Defining Nico Muhly

Defining Nico Muhly

What’s it like to launch a career with Philip Glass, John Adams, and Björk cheering you on? Nico Muhly is a composer on fire.

Written By

Molly Sheridan

Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly is a force. At 25, he has already earned degrees from Columbia and Juilliard, sewn up a publishing deal, collaborated with major composers on both sides of the pop/classical aisle, and capped off 2006 with the release of his first album, Speaks Volumes.

He also speaks five languages, has 952 MySpace friends (at last count), and owns two ice cream makers—though just when he finds the time to make ice cream eludes me. What he clearly has made time for is writing music—ensemble pieces, film scores, sacred music—and sharing that enthusiasm with fellow composers and musicians—from self-taught to conservatory-trained. It’s a deceptively open, uncomplicated equation that goes a long way in explaining the domino-fall speed of Muhly’s success as an artist.

But what goes even further is that Muhly is a man not intimidated by definitions, which seems to have released his music from the pressures of trying to outrun them. He grew up as an artist inside the classical tradition, and his music solidly reflects this. And rather than awkwardly decorating his scores with elements drawn from the pop world to clarify that he’s cool like that, he has instead simply kept his ears open and his defenses down. The sounds and techniques that speak to him then comfortably flow into his own writing in much subtler ways and to much greater effect than I’ve previously encountered. Rather than setting foreign words, Muhly seems to be mining foreign grammars.

Though Muhly isn’t a name-dropper, it’s worth a look at his bio to see how he came to be the degree of separation between Philip Glass and Björk. And if you haven’t heard his name or his music yet, it’s only a matter of time. This month alone you can catch up on his work with Antony and the Johnsons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and then a week later hear a whole evening featuring his own music and work that has influenced him at Carnegie Hall during John Adams’s In Your Ear festival.

When we arrive for our teatime chat, Muhly is in the midst of packing up his Columbia University apartment for a move down to Chinatown. In the process, he’s turned up some old notebooks and a lot of memories, so it proved to be an auspicious time to get a little nostalgic.

A conversation with Molly Sheridan
January 23, 2007—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

I’ll Sleep When I’m 30

Molly Sheridan: In previous interviews, you’ve talked a lot about this love affair that you have with language. I know you did your undergrad at Columbia in English, so now I have this image of you curled up in bed at night reading and having these musical ideas that you frantically scribble down in notebooks. Is that how it happens?

Nico Muhly: Essentially, the relationship, the love affair with language and love affair with music, is a tight one. When I’m thinking about pieces, I’m almost always thinking verbally before I think musically. Usually, if I have an idea about something, it’s an idea first and music second, if that makes any sense. Especially when I was in school—and I guess this will change as I become less and less attached to school—but I would be studying something, and something would occur to me—some exciting turn of phrase or some little detail—and I would expand on that and then music would happen. So language was always first.

My entire life I’ve been studying languages in such an intense way. When I was 13, my mom and I moved to Italy and I was sent to Italian public school, and there’s this immediate language intensity there. And when I was at Columbia, I was studying Arabic intensively. The process of studying a language, of learning how a language is put together, is, I think, very similar to the way that music gets put together. Which is to say, it’s slow and it’s awful, but there’s a curve at which you learn it. You know what I mean? When you’re studying a language, and all of a sudden, there’s a point at which you know more things that you thought you had put in. So that’s something I think about a lot.

MS: I know there’s a lot of debate over whether music really says anything, though, in the same sense that you can communicate using a spoken language. Does it communicate on that same level for you?

NM: That’s the fundamental question, and the fundamental problem with a lot of music, I think. It’s interesting. I hadn’t heard this term until I got to school, but a composer described music as being communicative, rather than non-communicative, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting distinction to have drawn.” And then I realized that is a key issue that a lot of composers wrestle with.

Specifically, if you think about religious music, that’s always a big deal, right? What exactly is going on? If you’re writing a piece of religious music, what are you meant to communicate, if anything? Or are you meant to just help something else get communicated? Is it an enabling device? I was thinking about these issues a lot at school, because the two musics that I like the best—that communicate the best to me—are underrepresented, I think, in school, which is to say, early music—early English choral music—and American minimalism from the ’60s and ’70s, both of which have fundamental communication problems.

MS: How so?

NM: Basically, in religious music, the big question is if you, as a composer, are innovating, is that helping the task of worship music, or is that getting in the way? There were always these issues, especially in England, where the government said, “Oh, the music is too complicated. The music is too simple. You can only have one note per syllable, or you have to have a million syllables, or if you have a million syllables, it sounds so Roman.” All these issues about getting the point across were debated.

And then in minimalism, I think it’s really interesting, because you have in the ’60s and ’70s, this music being presented as math, right? All those early Reich and Glass pieces, the composers are saying, “It’s just a process, all it is is a process. There’s no Wagner here, there’s no secret agenda.” And then of course, you listen to them, and you realize, well, okay, you can say what you like, but the fact of the matter is that those pieces are incredibly communicative—at least to me. And I’ve always loved the argument about minimalism, that it’s sterile, because you find composers buy into that in a really big way. For instance, if you read Steve Reich’s writings, he really wants to distance himself from being emotionally programmatic in the music. And yet, not really, right? Because you can say there’s something in it. Locating where the voice is is a big problem, and that’s something I think about all the time. And thinking about it linguistically, I think, is what helps me get through.

MS: What do you mean by that, “locating where the voice is”?

NM: If you think of a piece of music, like Music in 12 Parts, the Philip Glass piece, that’s meant to be essentially a series of etudes. Is there a possibility that that can be communicative? Can it say something about something? And specifically, can it say something that’s emotionally present? I always thought, yes, of course it can, but I think that’s an argument that people want to have. Is it sterile? Does it mean nothing? Is it just numbers? And if it’s just numbers, how is it different than other music that claims to be just numbers, like hard-core, twelve-tone, matrixed-out, everything. I mean, there’s no real answer, or even a real question. It’s just a grey area.

MS: Listening to your own religious music, I was amazed at how formal and huge, cathedral-like it sounded versus some of your other pieces, which are exceptionally intimate. Is that a reflection of your actual religious beliefs and spirituality?

NM: The fact that I’ve written it?

MS: Not only that, but also the way that you’ve written it.

NM: Well, I grew up singing in a boys’ choir. One of the kind of heights, for me, of what music can be when it’s great, is high Anglican choral music. That’s just kind of a built-in idea in my language. So for me to write it felt only natural. It’s an interesting question, something I haven’t really resolved, nor do I feel any compulsion to do so. I feel like, in writing music that I know to be successful as music for services, I think it’s as helpful to write about it as it is to think about in that particular instance. I certainly wasn’t raised religiously, but I definitely understand how important music in religious contexts can be. If you do it right, you as a composer just totally vanish, and it becomes all about something else. That’s a really exciting moment, I think, when you completely write yourself out of the picture.

MS: So you’re talking about religious music and minimalism as these two extremes, neither of which you were taught in school, but they both now get folded into the work you do. How did that happen, and in what ways are they now present in the work that you’re producing?

NM: You know, it’s funny, this last weekend and then this coming weekend, I’m going to the NEC Prep Division in Boston, and I’m coaching a bunch of high school kids who are playing my music. I did Tanglewood twice as a composer, when I was 14 and 15, but what I realize is that I totally never went to any of those school-year weekend programs for young musicians. As a result, I had this huge hole when I turned up at school at Juilliard. Theoretically, I knew that you should play Beethoven trios, but when I was in high school, I didn’t even know there were such things as these pre-conservatory programs, so I didn’t really have access to that music in a firsthand way. I turned up basically having a really good command of the Anglican choral tradition—anything that could be sung in high Anglican church, I knew really well. In terms of 20th-century music, what that includes is Howells and Finzi and definitely not anything from Germany, very little continental music. And if it was English music, it’s not Ferneyhough; it’s Judith Weir. So there was that.

And then I also had a weird access to the Wellesley library, because my mother teaches at Wellesley, and so I would send her these insane lists of scores and CDs I wanted her to check out. She doesn’t teach in the music department—she teaches in the art department—but as a professor, she could just take out whatever she wanted for an indefinite amount of time. So I, really haphazardly, sent her to get stuff without really knowing what it was. For instance, there’s this Messiaen thing that occasionally happens in the Anglican churches, for a little decadent French moment, and I said, “Ooh, who’s this?” I looked on the really primitive catalog and found there was so much Messiaen that you could have. I said, “Oh, let’s get that!” And she lugged back these enormous, heavy-ass French scores, a billion pages, Chronochromie and all that stuff, and I thought, “This is amazing! How cool is this?” But no one had been saying “Look into this, look into that.” And I was taking private lessons with a variety of people, but no one ever really caught on that I was completely out of it on 19th-century European music. I just had no idea.

MS: You escaped that part?

NM: It turned out to be kind of a blessing. Nineteenth-century German music, whatever happened that was genius then that, somehow, in the mind of crazy people, brings us to the stuff in the ‘40s and ‘50s—there’s this really weird kind of sinkhole that starts opening up around Wagner, when people start freaking out about music and can’t talk seriously about it anymore. I mean, I have a score to Parisfal right there, but I got into that so much later that when I turned up at Julliard, I was really a naïf. All I knew was the American minimalist stuff which I had just fallen into randomly. Like, “This is great! Wow, how cool is this? This sounds amazing! David Lang, oh my God!” And then, Howells and Purcell and then Byrd and Tye and Gibbons, all this kind of random stuff. And then I turned up at Juilliard and everyone was into Pfitzner and obscure lieder, and I just didn’t know anything.

MS: You keep saying you “turned up” at Juilliard, as if you had a library card and a piano and a really willing mother, and then all of a sudden there you were. Before your arrival, how much training and thinking and preparing did you really do?

NM: In the middle of high school, after I had done the Tanglewood BUTI thing, which is what teenage kids do there, I started taking lessons with David Rakowski. He’s sort of like a Babbitt student-type, although because he’s kind of crazy and wacky, he never did any of that bad stuff that sometimes happens when you study with hard-core Princetonites. I didn’t even know about it and he never brought it up; there was no ideological pressure about anything, and it was just really fun. To a certain extent it really did shield me. So I’d been studying with him for two years, and I knew I wanted to be in New York, I knew I wanted to do Columbia-Juilliard. It was really important to me; I knew if I went to a conservatory I would go insane. I’d had friends from Tanglewood go to Juilliard, I’d visited them a few times, and I thought I could totally get down with this, this is great. I visited Columbia—no worries, it’s amazing—and so I applied to both and got in and literally did just turn up. That program is one of the most under-administrated things that you can possibly imagine. Essentially, the way that the program works is that you do both schools. There’s no guy, there’s no person to talk to.

MS: “Welcome to New York! You’ve just enrolled into two of the most challenging undergraduate programs in the country. Try not to kill yourself.”

NM: Well, at Juilliard, if you were a composer, all you had to do was just go to the fora and lessons and stuff. You didn’t have to take academic classes at Juilliard, because they assumed that you would at least be able to test out of enough that you wouldn’t have to start doing it until you started your master’s. You could take little things here and there if you wanted to, which I did, but it was definitely the case that you had to design your own schedule between two institutions that don’t have a similar day rotation.

MS: I was really curious about how you were able to write so much music by 25, and now I think I understand.

NM: I did a lot. I like to keep busy. When I was in school, I had a really unhealthy work attitude. I was sleeping very little and working a lot and thinking a lot and being as high-saturation as I possibly could. I’ve been trying to calm that down a little of late.

I was in school for five years, and the first four years were a very, very intense time because I realized how little I knew. But also I realized that I had really been spared a lot of conservatory music-education drama by the weirdness of my high school musical education, which was really patchy in a great way. So in as much as I didn’t know anything, I also found a safer path through those waters. And now I have a very healthy relationship with 19th-century German music! I’m very proud of myself.

Only Your Grandmother Calls It Crossover

Molly Sheridan: So how do you work now, in a process sense? Do you have special socks you put on?

Nico Muhly: It’s funny you should ask. I’ve been in this apartment for four years now, [but I’m moving next week.] I know that when I leave, my process, such as it is, is going to completely change. Also, I’ve been traveling a lot, and I discovered, much to my horror, when I was doing my taxes last year, that I was out of the country a couple of days more than half the year. And this year seems like it will be similar. So my process for the most part has a lot to do with really detailed note-taking. So whatever I’m working on, whatever project it is, I have a notebook of words and a notebook of music—usually two separate things, sometimes the same. The notebook of words is essentially a series of descriptions for what it is I’m set up to do. References, if there are any. Also, grocery lists, whatever else is going on. And then there are a million scraps [of music notation]. So once I have those two things going on the stove, then I can start thinking about how to structure the whole thing. So there’s this white piece of paper that has the structure of everything, and if there’s a text, the text is on it. It’s kind of diagrammed out. When I was studying with Corigliano, he’s a big enthusiast of the diagram of the piece, which at first I resisted, because if you could just paint a picture, why are you a musician? Then it occurred to me that it is actually really efficient. I guess we accept diagrams. The way a calendar looks on a computer: we accept that as representing time. So why not? Music is basically just time, so why not have the same thing?

Nico Muhly's notebooks

So there’s diagrams, there’s pages of notes, pages of words, and then I print out blank manuscript with exactly the number of instruments that I need, and then I just write directly onto that in a little black book. All those four things are in my bag at all times, so that means wherever I am, I can be working. And eventually at the end of it, it goes into the computer at some point, but that’s the least interesting part of it.

MS: So you’re a paper-and-pen kind of man.

NM: Paper and pen, definitely.

MS: Have you ever met the composer Cynthia Hopkins? She does the same thing with a notebook of words and a notebook of music.

NM: The notebook of words is so important, and again, this is all fresh in my head because I’m moving. I found a kind of combination notebook from when I was 19, and it is unbelievable the kind of shit I wrote down. It was really kind of embarrassing. There’s a page of numbers that I don’t even understand what it could possibly be, and I know that it has something to do with music. It’s some sort of weird Fibonacci thing that I must have worked out. It looks like a serial killer’s notebook; it’s really intense.

MS: Now, you’re talking about being out of the country a lot, and I know that at least some of that time you were in Iceland working with Valgeir Sigurðsson on your first album, Speaks Volumes. I read something where it made it sound like that album was kind of his idea, that he pushed you.

NM: Yeah, essentially it’s this: When you’re a young composer and you’ve been at school, for the most part your music is going to be recorded in exactly the same way. You are on a composer’s concert. You have a chamber group that has rehearsed your piece. The concert is recorded with a stereo microphone hanging above the stage. Three weeks after the premiere, you are handed, by a gentleman, an envelope with a CD with your music on it. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t know better. “That’s great! Great, this is what my piece is. Awesome.” And if it’s an orchestra piece, there’s a big stereo microphone above the orchestra.

I had been working with Valgeir for a couple months on this Björk project, and it was super audio-intense. At a certain point he asked to hear what my stuff sounded like, so I sent him these recordings, and I think he was just appalled at the quality, that there could exist music that was recorded in this fashion. For him, it was like, “This is what you do? This is how you represent your work? What are you, crazy?” And he wrote me an e-mail that was like, “Why don’t you just re-record this with me?” At that point, I think it was more of a public service. I think you get used to listening to music recorded like [we did at Juilliard], and when you hear it, it sounds familiar. Any young composer’s piece that has ever been recorded like that sounds immediately familiar. And yet I think, now, that people are being a little more high-tech and that now the music you’re hearing on the radio even is getting more tactile, more interesting in general. And then Valgeir and I got to talking, and the sort of music that I was making, for whatever reason, in his head seemed to at least present the opportunity to record it in a different fashion.

MS: So what did he really do, then, for the recording? Is it just a matter of being more conscientious of where the microphones are placed?

NM: No, it’s a whole scheme. Essentially the plan was this: There are seven things on that album, and I think that three of them existed before I met him. And then I was going to write four more for the project. The way that I was thinking of it was—if we’re trying to go against the idea of stereo-mic-over-the-stage—what, in a more profound way, are we going against? And of course the answer is you’re going against the concertgoing experience: the idea of having the best seat in the house, that the recording of the piece is the equivalent experience of having spent a couple hundred dollars and sitting sixth-row center or wherever it is you sit at a concert that makes it sound awesome. So if we’re resisting that, what then is the replacement for that experience? What is the desired thing?

The piece called Clear Music is this harp, cello, and celesta thing I wrote for myself to play, because I love playing celesta. I love it, love love it. The piano? Whatever. The celesta is what it’s all about. And you can hear all the little noises in the celesta, and you can hear the breathing, and that’s the experience I should be interested in recreating. Because I find that much more pleasurable than anxiously sitting in the audience and just clenching my gut in horror at what might happen. So I thought that’s what we should do—we should make the recording sound like you’re playing rather than hearing it—because A) that’s what I like, and B) what fun to be able to listen to something as if you were inside the instrument or playing it yourself. So we opted for very, very close mic on the instruments, and everything is recorded in almost total isolation, which is another kind of horror, right? Is that true? Yeah. Not only is it true, but it’s also horrible.

No, it’s great. Because again, if you completely discount the idea that we’re going for this concertgoing experience, then you really have many, many options. I think recording things in isolation has problems, but it can be completely successful, which I hope we were. So that was the initial thing. And then from that, Valgeir’s sense of how everything should fit together and the overall sonic landscape of it. That’s something he’s very, very good at. I went to Iceland three or four times, and he came here a couple times. We did a little bit through the mail, and it was really fun.

MS: So clearly you, these renegade recording techniques, and the iPod are killing the future of classical music.

NM: Oh, you think so? You think that’s what’s happening?

MS: I’ve realized that in all of the reading I’ve done about you, everyone has been very careful to say “Nico Muhly is a classical composer who has worked with artists such as Björk , Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, and Will Oldham.” And I was really uncomfortable about how to talk about that, because it’s not something that I compartmentalize. But do you, for working purposes, need to? Is there value in that?

NM: Actually, I always think about this question.

MS: But I hate asking it.

NM: As well you should. Basically, it’s this: for people my age, and I hope this becomes more true for people younger than me, there really is not that much of a distinction. The best way to make there not be that much of a distinction, even if you feel there might be a teeny one, is to put your fingers in your ears and say, “La-la-la-la.” I’m so uninterested. It’s essentially like being from somewhere. I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition. It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else. The notion of your genre being something that you have to actively perform, I think is pretty vile. For people my age, it just never really comes up. It’s like, “Oh, this is the kind of music you do, and this is the kind of music you do, that’s great.” There’s no, “I call this this, I call this that.” The actuality of being in your 20s in New York is, I hope, to have friends who do stuff that you like. Whether or not that happens to be from a tradition of one thing or another, I think that never really comes up. Obviously, there are people who are doing one thing and doing it very well.

If you think about it more like food, actually, that’s a more productive way. Have you ever read those interviews with Italian chefs who come here and say things like, “Obviously, I’m not going to use mushrooms from Italy, I’m going to use local things because I’m here. I’m located here.” And Italian food is not about those specific ingredients and those specific things; it’s an approach. It’s a system of organization, and it’s about doing garlic to this thing in this way, but it doesn’t matter what the thing is, if it’s from this little village outside of Turin or from upstate New York. Do you know what I mean?

MS: That’s the sense in which I mean the question, though. As you were saying, thinking about how we traditionally record in the classical field, and then deciding to look at how they record somewhere else and try it that way.

NM: Right.

MS: Or when you orchestrate something for someone like Will Oldham, you’re coming at it with a whole different set of knowledge and experiences that you bring to that, a perspective that perhaps someone who’s regularly played with him would not have to offer.

NM: I really do think about that in the same way as I would think about where I come from. Like, geographically speaking. And there’s no way around that, the fact that, stylistically, I come from the classical tradition. Yes, it comes up in that sense where you say, I feel like I’m a stranger here, like I’m a guest in this music. But again, most people are saying, people who I like and respect are saying in their music, “Make yourself at home.” They’re not saying, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not from here. You really shouldn’t do that. Don’t put that there. Take off your shoes.” You know what I mean? I feel a much more hospitable reaction among younger people. People who want to talk about crossing over and that whole thing, I have no idea what that would mean.

MS: Maybe it’s only called that when you don’t do it well.

NM: Yeah, I think so. This is something that, to even think about it musically is one thing, but it comes up a lot in school. Like if you’re from a family of immigrants, for instance, or if you yourself were born in another country and moved to America, or born in America and moved somewhere else. Those issues become much more intense, about identity and genre and politics and all these things. I think the minute you start trying to slap definitions on those things, like, “Oh, I’m Indian-American, but it’s complicated because my dad’s family is actually from Germany.” The minute you start getting too involved in that, you realize how limiting it is.

I know it sounds sort of like everyone holding hands, a Benetton ad, but to a certain extent, at the end of the day, everyone’s just people, and everyone’s just trying to make music. You know, you do what you do. And if people have the right attitude and if people are hospitable towards one another stylistically, then those concerns become less relevant.

MS: Okay, we don’t have to talk about that anymore.

NM: No, we totally can! I always get into a little bit of a froth about it because it’s so hard to talk about it, because I think it’s so specific to every situation.

MS: Why do you think we want to hold onto those walls?

NM: I don’t know. At no point am I saying we should all just learn everything about everything. I’m all a fan of hard-core classical education. I really think that’s a really important thing, and I think there’s this fear that if everyone gets too wishy-washy about style, that possibly people are not going to want to play Paganini caprices anymore and the general level of musicianship will be diminished. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Certainly I feel a much deeper kinship with old, unreformed classical musicianship after I’ve done a project that’s not really from that tradition. I’m always like, “I want listen to Brahms piano concertos right now!” Or Wieniawski or somebody. At least personally, I don’t feel like that’s a problem. Do you remember when people got into a froth where they were like, “Everyone’s teaching The Color Purple instead of Shakespeare”? And I think it’s kind of the same problem now, the idea of this glorious tradition, this glorious canon, that it’s somehow threatened. Like if, God forbid, we should teach a Toni Morrison book, then all of a sudden—. That argument always breaks down when you think, “All of sudden, what?”

What Nico listened to on a Thursday while walking around…


Composer on Fire

Molly Sheridan: Okay, let’s go back to the fact that you’re only 25 years old and you already have a publisher here and in the UK. How’d you fall into that?

Nico Muhly: Very easily. I’d been working for Philip Glass doing editing and MIDI programming, sort of general stuff, for a couple of years. He owns a publishing company, and then a sub-set of that publishing company is, I guess, an affiliate of Chester in London. They represent Ravi Shankar, and they represent Rachel Portman and a variety of other people. And I just knew them from doing all this stuff for Philip for a million years, and then they just said, “We should represent you, and you should be represented by us.” And I said, alright. This is a good plan.

MS: What’s more important: the publisher or the MySpace page?

NM: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a really good question—good for you. You totally thought about that shit. I’m not really sure. In terms of things that happen, like fun stuff that happens to me, fun projects, I think both. Certainly it’s the case that if you want to write a large piece of choral music for a choir in northern England, the publisher is probably a better bet. But if you want to make choir arrangements for a garage band in suburban Reykjavik, then MySpace is probably your go-to thing. I mean, I think “both” is the answer.

The thing about MySpace is that it goes directly to you, whereas the publisher, there’s like a million people that can kind of vet stuff as it comes in and figure it out. At this point, I’m, again, 25, so it’s not like I’m turning down work. But it’s more like there’s a way, there’s a pre-existing system for dealing with stuff when you send it to a publisher. There’s a glorious classical tradition of what to do. Whereas someone just messaged me on MySpace the other day, saying that—it’s kind of amazing—he has a naked string orchestra. Have you heard about this? It’s amazing. That’s more MySpace than publisher. Publishers are like, “We are a percussion ensemble in Singapore and we want you to write a piece.” And I say, “Dear percussion ensemble, it would be my pleasure. Love, Nico.” And MySpace is like, “Naked Cello!! Write us a thing!!”

MS: So you have something for all occasions.

NM: Yeah. I mean, obviously I’ll do both.

MS: Well, even with the album. You were following an alternate distribution model, in a way, because of the record label you worked with. A publisher is a traditional way to get your work to people and putting your album out on a classical label is, you know, a label.

NM: “Classical label” is really funny to me, because what does that even mean these days? Did you see the Sting-doing-John-Dowland thing? God bless them, but those things are so appalling. Every time I sort of dip my toe in what’s going on in classical labels, like who’s recording stuff, these weird, weird things are going on. It makes me very uneasy.

One thing I like is that the people who represent me in England, they’re kind of hands-off. I think they really just don’t know what to do with me, with all of my stuff. They’re like, “What are you doing? You did what, you wrote what? There’s a banjo in it? Why? And a choir?”

MS: “We can’t possibly sell this.”

NM: “What are we going to do with this thing?”

Nico Muhly

MS: So, say I’m a composer who finds you on MySpace, and I write to you and ask, “Nico, I want do what you’re doing. I want a life just as cool as yours. What do I do?”

NM: Okay, again, I can only speak from personal experience. I have no idea if there’s a way to do it. I think the wrong way to do it is to stay in school until you’re 30. I’m pretty sure that that’s incorrect, like my gut feeling says that’s the case. I think the answer is: write as much music as possible and have as many people inside the institution where you’re studying as possible play it. But also see if there’s any possibility of anyone not affiliated with the school that you’re in—especially if you’re not in New York, I don’t even know how you would do this, but I think it would be important—to get people outside that system involved in your music.

And studying at Juilliard but going to Columbia and living at Columbia, I was sort of spoiled by my friends, who partially out of curiosity and also partially because I think—I hope—they genuinely liked what I was up to, would come to stuff at Juilliard. I was always so touched. My friends from Columbia who had nothing to do with music at all would just turn up and have a really good time and have completely great things to say about not just what I had done, but everyone else. I had some friends who began having a relationship with other people’s music, too, which I thought was such a great thing. So there’s that, and then the other thing, I think, is to try to make as much music as possible separate from you as a composer. So play piano, or play orchestra piano, which is what I did—I had some of the best experiences of my life playing orchestra piano. Orchestra celesta! I highly recommend it.

MS: Clearly this is your instrument.

NM: Oh, I’m totally a celestist. I think basically just make sure that whenever you’re making music, that that’s what you really want to be doing at that time. And if you don’t want to make music, then do something else with the same intensity: read something, think about something, get involved with something complicated. Just do hard stuff, I think, is the best thing. And through that you meet really good people and really interesting people and severe people and crazy people. And those are the people, I think, who can help you have a healthy life as an artist. I would add to this that I think that a healthy life as an artist is not one that is spent in school until you’re 30. I think that’s a big mistake. One of the things I loved when I was getting my master’s was basically every day Philip Glass, who was employing me at the time, would say, “Have you dropped out of school yet? I think you should drop out of school! Why don’t you drop out of school right now? You don’t need that. What, do you just want to impress your mom with your master’s? Drop out of school.” Like, every day! It was amazing. Which is sage advice. I mean, obviously I wasn’t going to drop out of school.

The idea that you don’t need a DMA is actually shocking. Even at Juilliard, the question was not, “Would you like to stay in school until you’re 30?” It was “Where would you like to stay in school until you’re 30?” And it’s such a weird thing, because I feel—well, maybe this isn’t true—but I sense that my mid-20s, the next four or five years, are going to be really productive. And I might have to die, like if I were writing some insane dissertation or teaching ear training, if I were in an institution getting a DMA right now. I would be spending a lot less time writing than would be wise. So the compromise that I made, of course, is that I have a job, and I take on a lot of work, I take on random conducting things, but it’s music making that leaves a lot of time open for me to write, which is really important when you’re in your mid-20s and you’re out of school.

MS: Do you have your eye on a project that’s going to be the second half of your 20s magnum opus?

NM: Not really. I had this idea like a million years ago to turn those Susan Cooper books, the The Dark Is Rising books, into an opera of some sort. First of all, I would get to learn Welsh. And second of all, those books completely rocked my world when I was younger. I think there’s a certain type of kid whose world they rocked that I would like to be in touch with.

That’s been a long time fantasy of mine. And there’s this amazing, weird case in northern England: these two boys got involved in not really a suicide pact, but one had multiple identities on the Internet and used the Internet to seduce this other boy and they ended up stabbing each other, or one ended up stabbing the other. It was very exciting. Anyway, I have big designs on some kind of a thing with that. I think that once my life is less scattered, I’ll be able to take on larger-length projects. I just wrote something, a single block of music, not in movements, that’s seventeen minutes long, which is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And I feel like I’m gradually working up to those lengths. So, yeah, I would hope to work in bigger forms.

MS: “Finish your short stories, get ready for the novel” kind of thing?

NM: Yeah, exactly.

MS: You have a concert at Carnegie Hall in March, so I just wanted to talk a little about the programming of that, because it’s interesting to me how it’s shuffled with some of your old heroes. I guess it would be kind of strange to have a retrospective concert all your own at 25.

NM: It sounds like that’s kind of what they wanted to do. The thing for me is that I know that the stuff that holds the most sway over me as an artist is not necessarily well known. And there are some pieces of English choral music that are just so—I hate to use the word “precious,” but there are some things that I really do hold in that fashion. Like there’s this piece by William Byrd called “Bow Thine Ear.” I think about it for maybe eight minutes a day. It’s three minutes long—it’s nothing—but it’s one of these things that is so important to me. And if you’re going to church and hoping that something will come around, you usually have to wait for a good long while before someone will do these. Because it’s like “Oh, this only makes sense on such-and-such a Sunday in Advent, which happens next in 2009.” So I just thought it would be great to kind of compile a bunch of these things that I just love and do them in between things of mine. There’s only like 11 minutes of choral music in this concert; it’s teeny stuff, but it’s stuff that is rare enough to hear live, which I think is a treat to do. And in certain cases, there are certain pieces that borrow from the British things, like this Taverner Mater Christi sanctissima motet and a cello, harp, and celesta piece called Clear Music that I wrote kind of based on my experience of singing that.

For me, again, as I was saying before, it’s very much where I’m from. It feels like very much home. The honor of being retrospective-ized, or whatever, is a little scary, so I thought I could make it a little more comfortable if I had some old stand-by things there, too.

MS: So listening to all the different music that you’ve written, there just seems to be this fundamental optimistic quality to the writing. Do you agree with that? Is that intentional?

NM: I don’t know that it’s necessarily intentional. I think a lot of it has to do with the way I think about things which is, in general, pretty optimistic. There’s not a lot of Romantic music in my music, there’s not a lot of [lifts back of hand to forehead in a faux swoon]. There’s just not a place for that in the language of it. So everything ends up sounding pretty clean. I would say “clean” rather than “optimistic.” Is that a better word? “Optimistic” doesn’t necessarily rub me the right way, but the music, I guess, always points upward. It’s a very excited music, I hope. I also think there’s a lot of kind of nasty, pessimistic music that other people are much better at writing than I could ever be. I don’t really have genuinely pessimistic thoughts, so it’s hard for me to get involved in that kind of bogged-down feel. It would be hard for me to express it.

(conversation transcribed by Dave Allen)