Why DJ Michael T. Takes No Requests

After a couple of decades in the club biz, labels make way for legendary status. I am often described as “a legend” when someone is introducing me to someone. I always find it to be embarrassing and I always check my pulse to see if I’m still kicking. For some reason I find it a bit insulting. It discounts my "now" and concentrates or wallows in my past. Michael T. is still kicking it, so much so that this Sunday, he’s launching his second New Romantic Ball at Le Poisson Rouge. He is one of my favorite DJs. Just don’t ask him to play your favorite track.

For those who just stepped off the boat, tell us who you are… and do get into “Motherfucker” and that old shit.
I’m Michael T., performer/DJ and producer of "rock n roll" events/parties for over 20 years. My parties attract both gay and straight. The ones that are truly mixed are always the best parties. I’ve been going to clubs regularly since 1985. I started working in them on and off from ‘86 on. I’ve worked in clubs consistently since 1989.

The first party I ever "produced" was called "New York Nights." It was held at The Pyramid Club on Avenue A…when it was still dangerous.
It was on a Monday and it ran for two years. [‘91-‘93] It was an "alternative" party, both musically and people-wise.

After that, I had a band called Killer Lipstick [‘93-‘95]. Before/during and after this period I did what a lot of people do in clubs to secure a gig and survive, be it door/guest list, go-go dancer, performer etc. Eventually, this lead to DJing, which seemed to be one of the more "stable" of jobs as far as clubland goes.

Anyway, my first "real" DJ gig was at the now-shuttered The Tunnel at a party called "Kurfew" in the Kenny Scharf room aka “the fuzzy room.”
This was 1998-99. At this time, I also had a monthly party “Heroes” at a club called Mother called "Heroes.” I was also the emcee and DJ at the now-closed S&M restaurant "La Maison De Sade.”

Halloween Night, 1998: While DJing at “Kurfew,”-I took ecstasy for the first time. It was a mind-blowing experience.
The second time I took it: Jan 18th on my birthday [again, I was DJing] I had an "epiphany" of sorts. I thought how amazing it would be if I somehow managed to get the right group of creative people together in order to create the ultimate, outrageous "Rock N Roll Fantasy" party. Thus, the seed to "Motherfucker" was planted that evening.

Fast forward a year and a half later and Motherfucker was born at Mother. Chi Chi Valenti gave us the name, who in turn was given the name
by Clark Render. Apparently, Clark would often ask her why they [Johnny and Chi Chi] never did a party called "Motherfucker" at Mother.
Needless to say, we all thought it was a great name.

At any rate, Motherfucker grew and grew and grew and it became the biggest roving rock n roll party in NYC. We sold out the Roxy, Limelight, Spirit, Eugene, Rebel [with three to four rooms] for the next seven years.

Two moments that I will cherish forever was when I booked Willie Ninja & The House of Ninja and The Cramps [not on the same bill].
The other "infamous" party I did was "Rated X/The Panty Party" with Theo Kogan, singer of The Lunachicks.” It ran for six years, and every week we had naked people on stage competing in our 3am "Hot Body Contest" to win a whopping $100.

This is your second New Romantic Ball. In fact, it is called Romantic Ball II. What’s the difference between a ball and a party? What can people expect at the Ball and what is expected from them besides just showing up with a $20 bill?
Well, they’ll walk into a real club with proper lights, sound, a great dance floor, and CLEAN bathrooms!!
They’ll also see four bands, two burlesque shows, and hear three DJs, and hangout with a bunch of colorful hosts.

What’s the difference between a ball and a party? A ball usually pertains to an event that is held once or twice a year; they’re special events and, therefore, you make that distinction. Besides, everyone these days throws a “party.”

That stated, the main attractions of the night are the tribute shows we put on.They’re done with a full, six to seven-piece band. That’s just my band.
My partner, Ben Ickies, has a 20-piece orchestra. Where can one go today and see a rock show with a 20-piece orchestra?!?

All of our shows are rehearsed. Plus, we always have guest singers. However, let me state that we have REAL performers on stage. This is NOT a glorified "scaryoke" night. The artist[s] or genre we pay homage to is done with the utmost respect. We really love that artist or time period in music that’s being reinterpreted for the evening. We don’t do these shows to be "ironic.”

If you’re wondering what bands fall under "new romantic,” they’re all bands from the U.K. that flourished in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, roughly ‘79-‘82. Just about all these bands were heavily inspired by Bowie or Roxy Music.
ie;Duran Duran, ABC, Visage, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, etc.

In short, you get to see a great show for your $20.

Le Poisson Rouge is a very artsy, creative friendly environment. Talk about the joint.
Well, it’s one of the last "legit" clubs in NYC. It has an incredible stage, excellent sound/lights a greenroom, a big DANCE FLOOR! Plus, it has a very professional and courteous staff.

It’s such a delight throwing parties or balls there. It’s a venue that really helps you achieve your artistic vision and isn’t just concerned with the bottom-line – what a rarity in this day and age. In all my years working in various clubs, I don’t think I’ve ever met a more pro-active staff…from busboy all the way to the GM.

You and I have DJd over the centuries. You are adamant about not taking requests. Explain that and your take on your job as a DJ.
I don’t take requests for the most part because either A) people have shitty taste in music; B) They’re rude; and also C) I’m not a juke-box.

The main reason, however, is very simple: I know what I’m doing. I’ve been DJing since 1998. Whatever venue I’m working at has hired me for that reason. I just find it outrageous that people feel it’s their "right" to make requests and get "offended" if you don’t comply.

Here are just a few lovely examples of the crap you hear from people: "I like what you’re playing…but.” Or, if I was DJing, I’d play this next" etc.
Can you imagine, if I walked into an office and told someone I’ve never met that they should do their job "like so"!?!! I’m sorry, I simply don’t stand for any of that nonsense. If you don’t like what I play, fine, go somewhere else. You won’t be missed. Believe me.

What is your overview of nightlife in the terrible 2010s?
It’s tragic. I don’t really need to say much…you pretty much answered your own question. The state of nightlife is at an all-time low.

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I disagree with Michael and find fun everywhere…but then again, I take requests. Something on my hmmmm list is Yiddish Cabaret going on at The Box tonight at 10pm. It’s somehow a gig anticipating the opening of Soho’s new kosher restaurant Jezebel. You can buy tickets here. I have been told to look out for a Ms. Jonas’ rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man." Oy vey, I’m leaving Brooklyn…for this?

This Week: Ray-Bans & Rolling Stones Celebrate Milestone Anniversaries

I was so crazy yesterday that I forgot to do the one thing I really wanted to do. This season does that to you. I wanted, expected, ached to attend the Ray-Ban: 75 Years of Legends event at The Darby last night. The Flaming Lips performed. I will attend the Rolling Stones concert as they bring their 50th anniversary tour to the Barclays Center on Saturday. It’s amazing that we are celebrating something that started 50 years ago and another thing that’s 75 years of tradition.

On this oldie-but-goodie tip, we have the wonderful Beatles cover band, the Newspaper Taxis, performing Revolver at the Red Lion, 151 Bleecker St. According to my pal Brian August, The Beatles never performed any part of Revolver live. My ex- wife Jennifer Hamdan did cover “Tomorrow Never Knows” when she was signed to Next Plateau Records. Her track failed to make it to any plateau, but it was fun. Still on the oldies tip, Gary Spencer will celebrate his 50th birthday with a bash tonight at  his Hanky Panky attachment to Webster Hall. Oldies but goodies – the prodigy producer/mixer Neil McLellan and good ol’ Andy Rourke (The Smiths) – will DJ, and The Darling Darling Music Company will perform live.

Older than Methuselah, Marty Abrahams told me about his solo exhibition “Break On Through” at the Salomon Arts Gallery, which will happen on 12/12/12 from 6pm till 9pm. If I’m not at that mega, super duper, ginormous Sandy relief concert at the Garden with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Roger Waters and all those other old guys, then I will attend Marty’s thing.

Somebody who never ages and whose humor is timeless, Murray Hill, will bring his annual “Murray Little Christmas” to us next Saturday the 15th, from 8pm to midnight to Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. Murray is amazing, amazing, amazing. Here’s the scoop:

“Expect an evening of hilarious and wacky skits with the cast, a sleigh full of cheesy holiday songs, plenty of nuts, fruits and tree trimming. This year’s special guests:

BRIDGET EVERETT (carnal chanteuse and fearless cabaret star), ERIN MARKEY (wacky performance artist), CARMINE COVELLI (a.k.a. SEBASTIAN THE ELF), THE NYC BURLESQUE CHOIR (conducted by Shelly Watson) with live swinging holiday music from Murray’s band THE CRAIG’S LIST QUARTET (Jesse Elder–piano, Kenball Zwerin–bass, Matt Parker–saxaphone, Arthur Vint–drums and rimshots). Set design by Steven Hammel."

The Best Christmas Parties in New York

Yesterday, I gave you 2 posts, and today it will be a half. Christmas has me going bonkers. Trying to get any of the design stuff finished or even worked on is near impossible, but New Year’s looms, and people are needing to get open, if only for that night. Traditionally, I would open my clubs on Thanksgiving and New Year’s if only to provide a place for those who couldn’t travel to family, or for many, many other reasons had no place to go. People move to NY to accomplish or at least chase their dreams, and find themselves far away from those they usually spend Christmas with. The Lewis family Christmas dinner will include a few of these strays, and I urge everyone to look around and see if there is someone you know who could use a place to share in the love.  Bah hum-bugging is not allowed

There are a few joints open Christmas Day/Night. I will be out meeting up with close friends after dinner with the parental units. My first stop will be the Soho Grand, where our dear friend Erika will be bartending from 6pm. I will then pop over to Christie 141 where Sara Copeland is serving up booze and good cheer. I hated 141 Christie when they were calling it Mystique. Apparently enough people agreed to warrant a name change and a rebranding. What better day to give it another chance than Christmas. If I am still looking to party and can find a cab to get around, I will head to Le Poisson Rouge for DJ Rekha’s Christmas edition of Bollywood Disco. DJ Rajstar will join her and visuals will be provided by Fictive.

Thursday is promoter, entrepreneur, and man-about-town Rob Fernandez’s Mega Birthday Bash. The invite shows a very pregnant Rob on the cover of a fictitious magazine called Vanity Fairy. That’s a very in joke for those who wonder how it ever got in in the first place. Benny Soto will be hosting this bash at Dance.Here.Now, his and Rob’s weekly gathering at Cielo. Music will be provided by Oscar G. and Lazaro Casanova

I may not be there, as I am still DJing at Hotel Chantelle every Thurday. This week I am very excited to have Lily of the Valley and Miss Guy start their weekly party in the basement lounge. I love these fellas and the crowd that follows them.

Nightlife That Makes You Feel Like A Good Person

On Wednesday night we dressed like Eskimos and attended a private screening of director Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman at the Bryant Park Hotel’s screening room. Club legend Danny A. Abeckaser invited me and mine to the show. Danny plays a pivotal role in the flick as the best friend to leading man Michael Shannon. Michael plays hit man Richard Leonard "The Iceman" Kuklinski who had somewhere between 100 and 250 successful whacks before they caught him in 1986. The film is filled with familiar faces, from Ray Liotta, James Franco, Chris Evans, Stephen Dorff, David Schwimmer, and Winona Ryder. Winona ruled. Danny A. had his usual crowd of models and the folks that hang with them, and a good time was had by all. It’s good to see one of the good guys in the club world breaking out and living his dreams on the silver screen. The movie is chilling and captivating. It will come out in a couple of months.

Advance tickets are on sale for The 4th Annual Two Boots Mardi Gras Ball Benefit for The Lower East Side Girls Club happening at Le Poisson Rouge on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 12th. They have Cyndi Lauper and ?UESTLOVE doing the King and Queen of the Mardi Gras thing, and performances by Pitchblack, EMEFE, The Ambitious Orchestra and powerhouse DJs Roxy Cottontail and Beverly Bond. All sorts of other acts and stilt walkers and body painters will be part of this for such a great cause. The Lower East Side Girls Club helps young girls climb out of bad places, giving them guidance and support as they try to make their dreams come true. My pal Jenny Dembrow is a honcho over there working tirelessly to make it work. Tickets are $25 or $125 for the dinner, booze, and reserved seating. Get them here.

Just a word to all: it’s real cold out there, even for those who can afford warm clothes and shelter from the elements. Be aware that around us there are people who don’t have the ability to get by on their own. If you have stuff you’re not wearing that can help another, this is a good time to make room in your closet. Donate your goods to one of Goodwill’s NYC locations here and feel like a good person instantly.

Sandy Hook Memories, Brunch at Yotel, and Everything at Bedlam

I had a lot to write about today. People have holiday events they want to tell people about and I have a zillion e-mails to sift through. The news of the shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut has put most of this on the back burner. I spent the summers of my youth in Sandy Hook. When school started the Lewis clan would return to the city and we’d only go up on weekends. Eventually the winter snows and extreme cold had us close the house up until the thaw. On warm summer days my younger brother and I would hike the 2 miles to town without fear, without much thought except for the grass and wind and trees and birds. There were farms back then, and deep woods.

Some days were spent doing archeological digs in ancient stone foundations. We’d find pottery shards and rusted tools and such and these treasures mixed with the natural treasures all around made for an idyllic childhood. We’d steal some corn, we’d harass a bull, pet cows, identify the names of the birds and trees. We’d get in trouble with bees. We’d get lost and somehow always find our way home. Our cat often came with us on our ventures. Sometimes we’d swing on vines into the great Lake Zoar.

The town itself was a couple hundred feet long. There was a small stable back then and a hardware store and places to buy household things. Not much else. A small fast stream with a little bridge over it split the burg. We’d sit on rocks in the middle and try to catch fish with aquarium nets. We never did. Once a copperhead came up next to me and my cousin Ron chased it away.

Sandy Hook is a little town next to Newtown another mile or so up the road. In Newtown the main drag is lined with beautiful ancient home s and centuries-old trees. The police station, the mayor, and all the municipality offices are in a big building called Town Hall. They still show movies there. In my youth it was a quarter or 35 cents and offered up family fare. One kid might pay the ticket price and open up a side door to let the gang in. The whole town would show up on a Saturday night for a picture of note and there would be shorts and previews and lots of small and big talk before and after.

Sandy Hook/Newtown is a place that can’t make the news. It’s designed not to. I go back every year to have a look. I’ll stop by the old house and smell the forest and have a pizza at Lorenzo’s, where buckets still collect the drips from a leaky roof . It’s right by the big lake and smells of rotting leaves and the creatures that live in them. The food isn’t too great and the service a little slow but it’s just perfect. We’d hike down there most evenings to get a Slim Jim or Sugar Daddy. Bad things, bad people never reached our neck of the woods. But here we are with lots of dead people and the tranquility gone forever. Anyway, just rambling on as I try to wrap myself around this. My thoughts and prayers to those in harm’s way.

I promised a few mentions. Tomrrow brunch at Yotel (570 10th Avenue) which is celebrating Hollardazed with music by AndrewAndrew, performances by The Glamazons with hosts Epiphany and Chris Torres. The shindig is brought to you by the dapper Errickson Wilcox and the seductive Roxy Cottontail. There’s going to be balloon art and a blind contour artist. Tonight Frankie Sharp that man about town is bringing back for one night only Everything at Bedlam (40 Avenue C). There will be live shows by the House of Ladosha. The soiree is hosted by Patricia Fields and Jordan Fox. I highly recommend checking out Murray Hill’s A MURRAY LITTLE CHRISTMAS tomorrow night December 15th at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street). Murray is the real deal and this is a can’t-miss event.

I must note that tomorrow marks the birthday of my dearly departed friend Arthur Weinstein. Arthur was a club owner, a lighting designer, a photographer, an artist, a father, a husband, and a friend. He was a rogue warrior of a glorious downtown era. He taught me everything I know but not everything he knew. He was a mentor and a mensch. I miss him every day.

Jon B. Reopening Juliet Supper Club?

As I left the subway yesterday afternoon, I wondered if the rain had stopped. I approached the stairway to heaven and all things Meatpacking District when a man who looked like he had just seen Godzilla turned to me and said "It’s fucking Noah’s Arc shit out there.” Armed with a $4 umbrella, I went toward the rain, which seemed more like a portend to an Al Gore "I told you so" monologue than a midsummer relief. As I bravely entered the maelstrom, tourists huddled under awnings, looking like scared wet puppies. They looked at me like I was a fireman entering the burning tenement. I decided to sing and skip through the puddles and had the most fun. I entered my meeting at the Soho House with wet feet and a youthful grin. There, I kissed cheeks and shook hands with fabulous friends who told me secrets that I swore I’d wait on.

Someone asked me if I had been to Jon B’s new restaurant, punctuating the remarks with "air quotation marks and ending with wink, wink." I said, "No, I haven’t gone to RSVP yet and I don’t think I will.” They asked me if he was going to run it like a restaurant or if he would it do that for a while and then let it devolve into just another Juliet Supper Club. I said something like, "A leopard can’t change his stripes,” or “A horse is a horse of course of course," and the dude thought I wasn’t making sense. They put booze in those drinks at Soho House.

Another chatty fellow told me he heard from a lawyer that works with another lawyer that’s getting the liquor license that Jon B was going to reopen Juliet, which has been shuttered because of doing everything badly. This fellow swears that Jon will open there again as a restaurant. "OMG!" I offered while trying to escape. “It will be Deja Vu, Bang ,Bang, Bang all over again!” While the suits chuckled at my escape quip, I ran to the couch to take my meeting, waving to beautiful, wonderful, fabulous people at the bar. Soho House is all things to some people. I’m considering hanging there constantly for inside “wink, wink” scoops.

This Saturday night I am heading to Le Poisson Rouge to catch DJ/producer/old friend Frankie Knuckles. I chatted with him about the gig and the state of dance music yesterday. Le Poisson is really an important spot and has been since day one. It was good to catch up after too many years. Frankie will be joined by Miguel Migs, Sleepy & Boo, Mikey G, and Dan Fisher. It will be nice to hear some good ol’ house music. Electronic dance music is like a mosquito to my ears. I seek some vocals and the company of adults.

Last but not least, and the subject of tomorrow’s post, is this Sunday’s Xtravaganza Ball at XL. It will be everything. Tivo True Blood, On Demand The Newsroom, put your seriously chic outfit on, and head to this ball. I cannot recommend an event more strongly. This is the realest of deals. Please come done-up as that is the requirement at balls such as this. But be warned: there are few balls such as this. I must leave right now for my fitting, as I have been honored to be a judge and must look fierce. Tell you more tomorrow!

An Enchanting Evening of ‘Britten and Muhly’ at Le Poisson Rouge

Nico Muhly took a break from the final preparations for his opera Two Boys—premiering at the Met tomorrow—to host a serene, laid-back evening at Le Poisson Rouge dedicated to Benjamin Britten, his forebears, and his legacy. Muhly’s last appearance at the venue back in May was an exciting, fast-paced preview of Two Boys, and Thursday’s more reflective performance proved that he’s just as accomplished a curator as he is a composer. Featuring choral works by Britten, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, and Muhly himself, the program traced a musical heritage from Purcell down to Muhly, or, as countertenor Iestyn Davies put it less linearly, a “collaboration across centuries.”

Muhly’s compositions are wide and varied—operas, ballets, orchestral arrangements, chamber music, film scores, Björk collaborations, and much more—and it seems that one of his goals for the evening was to show how heterogeneous and referential Britten’s work was as well. Progressing from brash, torchy cabaret songs set to W. H. Auden poems to selections from the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream to ecstatic realizations of Purcell arias, the Britten portion of the program demonstrated the composer’s extensive emotional depth and openness to multiple sources of inspiration.

Britten maintained that eclecticism while being what Muhly called a “practical” composer, one who mostly drew from sources that were close to him, whether Purcell, Shakespeare, or cabaret. Muhly shares a similar “practical” openness, constantly expanding his compositional scope while remaining true to his musical influences. At the end of the evening, Muhly demonstrated his indebtedness to the English choral tradition with “Four Traditional Songs,” anonymous folk songs that he arranged against a sharp, modernized piano accompaniment.

The incredible vocalists—Iestyn Davies, tenor Joseph Kaiser, and sopranos Patricia Racette and Kathleen Kim—poured their hearts out to Dan Saunders’ virtuosic piano, and Muhly didn’t mince words about his admiration for all of them. (“Are we all obsessed with Kathleen Kim now?” he asked the audience after Kim’s particularly ethereal performance of a Midsummer aria.) Muhly’s vivacious, cheeky stage presence, which he maintained from his program notes to his own piano playing, is always a treat to witness and acts as a refreshing antidote to the general stuffiness of opera commentary (it also carries over to his consistently hilarious Twitter feed).

His prolificness and seemingly constant energy make it no wonder that Muhly could pull off such a focused presentation of a musical giant while gearing up to be the youngest composer (at 32) to ever debut at the Met. The historical weight of that statistic would be stressful for anyone, but Muhly doesn’t seem to be crippling under the pressure in the slightest. Besides, he’s in good company: Britten’s first major opera, Peter Grimes, premiered in London when the composer was also just 32.

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson on His Immersive World of Sound

A black velvet sky looms overhead as you walk through the empty streets brimming with emotion. You find yourself propelled by something radiating deep within, whose origin you may not recognize, but runs through you with force. It’s a powerful sensation but you allow yourself to succumb to it because inside that somber chamber of feeling lies something beautiful. And if ever there was a sonic accompaniment to such tactile emotion, it would be the work of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose music evokes a visceral and stunningly immersion into sound.

Melding the timeless essence of classical composition with modern ambient rhythms, Jóhannsson creates intricate and penetrating electro-orchestra sonic worlds that speak volumes even in their silence. Soaring from sparse acoustic melodic motifs to grand cinematic gestures that envelop your mind completely, his music transports you to a very distinct mental landscape full of richness and texture. From his stunning solo albums—such as Englabörn, Fordlandia, and And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees—to his haunting film scores— Dreams in Copenhagen, The Miners’ Hymns, and the upcoming Prisoners—Jóhannsson’s work is drenched in pulsating echoes that burst and crescendo with a rare beauty. Whether employing the use of electromagnetic emissions of old IBM 1401 mainframe computers or working inside the musical aesthetics of holy minimalism, Jóhannsson operates in a world of heightened sensitivity that feels an experiential as it does insular.
 
Earlier this week, Jóhannsson made his way down to Le Poisson Rouge to play fantastically moving show alongside the Acme Quartet. Sitting in the darkness of LPR, I found myslef in a complete trance as I listened to his songs played live before me, swiftly drawing me into a vortex of pure emotion. But before Jóhannsson’s performance, I got a chance to chat with the acclaimed composer to dive further into the instinctual nature of his creative process, his affinity for film music, and how his work adapts to live performance.
 
With music that feels so dymanic and layered, I’m curious as to where you begin. How do you go about the initial process of writing a song or creating an album?

There are many ways to approach it, and it’s very much depends on the context—if I’m writing for a film or for for my own project. There’s no one way, but I approach writing very instinctively and it’s a very non-cerebral process. It’s instinctual and it comes very much from images or being inspired by visual arts, films—very often non-musical stuff—poetry, a novel I’m reading, or ideas. A lot of my work comes from abstract image. It starts with a vague, abstraction in my head that’s translated into music somehow.
 
When I spoke to William Basinski, he referred to that sort of creative process as “going back to the womb” or the “space station.” And personally, listening to your music has always been a very insular experience for me and really sinks me into very particular feeling. But when you’re writing music, do you find it to be a very meditative? You say it’s instinctual, so does that require freeing your mind and allowing these abstract images to speak to you? 
Yes, it’s very important to empty your mind. But I don’t really like the word meditative because it implies a kind of calm and a kind of serenity. It implies music that doesn’t disturb you too much, and I think my music is very much about tension as well, it’s not about relaxation. I like that tension but I also like my music to be very enveloping and immersive. But there always has to be this element of push and pull. But it’s true that when I write it’s also visceral, it’s like you’re thinking with your body and not with your mind and the music comes from the blood,  from a physical place. But then afterwards, once you’ve done the creative process of writing the material, another process takes over—which is much more cerebral—the structuring and creating the form.
 
Speaking to that tension, there’s a great dichotomy in your work between very delicate minimal sounds and harsh pulsating beats with overwhelming drama. That’s also echoed in your use of both acoustic and electronic instruments. Are you attracted to exploring that differentiation in your music and seeing how two seemingly opposite things can be blended together?

Yeah, that’s one set of oppositions, this dichotomy in my music between the warmth and expression of the acoustic instruments— which are very often strings—versus the electronic sounds that can be quite harsh and abrasive. There’s a tension there that I’m very interested in and this kind of contrast and making these elements work together to make them a whole. Sometimes, for me, it works best when you can’t hear what is what, what is the instrument is exactly. I very rarely write music that’s purely acoustic or purely electronic,  it’s always a blend of the two.
 
As someone who does a lot of film scoring, is that a welcome diversion from your own creative work, to have to inhabit someone else’s sonic world and help in tell their story?

I like to have a balance between the two. I feel like being only a film composer and sometimes get sick of working in my own world and want to collaborate with other artists. But I’m a huge film and film music fan and have so much respect for the film form, so for me a it’s a great pleasure to work in that medium. It’s something I enjoy very much and I’ve been fortunate to have some really good projects come my way and work with really good filmmakers. So that’s a pleasure. People approach me for film music because they’ve heard my solo albums, so often there’s not much difference I write for film and the music I write on my own, it becomes all part of the same work. But writing for film is very different because you are part of a creative group that’s a collaborative enterprise and your music is supposed to serve the film and carry the emotions and the narrative forward; it carries a purpose. But it’s very natural for me to write film music. I very much enjoy dividing my time between the two.
 
Your music carries such a deep emotional current that feels like it’s meant to be either extremely intimate or extremely grand. How does that translate to live performance for you?
A lot of my work I can’t really play live. Some of it I adapt because usually when I play live I play with a string quartet. I have done shows with a full orchestra where it’s easier to play certain things, but generally I create special versions for concerts and that’s a process I enjoy—to reinterpret the music and to make it work within that context. But not all of it works that way, so there are certain pieces that I tend to play live and some I tend to stay away from.
 

 
Do you find your exterior environment plays a large role in what you create or is it more about the psychological that informs you? 
In many ways I could write anywhere, you know? For the longest time when I lived in Iceland my studio was in a basement with no windows—basically a very dingy little basement—and I wrote a lot of stuff there. My studio now is a little bit brighter, but I don’t need spectacular grand views or amazing vistas to write music, I think you just need to be in the right mind. That’s one of the things that’s hard about getting into a writing mode, is getting yourself into that headspace and the right state of mind to write,  and that takes several days and is very frustrating. Sometimes you spend several days sitting around trying to write and nothing is happening, but it’s a process you have to go to to be able to get to the state where you can actually do it. It’s a purgatory, but in terms of locations, it doesn’t really matter where I am, it’s more about the internal.
 
Are there any particular film scores that have really inspired you or had a lasting impact on you as an artist?

There are a lot of films that are up there among the greats that have had a profound impact on me. A very early influence on me as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a film a lot of people cite as such. But it was a huge cinematic experience when I saw it at a young age, and it had a profound influence on me. The way Kubrick uses music in that film is absolutely great—it’s not a score, it’s classical piece but it’s amazingly put together. Also, the Bernard Herrmann/Hitchcock collaboration is something that’s inspiring and a large well of music and images are great to get into and take inspiration from. I’m a huge fan of the collaboration between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti as well.
 
When making music that’s so heavily steeped in a sense of melancholy or darkness, do you have to put yourself into that place mentally or are you able to conjure up those emotions through your music without having to delve head first into them yourself?

I have to feel very good to write. I have to be physically and mentally in a very good place. So I have to stay away fro the studio if I’m not in a good state. You don’t have to feel those emotions exactly at the moment you’re writing, you can draw from the past or from experiences or from feelings from those times.

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.