it a lot. You never know, there’s always kind of room for bizarre inspiration.
 
Since you began composing, have you noticed a large change in your music or had to refine yourself?
Of course, oh my god. Today I’m proof reading some things in Two Boys, which I wrote three years ago, and even just looking at how I wrote that I’m like, what the fuck? It’s like looking at picture from the awkward years with braces. So even a few months, you look back and think—what was the nature of this decision? And it’s less a specific and more of a timing thing, I’ve gotten more attuned to how to do it. And just with certain harmonic gestures, it just happens i the background, like when your iPhone updates itself without telling you.  All the sudden you wake up an everything’s different, I love that. I look forward to that happening forever and I think the moment that doesn’t happen I should just jump off a balcony or something. 
 
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