BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

Variations on a Theme

Composer Nico Muhly talks to Dan Fox about his relationship to music, cooking and collaboration

BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 JUN 10

‘Prodigious’ is a word often used to describe Nico Muhly, for the rise of this 29-year-old American composer has been swift. His already sizeable body of work stretches across ballet, chamber, choral and orchestral compositions, along with film scores and collaborations with artists including Björk, Antony Hegarty, Jónsi and Will Oldham. Performances of his work have been given by, amongst many others, the Britten Sinfonia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He has worked as an assistant to Philip Glass, released two albums – Speaks Volumes (2007) and Mothertongue (2008) – and is currently writing an opera for the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. I met Muhly at his New York home, where we talked about his omnivorous attitude to life and music.

DAN FOX Was music an integral part of your upbringing?
NICO MUHLY No. We were not a musical family and my parents had no ambitions for me in that direction. I started because there was a piano deep in our scary basement that I began playing, and simultaneously I joined an Anglican all-boys choir in Providence, Rhode Island. Suddenly, when I was about 11, it clicked.

Nico Muhly at home in New York, 2010. Courtesy: Santiago Felipe. 

DF Was this when you discovered English Renaissance music? Composers such as William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons are a big influence on you.
NM ‘Discovered’ is almost the wrong word because Byrd, Gibbons or Thomas Tallis are so much part of the Anglican tradition. It’s weird that children, especially American children, should be exposed to such music at such an early age, but it’s standard issue in the church.

DF You once described the music of Byrd and Gibbons as: ‘like the walls you walk next to, that guide the journey.’
NM Exactly. For me it’s the baseline against which I’m bouncing other things. That was the first music I was performing and engaged with emotionally, so no matter what I’m doing it’s always the starting point.

DF Before you studied at The Juilliard School, New York, you did English Literature at Columbia…
NM I actually did them simultaneously.

DF Did your literature studies feed into your interests in language and communication?
NM Everything fed into everything; it was important for me to not just go to music conservatory. You can really focus on music there, which is fine if that’s what you want, but I just thought, ‘I’ll die’. At Juilliard there is an almost total absence of humanities education. No-one takes it seriously. You wake up, you practice for seven hours, you go to three classes, you go to orchestra … and you want me to read Wuthering Heights?

DF So did you find Juilliard stifling?
NM A narrative I don’t like is that I, the artist, want to do x, but something is blocking me. That the institution is acting against you isn’t the case, and hasn’t really been so since the 1960s. An institution is not a person, and it’s easy to blame your frustrations on this inanimate thing, when in fact they tend to be filled with wonderful people who wish only the best for you. At Juilliard, for instance, you could say they forbade electronic music on stage: but it’s not that they forbade it, it’s that it’s a pain in the ass to do. It’s not part of what they’re good at, so there’s no support, but it doesn’t mean that they oppress you. For me, the library was a dangerous place – I couldn’t get enough. My curiosity is voracious and canine; I am like a golden retriever and will slobber on every object in the room until I keel over! I got shocked into working the way I do because of how hardcore it was to be going to two schools and having two jobs. There was no moment to pause and go ‘hmmm now I shall think something dismissive of Sibelius’.

DF Do you have a particular working method when composing?
NM I wish! I work in a lot of different spaces, and my set-up is evolving. I have a mobile rig so, wherever I am, I can send a list of equipment to the local music store and rent it – which has made my life a lot easier. But I’m travelling so much it changes all the time.

The music of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons was the first I performed and engaged with emotionally, so no matter what I'm doing it's always the starting point.

DF You once wrote that exhaustion from travel feeds into your work.
NM It does. I go to London every six weeks, and a really specific thing for me is the 15-minute Heathrow Express train journey. You arrive, it’s 6am, and you feel completely bizarre. You’ve drunk the dumbest cocktails in the universe, you’re watching the special Heathrow Express BBC news-feed and the music to that is so specific and you’re listening to some Italian girl crying to her boyfriend; that whole scene makes everything for me really pop! When you’re on tour you get into those moments. If you interrogate that, something otherworldly can happen. Routine, for me, is less interesting.

DF You’ve worked with the composer Philip Glass. You’ve observed that he can’t just jet off for six months at the drop of a hat – he has a sense of community and responsibility. Has that been a guiding light for you in terms of your own collaborations?
NM Very much so. Some composers feel entitled to a living – they believe we should be provided for. I sort of share that but I think we should be provided for by the state. I would prefer to be a court composer; for me, that’s a more interesting model. But given the lack of structure, Philip employs people and pays for their healthcare, which is really quite extraordinary. Collaboration is slightly different in that the money is evenly distributed, but I try to engender situations where, if someone says ‘here’s 5,000 dollars, will you do a show?’ I try to invite as many people as possible, give them all money, and we do it together. That’s more exciting for me than to play solo piano and hoard the money like Uncle Scrooge.

DF How about the Iceland-based Bedroom Community record label? All its musicians work on each other’s projects. How did you come to be involved with that?
NM I had been working with [producer and composer] Valgeir Sigurðsson on Björk’s Medúlla [2004]. As some of my music hadn’t been recorded, he and I started working on it together. We realized that it would be too expensive to do it in a traditional way, so we thought, why don’t I work on your thing, you work on mine, and we assign the work a sort of arbitrary trading value. He decided as a result of this that it might be interesting to make a label. Bedroom Community is set up to bypass the traditional model and, with a little luck, make a bit of money.

DF How important is performing for you?
NM Touring is great. It’s a direct line of communication. Often an arts organization commissions you to write a piece, and it takes place in this glacial calendar where they say ‘for 2014 we’re interested in a piece for wind sextet’. There can be an enormous amount of emotional distance between the act of making and what people are listening to. Performing is also exhausting, although that is good to experience, so you know what a chore it can be. It helps me communicate with musicians more directly about what I’m after.

Mothertongue, 2008. Courtesy: bedroom community, Reykjavik.

DF How did your residency earlier this year with the Britten Sinfonia chamber orchestra come about?
NM The phone rang! What they wanted, to which I agreed because I think it’s a good idea, was a residency where they tour two pieces – a chamber piece and a large piece – and stage a tonne of concerts and I do some talks and teaching at Cambridge University.

DF Did they approach you because you have a relationship to Benjamin Britten’s music?
NM Not really; they have a commitment to his work, but not every composer they commission has to be a diehard Britten enthusiast like me!

DF Britten was relatively open-minded about where his music appeared: the ‘Church Parables’ [1964–8], for instance, or his music for the GPO Film Unit. Does the idea of ‘music for use’ attract you?
NM Interesting. Britten wouldn’t necessarily be my first model of ‘music for use’ but he was someone who wasn’t precious about where his music should go. Towards the end of his life he got into something very interesting with those ‘Church Parables’, in which children are processing in masks, and the congregation sings and it’s all very Butoh. It’s really nuts, site-specific music.

DF You’re currently writing an opera with librettist Craig Lucas, entitled Two Boys, for the ENO and the Metropolitan Opera, based on a real life story involving false identities, the Internet and murder. What attracted you to the story?
NM I first read about it on the BBC website around 2001, and it seemed so shocking then that you could use the Internet in this forbidden way. That someone composed this completely bat-shit, elaborate scenario was so wild to me. The story involves an 11-year-old boy who invents a series of women online to seduce an older boy. In the end he gets very wrapped up in the world he’s created, makes up a disease and requests that the older boy stab him. It took the police several months to work out what happened. The idea of chatrooms was at that time completely beyond their field of knowledge. It’s such an opera: mistaken identity, the masqued ball. It’s love, it’s sex, it’s death, it’s the forbidden.

DF Are there any new challenges that you’ve faced in writing opera?
NM Obviously it has to work as theatre, and that’s a challenge, but I’m putting myself in the hands of a very capable director [Bartlett Sher]. One challenge is to figure out proportion. If you say ‘she walks to her desk and picks up a stack of papers’, that could be a beautiful ten-minute sequence, but maybe it only needs to be two seconds. You have to make the drama make sense.

DF Does it relate to your experiences of writing music for film?
NM Occasionally it does, in the sections where there is no singing. I’m aware of how to make music bridge physical space or time, and that comes from film to a certain extent. But film took it from opera, so it’s really just about knowing how stuff works.

DF What does that mean in terms of scale? Are you writing for a big orchestra?
NM It’s enormous. Everyone is there. Every instrument. Sometimes three of each! … No, it’s a standard operatic orchestra. The reason I fought for this to be a grand opera rather than a chamber opera is that there’s something so scary about how big the Internet is. The stage needs to be filled and the orchestra has to have a lot of notes otherwise I don’t think it quite captures its endlessness. Have you ever seen that movie Labyrinth [1986]? The bit where the heroine is falling down a hole and all those hands are reaching out to grab her? It needs to feel like that.

DF The range of subjects that inspires you is huge: astronomy, 1980s educational films, Icelandic orthography … What interests you at the moment, outside of the opera?
NM I’m not really into anything that intensely, as I’ve been doing all these collaborative projects over the last few months. I’ve been reading a lot about polygamist, fundamentalist Latter Day Saint families, which will appear in another opera in the future. I have periods where I need to be doing things and bouncing around, then periods of study, and right now I’m at the end of a period of bouncing around.

DF On your blog, you often write about food, and about music in terms of food. You described your piece ‘How About Now’ [2006] as using a ‘pre-existing pantry of musical devices – a sort of thrown-together meal with close friends: a can of chick peas here, this mysterious dried mushroom, that jar of cocktail onions, and somehow, dinner happens.’ It’s a cliché to compare cookery to music, but is it one that holds true for you?
NM For me it does. I find it an incredibly useful discursive tool. It makes music feel less crazy and special, because for me it’s not crazy and special, it’s just something I do. I like to think cookery and music are to the same ends. If you do it really well, you can have a transcendent evening of food, and even if you do it OK, but with a lot of love, it can still be good. Where the analogy is helpful is in doing lots of different projects. It’s like being asked over to someone’s house and cooking together. There’s a spontaneity to it, and it doesn’t feel like it has to do with border crossing or boundary bending or any of that shit, it’s just cooking dinner at your friend’s house, and there happens to be this bag of mussels there, and this fabulous grapefruit and it’s all of a piece.

DF It’s intensely social too.
NM Totally, although… [Gets up and crosses room] This is what my opera looks like … [picks up large, spiral-bound music score and drops it on the table with a loud thud] … and that’s a short score! Right, and this … [picks up another score, and – thud! – drops it on the table] … and this sort of thing … [picks up a third bound manuscript and] … takes a long time … [thud!] You have to figure out all these notes and it means a long time when you’re very much alone! It’s a lot of labour. You’re alone in your house, and you’re dealing with, for instance, [points to a page in one of the scores] this clarinet – why this note or that articulation – and it’s nice to think that you can cook at someone else’s house while your kitchen is filled with all this bullshit! What you’re holding is everything I’ve written in the last eight months. It’s fun, but it represents a huge amount of time spent by myself!

DF You must be glad of computer transcription software!
NM Kind of. I still write everything out by hand. I’m so old-fashioned. I’m a total notation queen.

DF What are you listening to at the moment?
NM Weirdly, a lot of Tracy Chapman!

DF Wow! How did you come to revisit her?
NM I was in some Wikipedia spiral and I read that ‘Alice Walker briefly dated the musician Tracy Chapman in the 1990s’ and I thought oh hell no! And then I thought, that slow verse and fast chorus in ‘Fast Car’ [1988] is kind of genius. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Sibelius symphonies and reissued recordings of Byrd. Also Alfred Deller singing Christmas carols. Nothing is better than Deller; I’m going to have a big counter-tenor experience in a couple of years, and that’ll be key. Before you came over I was listening to some early John Adams.

DF There’s a short essay that Steve Reich wrote in 1970 called ‘Some Optimistic Predictions for the Future of Music’. Do you have any optimistic predictions for the future of music?
NM It’s all optimistic. I think my generation and the generation after me is going to have a really nice time as they’re less freaked out about genre. I don’t think this has resulted in a lack of technical skill, which would be the danger – that if there’s no such thing as classical music you would stop remembering the craft. There’s a lot of stuff you just need to learn how to do; it’s like knowing how to knit. If you see someone who says ‘I make my own clothes’ and it’s some depressing vegan and their knitting is terrible, it’s just not cute. The same way that a band might hire their weird friend’s cousin to make a string arrangement; if they don’t know how to sew, you can tell.

DF What allows you to think about music in a broader way?
NM I think it comes from the lives that our parents lived, which for my generation are people who, in the 1960s and ’70s, had to redefine their relationship to the canon – academically, musically, socially, sexually. And also the Internet, which means having access to music. When I was at high school, in order to get a CD, if it wasn’t in the local music store you had to go an hour on the bus to Tower Records in Boston, and if it wasn’t there, then heaven help you. Now you just click and it’s done. And it goes both ways. If you’re a classically trained kid, you can buy the latest Joanna Newsom album or whatever, just as it doesn’t feel like buying porn to buy classical music anymore. That was the craziest shit – remember how it used to be in its own room in the record store? Hermetically sealed behind glass, and you’d furtively walk in and they’d be playing Aida and someone would ask [puts on haughty voice] ‘Can I help you? What are you doing in here kid?’ And you’re the youngest person in there by 35 years and there’s just some old queen buying 39 different recordings of Tosca … Really terrifying! I think the taxonomy of the record store was quite limiting. I’m not one who is mourning its death.

DF How about Internet music distribution?
NM I think it’s genius. I love the technology of ‘people who bought this also bought x’ because it’s so wrong and yet so right. You look at it and you go: ‘You know, I haven’t bought any Meshell Ndegeocello in a long time … click!’ The honesty and availability of people’s libraries is much more fun. The idea that you can simply email a friend something you think is interesting just wasn’t possible before.

DF Do you think that speed of consumption can also stop you concentrating and focusing?
NM That’s the danger, but if that were true everything would have become awful quite quickly. Classical music is so much part of a tradition that it won’t lose focus, but you see it in popular music too. As the technology becomes available, I think you’ll see more artists making their own decisions rather than using producers. Certainly you get a lot more wretched music made in GarageBand or whatever but you get more people with the ability to quickly express their ideas and evaluate them as good or bad. We’re making efforts to be thoughtful. That’s my optimistic prediction for the future!

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).