Cool and calmly composed: Nico Muhly, changing the face of classical music
The world of contemporary classical music is a traditionally foreboding place. As the British critic David Stubbs underlines in his recent book Fear of Music, the sonic avant-garde, in many ways, lacks the mainstream resonances of its visual equivalent (the volume's pithy subtitle is Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen). Yet Stubbs's thesis ignores one or two key facts: contemporary composition amounts to much more than abrasive anti-melodic experiments, 30-minute instrumental loops and minutes at a time of subversive silence. Leading this charge of adventurous new music that doesn't make listeners leap for the eject button is Nico Muhly.
Effortlessly straddling the academic and the popular, the 29-year-old Muhly's sprawling oeuvre spans pieces premiered by the Chicago Symphony and American Symphony orchestras, film scores for Choking Man and The Reader, special commissions for the American Ballet Theatre, not to mention a long-term working relationship with Philip Glass (as editor, keyboardist, and conductor for numerous film and stage projects), and a multitude of creative exchanges within the upper echelons of the alt.pop world: think Antony and the Johnsons, Björk, Bonnie Prince Billy and Grizzly Bear.
Muhly's natural eclecticism and Herculean work ethic have made him a poster boy for the edgier side of the classical scene, with newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic drooling over his multifarious talents and infectious energy. In what can be seen as a breakthrough moment, The New Yorker published an in-depth profile of him in 2008, while the UK's Daily Telegraph has hailed him "the planet's hottest composer".
"I don't really deal with it," says Muhly, via e-mail, of the media circus that seems to follow - and often anticipate - his every move. "Nor would I say I'm really enjoying; 'swimming' is a better word. But [this attention is] just internal to the press. They'll just as soon be excited as they will write something awful, so I just continue making the best work I know how to make and hope that all the attention is a net positive for all young composers."
Educated at Columbia and Juilliard (English literature and a masters in music, respectively), Muhly cuts a smart, yet personable figure, equally at home with literary theory and arcane theology as with pop culture and social media. He is an ardent user of Twitter, and among hobbies such as running, cooking and writing his increasingly popular blog, he also "loves going on interminable spirals into the depths of Wikipedia entries".
While his work is eminently approachable, Muhly lacks the air-brushed patina of today's classical crossover artists - Katherine Jenkins, Josh Groban and David Garrett - though he does have the handsomely boyish looks. His music also lacks commercial gloss, whether an experimental setting of a hymn (see Stabat Mater, a work commissioned to precede Harrison Birtwistle's angular vocal scena The Corridor), his sparse, moody film scores (The Reader) or his two eclectic albums, which feature everything from choirs to samples of marinating whale meat slurping around in a bowl.
Born in Vermont and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Muhly moved to New York for school and began producing the innovative works that have made his name. Early successes include orchestration for the film score for The Manchurian Candidate; a cycle of songs based on Strunk and White's grammatical reference book The Elements of Style; and New York's Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue commissioning and performing his Bright Mass with Canons (a work that has since entered the church's regular repertoire).
Diverse as it is, discernible threads have emerged in Muhly's work. Influences from the minimalists - Steve Reich and Glass are particular favourites - are overt, but the conceptual elements are counterbalanced by his passion for Anglican choral music and such English Renaissance composers as William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons - then come colourful splashes of indie rock and electronica. The outcome is thoroughly modern, of course, but also joyfully expressive, brave and underpinned by a sense of emotional honesty.
Muhly considers his merging of the conservatory and pop more generational than personal. "I think that whatever I'm doing is pretty firmly outside the academy, but with definite roots there," he says. "Even if I'm doing, like, a completely pop project like the album I made with Jónsi [from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros], I'm calling on skills that come very specifically from Juilliard and the general idea that technique is one of the best things you can bring to a collaboration. Even if you're cooking on the beach, it's nice to have all your vegetables cut the same size, you know?"
Our conversation takes place during one of Muhly's regular stopovers in Reykjavik, a place that has become a kind of second home since he began working with Valgeir Sigurdsson, the sometime Björk collaborator and founder of the small but ambitious Bedroom Community label, which numbers the Australian experimentalist Ben Frost, the American singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and the Icelandic avant-classical composer Daníel Bjarnasson among its roster.
In a typical display of bonhomie over business strategy, Muhly released his two solo albums (2006's Speaks Volumes and 2008's Mothertongue) through Sigurdsson's boutique imprint, and regularly collaborates with his label-mates, and their extended musical families. "It's all a kind of network, or love-fest," he explains. "Iceland is a great place to write and work, because basically everybody here - like, basically every sentient being ? is doing some pop stuff, some classical, some folk, and all with no sacrifice of quality. It's very liberating to see how little people care about genre here, and how much everybody is down to listen to everything."
Muhly thrives on this sense of open-mindedness. While extremely capable as a solo composer or arranger, he is continuously jetting around the world ("I'm usually in an airport or cooking") to arrange, compose, conduct with others. "I have about sixteen million things happening right now," he says. "Slash, an opera, which has been rather loomy in the schedule; this opera which opens next year in London then migrates to New York; a chamber opera that will be in NY in 2012, a piano concerto, a bunch of collaborative things; and with any luck, I'll start chipping away at an album this summer. I'm not too anxious about making another one just yet, honestly, because while making them is a total joy, they require some serious effort in touring, promoting and so on. I'd rather do that when I can really set aside the time to do it properly."
There would seem to be no rush. Muhly also has two typically diffuse projects due on the Decca label. One - I Drink the Air Before Me - was conceived as a contemporary dance score and will be performed in the Barbican Hall, London in October, 2010. This aggressive, heterogenous piece is written for an amplified ensemble featuring piano, viola, trombone, string bass, bassoon and flute/piccolo. "I wrote it as an evening-length piece for this choreographer, Stephen Petronio, whose work I've always loved, but with whom I'd never worked," Muhly explains. "He had a bunch of intense ideas about weather and storms and electricity. We threw things back and forth for a few months, then this music sort of erupted."
The second Decca project, A Good Understanding, is both more understated and more personal. The album is a recording of Muhly's choral pieces as performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by the acclaimed musical director Grant Gershon - a man who has worked hard to expand the Master Chorale's repertoire and led them in a number of world premieres, including works by Steve Reich, Eve Beglarian and Donald Crockett.
Muhly, who trained as a chorister in his early years, is well known for his obsession with the human voice. As such, A Good Understanding represents a particularly poignant moment in his career: the first major release of his beloved choral works. As one would expect of a committed thinker and adventurer into the wider implications of music, Muhly's love for the form also goes far beyond mere sound, touching on ideas of time, ritual and tradition. "I prefer music where nobody claps, and I love the idea that the music becomes instantly sucked up into this traditional cycle of meaning that spans over the year," he says. "It's much more branché than the concert tradition, which is rather abstract when you compare it to the giant liturgical calendar."
Employing adult and child voices, A Good Understanding draws on spiritual music such as William Byrd's Senex Puerum Portabat, but also includes an ecstatic arrangement of Walt Whitman's poem Expecting The Main Things From You. Given the breadth of his work - from instrumental chamber pieces to surging masses of human voices - it is difficult to pin Muhly's sound down. However, asked which genre he would prefer to work in if he could choose only one, his reply is immediate. "After existing on the periphery of the choral music world for so many years, it gives me huge shivers of pleasure to be able to collect all of this music in one place," he says. "I am also especially pleased that it's coming from such an unexpected place: Los Angeles! "
Whether it's his sociable nature or the realisation that collaboration engenders inspiration, Muhly appears to instinctively recognise the importance of working with others. In some ways, his work pulls together not just his own influences but the styles, nuances and ambitions of others, mixing up the mandarin and the demotic, the outré and the accessible. "The nature of being a composer is being alone, and collaboration is a natural way to interact with people that's both work and play," he says. "I have to say that my favourite collaborator is always my most recent one. I'm doing a thing right now for Jónsi again, he's great; I'm doing another set of things with Antony [Hegarty], who's great ? I don't know, I love everybody."
Paul Sullivan is a Berlin-based writer and photographer whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Financial Times and Wax Poetics. He is also the author of several music and travel books.
Updated: September 3, 2010 04:00 AM