Illustration by Charles Burns

Nico Muhly

[COMPOSER]

“[COMPOSITION IS] LIKE INSTRUCTIONS FOR A SHORT STORY, FAXED TO EVERY ENGLISH STUDENT WHO’S STUDYING IT.”
Appropriate subjects for orchestral music:
Jet lag
Columns of light coming at you from cars
Learning Icelandic is hard.
Why do I always forget my phone number?

Nico Muhly is a twenty-six-year-old composer. This is different from the archetypal image of old men with creased suits and wild white hair, but rather more realistic. Muhly lives in New York’s Chinatown. His two albums, Mothertongue and Speaks Volumes, were released not on a “classical label” but on Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Icelandic label, Bedroom Community. His work has also appeared in traditional concert format, such as the cantata on Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and the various orchestral works premiered by the American Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. He has scored a handful of films, and has also worked as an arranger, performer, and conductor for distinctly nonclassical artists such as Björk, Will Oldham, Antony Hegarty, and folk musician Sam Amidon.

Muhly talks like someone who knows he is precocious, but any affectation is undercut by genuine curiosity and warmth. His music demonstrates these contrasts, with both the devotional yearning of Philip Glass, for whom Muhly has worked since college, and a light playfulness that recalls the composer Benjamin Britten. It’s a synthesis of ’60s minimalism, Renaissance choral music, and also some of the bleakness and buzz that have marked indie folk over the past decade.

Cooking us dinner, Muhly was exact in his inexactness: he measured quantities by eye, but without sloppiness. We ate pasta, drank wine, and then watched YouTube videos about military robots and theremins. “The worst,” Muhly said, “is when you just remember, without meaning to, the last seven digits of the URL for a YouTube video. Like ‘Y2078645’—that’s that one with the camel.”

—Sean Michaels

I. THE SCORE TO STAR WARS IS
LIKE A YAK CARRYING PEOPLE.

THE BELIEVER: What’s the process like when you compose a piece?

NICO MUHLY: It depends on what you’re doing. When you’re writing for an album you can think very broadly, but writing for a commission—it’s a different concept. Someone says, “OK! Six minutes for orchestra. Two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons. On March 16 of next year. It’s got to be between six and eight minutes, and we’re paying you this much money….” You have a list of facts—so it feels like the best way to counteract the list of facts is by coming up with another list of facts. The second list of facts is: “OK, for you nice people, you’re going to have, um, a piece of music about… whatever.” You can almost say any word and see if it takes you anywhere. For me, sometimes it’s anecdotal and then you completely erase the anecdote when you’re writing it.

So this piece was spurred by when I was at Tanglewood and I was walking from place A to place B and all these cars were traveling in the opposite direction and I was walking in the middle of the road—whatever, nothing, a teeny image, a memory.

BLVR: So the music starts from sentiment, from feeling, and not from playing on your keyboard?

NM: It starts in sentiment, usually. Yeah, most things come from a quick little moment, a time I was in a place that was scary, or something bigger, like jet lag or Learning Icelandic is hard. Big ideas or problems—Why do I always forget my phone number? And from there you can extrapolate a mesh of things.

[He flips through a few pages of rough sheet music, but with hardly any notes written onto the bars. Instead, there are words, phrases, squiggles, and even a section of curlicued drawings, like a swath of ivy had grown up and over the staff.]

NM: Here’s how it starts. It’s a sort of narrative, creative thing, a map of the central section of this piece. I write out the images that come to me: a walk at night; columns of light coming at you from cars; it’s a nocturne; a music with stars; big swells—I just write out things I want to retain.

It’s a list of ingredients, in a sense, and then, as you can see at the bottom, it says, “a melody with a halo emerges from the texture.” I wrote out the melody and then corrected it—added a flat. And then I draw out how it should look eventually. It turns into a shape that matches the emotion that I have planned for it. A lot of this is completely random. But it’s a shopping list, shit I have to think about. This ended up being a piece called “It Remains to Be Seen.” Idealistic music about how your life should be.

BLVR: Is it difficult writing music for film? It seems like there would be a lot of pressure to compose “Hallmark-y,” melodramatic, and romantic scores.

NM: I’m pretty clear about what I’m capable of doing. I can’t write in that way. I just don’t have emotions like that—or I don’t express them in that fashion. I think that most people who would like to work with me would know that.

BLVR: So what are they looking for?

NM: An approach that is more about texture—music that doesn’t do as much work. Look at Star Wars, which completely favors the score, which is genius. The score is doing a lot of work. It’s like Wagner. It’s like a yak carrying people. Whereas if you think of something like No Country for Old Men, which was completely silent—hello, best movie ever in the history of ever—well, that’s a film that doesn’t depend on the score to do the heavy lifting. I like to think of it as a character and less like this crazy emotional dictator.

BLVR: But isn’t there something nice, almost democratic, about making music that is obvious—that everyone can join together in?

NM: Yes. Theoretically. But I think that doesn’t actually apply to most movie music. Movie music is this trickle-down thing of someone telling you what the emotional content of a moment is.

BLVR: Helping everyone in the theater to feel it—

NM: —to feel the same thing, which for me is not democratic. Democratic is a nudge and then ignoring it. Democratic is a poke and then saying, “You know what? I would have liked if you had cried when she was diagnosed with cancer, but you don’t have to.” That to me is democratic. Whereas not democratic is this insanely manipulative thing where you’re being told what to feel. “You’re happy—it’s the Great Leader’s birthday!” And you’re like, “I guess so.…” For me the best kind of film music is liturgical music. Liturgical music is essentially a million scores for the same film.

BLVR: That’s really interesting—liturgical music as an ambivalent film score. It leads a horse to water….

NM: Whereas film music often forces the horse’s head into the trough! With church music, at least in the Anglican tradition, you can’t depict it. It’s not correct and everyone knows that. Even more than in the concert hall, in church there are things you can and cannot do, just out of respect. You would never have the sound of someone being nailed to a cross, or the sound of a child being born, because everybody knows the story. We know that we’re meant to feel a complicated raft of things.

If you look at early English music for Holy Week, it’s a story as dramatic as it gets, but the music is still one step back—like how in really fancy restaurants they never point to the bathroom, they just gesture toward the bathroom or they’ll lead you to the bathroom. The fancier the restaurant, the less pointing there is.

II. “ETHNOMUSICALOGICAL
LONESOMENESS”

BLVR: You’ve described your music as “a vast feast.”

NM: My urge, when I go to the store, is to buy everything. Even tonight it was like, Oh, let me get another thing of olive oil that I totally don’t need, and, as you can see, we have four cheeses and there’s absolutely no way we’re going to eat all of this. I don’t even know you and I’ve gone hog-wild. And it’s the same when I’m composing. My first instinct is basically to bring the whole store home, and not make a decision about how things play out. It’s just to make a feast and make too much and think about it later. I’ve avoided the syndrome of things being too long, in terms of time, by having too much at the same time. Oh, you have an eight-minute piece? Well, let’s make it a sixteen-minute piece and fold it in half, then that’ll be some kind of magical, dense thing. So when I said that, I think it was a confession.

I look back at things I wrote when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and I feel I’m looking at a person in a mania—excess, decadence, too much information, too many ideas at the same time—not to a fault necessarily, but it’s an excess. It’s the way you look back at a raucous evening and think, Oh my god, at what point did we think that opening that gin was going to be a good idea?

BLVR: So how do you rein that in?

NM: That is the daily question. I try to return to fundamental techniques of how to do something: just one note against another, one line against another.

One of the other tricks is whenever I get asked to write orchestra music or music that is for a lot of players, I try to make it a little sad. I wrote this very sad piece of music for the Boston Pops. I wrote this really sad gamelan piece, like fake gamelan, like postcard gamelan, like racist DuckTales gamelan. Just really messed up. It had vibraphone! It was excess in a box, excess in a diorama—ethnomusicalogical lonesomeness. But that lonesomeness, to me, helps temper it.

BLVR: Are you frustrated as a composer when you make something and then the musicians perform it in a different way than your intention?

NM: Composition is interesting because, in a sense, you always have to let it go. Unless you’re a true composer/performer, you’re always sending a PDF and then someone else makes it. It’s like instructions for a short story, faxed to every English student who’s studying it.

If you write for an orchestra, their engagement with it is this: they turn up on, like, Wednesday morning and they read it through for twenty minutes. That’s the first time they’ve ever seen it. Thursday afternoon they run through it, Friday night they perform it. So they’ve had a total of an hour and twenty minutes’ engagement with this thing at the most. If you imbue every little thing with a very deep personal investment, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Writing orchestra music, you need for the emotional content to come from everyone doing everything together, adding up as it goes, a crowd mentality. With chamber music you can get people who work on the music for months, rehearsing it every day for a couple of hours, and if they get it in a different way than you do, which is entirely possible, it’s not as a result of anything other than their good musicianship.

BLVR: It’s very interesting to me, these gaps. There’s a gap between the writing of the composition and the performance of it. And there’s this other gap between the performance and the listeners, what they hear. But that first gap is this funny, uneasy space: interpretation as a spontaneous act, an improvised act, in the moment.

NM: As a composer you want to tell musicians two completely contradictory things. You want to say, “Play exactly what I wrote, but bring your own thing to it.” In a lot of ways they feel like opposites, but in a sense, my job is to cajole or encourage decisions that I approve of. That’s on a level as basic as an accent, the size of the font, all of that shit. It’s these really subtle things, incredibly subtle. Almost like getting a horse to do something complicated. Musicians, in a lot of ways—not to compare them to horses—but riding a horse is a relationship with a foreign creature, and with musicians it’s a similar thing: “OK, I’m going to put something on the page that will spook you into rushing.” Little games you can play.

There’s a lot of violence in Beethoven not explicitly suggested by the notes or in his markings, necessarily. There’s just a way that it looks on the page that encourages it to be played in a certain fashion. We look at his manuscripts and there’s a real awareness of aggression.

BLVR: Like he’s writing with a piece of charcoal.

NM: Almost. These articulations that look just like a gash. It’s beautiful. So through studying you can see how stuff has been received through performance practice through the ages. Everyone knows how the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony are going to be played. It’s just four notes, it’s no big deal. But somehow we’ve received this information that it’s meant to be this really [claps] unh! thing.

When you’re writing something new, writing something that’s your own, basically you have nothing else to do except either invent a trick, use someone else’s trick, or have no trick and get a bad performance. Those are your options. And so at school, in a lot of cases, you don’t have a trick yet and musicians are like, “What?” You can stick someone on a horse who doesn’t know what’s going on—it’s the same weight—but the horse is asking, “What are you doing? What’s going on up there?”

BLVR: Tell me about the project you’re doing with Teitur, the singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands.

NM: He got asked to do this thing at a festival in Holland: “Classical music and nonclassical music being friends with each other,” which is this kind of forced idea that I don’t necessarily 100 percent buy. If you need to be told to be friends, you’re not really friends. It’s like a playdate, when you’re a kid and you’re screaming [in a kid voice], “But I fucking hate him!” And you have to go, even if there’s sand in your eyes. It’s total misery.

Anyway, I met Teitur in the Faroe Islands last summer. And he’s such a natural musician that you are ashamed to have gone to school in the first place. He’s essentially a songwriter, and his gift is the song form—it wasn’t appropriate to try to write something too abstract. So basically we said, Let’s find something that has an abstract grounding but is also totally commonplace and accessible to everybody. Music videos are one thing—crazy, fucked-up, boring music videos. We found a YouTube video of a guy giving a tour of his apartment in Siberia. He’d just renovated it, I guess. And he does this really slow pan around his living room. It’s like eight minutes long. And all the comments are like “You suck! This is really boring! Why did you put it up?” You know? It’s totally great. Or there are these people who strap a camera to the front of their car and go for a drive in Nebraska. And the comments say, “I used to live on a road like that in Scandinavia.” So we basically have just been arranging songs using comments on YouTube.

Teitur and I have been in each other’s presence two times. We talk two or four times a day, and work through this whole crazy project, but by the time we die he and I will probably have beheld each other, like, eight times. And that’s wild to me.

BLVR: Do you like always being connected?

NM: I’m trying to phase out my availability on the phone. People call you when you’re walking down the street and say the most random stuff. It’s like, “Can you not hear that I’m in a fish market?” There’s all these people screaming and the person on the phone is saying, “OK, so next Wednesday at two, what is your availability?” And I have a striped bass in my left hand and your phone-call in my right hand—how can I possibly tell you what I’m doing in two weeks’ time? So I try to turn off my phone. It was only on three times today—at 8 a.m., at 2 p.m., and when you were coming over.

BLVR: But you check your emails every two seconds.

NM: Yes.

III. A CHILD SNEEZING FOREVER

BLVR: Instead of doing a record for Deutsche Grammophon or another traditionally “classical music” label, you released your albums on an Icelandic indie label. So where did that come from?

NM: I think my generation is a lost generation in a way. I didn’t really get the Internet until high school; I didn’t really get any of that stuff until college—an MP3 was in my freshman year of college. We’re the same age. I had an MP3.

BLVR: I remember when I had just one. Third Eye Blind, “Semi-Charmed Life.”

NM: I had Cher’s “Believe” or whatever. What even was an MP3? But you had it, you dragged it to this thing called Winamp—it was crazy. So the records that I loved were these beautiful objects—Arvo Pärt on ECM, or all that Adams and Glass on Nonesuch, and you just held these albums and touched the paper, and it felt so delicious. And yet over the course of being in college, that faded away. We collected MP3s and things.

But what didn’t fade up at the same time was, in conservatories, an awareness of what any of that was. So I ended up with a completely analog experience at Juilliard. Even in my last year of my master’s you would still be handed a cassette tape or DAT of your concert—“Here’s the stage, here’s the microphone, here you go, here’s your piece.”

So what people of my year found, when we left school, was this landscape of “IM it to me,” “Let me hear it.” And it was like: “Oh, let me somehow take this cassette tape, plug it in….” We had this essentially undocumented work.

I just didn’t entertain the idea that my music would ever become available in any of the ways that I had previously known music to be available. I couldn’t imagine that one day the phone’s going to ring and it’s going to be Nonesuch saying, “You know what? Even though we haven’t heard any of your music, because it’s all on cassette tape, we believe in you. So why don’t you take this money and record your choral works.”

It’s this weird generational thing about how people access music. The people who were and are still, to a certain extent, in control of the record industry deal with things in an analog way, going to concerts, buying something in a store. Whereas for people my age it’s become this more abstract thing. “Oh, you want the new Hot Chip album? Here it is,” and then it’s suddenly in your house—and it hasn’t even been released.

I had been working for Philip Glass for a bunch of years and he has his own way of doing things, too, which is to make everything as available as you can, and I had been thinking of that and just going about my life, and then through Björk I met [Icelandic producer/musician] Valgeir Sigurðsson.

We had been working together for a couple months and he just thought I was a pianist or some kind of arranger or something, but finally he said: “Oh, someone told me you were a composer. What does your music sound like?” And I was like—“Oh, I’ve got this cassette tape!” At this point I had actually paid forty-five dollars to have it digitized—so you play the MP3 and hear the khhhhh of the cassette player. At first, he said, “Wait, are you kidding? What the fuck is this? Where did you record this?” He was adamant. “We’re doing something. We have to fix this, this is ridiculous.” So in a sense, it was a pity fuck.

He was really the first person involved in recording anything who wasn’t like, “Let me hear an MP3. Oh, you don’t have one? Send me one when you have one.” He was instead, “Oh, you don’t have one? Let’s make one.”

So he and I just started scheming about how we would make this happen, and very quickly we said fuck it to having a mic above the stage, let’s just say forget about recording everything at the same time. Let’s forget that whole [classical music recording] model, just to see what happens. I couldn’t have been happier to say good-bye to all that. You would get an ulcer trying to get everything perfect. The performance was it, it was all you had—everything I wrote for four years, I only have one tape of it and you have no control. If a child sneezes, it’s there forever.

BLVR: You can understand why Glenn Gould went so crazy with his recording studio.

NM: Because I had been in conservatory for so long, I was jealous of my friends in bands. I have a friend named Brian who’s in this band called Apes & Androids now, and when I was in college we lived next door to each other, and he had this Pro Tools setup—the Mbox—and he and his band would work and then that night they could send you the shit. Whereas I could in, like, five months send you this fucked-up tape.

There was never this idea that we would release what we recorded, even; it just needed to be made. And then at a certain point, Valgeir asked: “Why don’t we make a home for this shit? Just figure out a way to give it a system that works.” Because what would be death in that situation is having this thing, this record, and “shopping it around.” You’re bound for disappointment, failure, and misery. Emotionally, I was not prepared to handle that. It’s not even about rejection as much as it’s about being told by the main model of existence, by something that you don’t 100 percent believe in, that it’s not right for you.

BLVR: Are there other people in the classical world doing similar things, making records the same way as you did?

NM: All of the minimalists were DIY for a long time—design and build in the ’60s and ’70s. “Let’s avoid academic shit, let’s play for each other, let’s form bands, basically—touring organizations.” That’s an early model of what I’m the most interested in. Or Terry Riley—he’s the grandpa of this like-minded community of people who jam together.

For someone like John Adams, who, for me, is such an important composer—it’s really good that he’s being presented the way he’s being presented: a major publisher, a major label…. For him, that’s the way it should be. So there’s nothing wrong with it. But for someone my age it’s a different world.

BLVR: So how do you experience music now—albums? MP3s? Concerts?

NM: I have to say the act of listening to music at home is rare now. I go to a lot of music—I buy a ticket and go to see a show. If I’m at home I’m usually writing music or I’m cooking—and there’s about forty things I listen to. A Cam’ron album, or Joni Mitchell, or that thing we were listening to before—John McGuire, a two-piano piece. Or Bach toccatas, I love to have them on around the house.

And other times I’m like, “I want to sit down and listen to Sibelius.” Or, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this goddamn Beach House record.” But that’s rare, that’s once every couple of days—the concerted effort to listen to something. It’s always Sibelius or Beach House, by the way—it’s out of control. Every couple weeks I’ll listen to Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, just to check in, to see how it’s doing. It’s doing OK.

Sean Michaels lives in Montreal, where he is working on a novel about accidents, melancholy, and Apollo. He writes about songs at saidthegramophone.com and sometimes mcsweeneys.net. This is his second piece for the Believer.

Illustration by Charles Burns

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