“The primary task, I feel, is to create a piece of art that is better than the same amount of silence; I would prefer to sit silently thinking for 10 minutes than to listen to certain pieces of music, and therefore feel that it is my duty as a composer to occupy the time of the listener and the musicians with something challenging, engaging and emotionally alluring.”
Nico Muhly. Photo © Ana Cuba
The words are Nico Muhly’s, one of today’s most sought-after and prolific composers, whose considerable number and range of commissions suggest that plenty of people out there believe he’s successfully fulfilling his stated primary objective. In fact, the American musician, now 37 years of age, has been building a steady following over the last decade, as testified to by the Metropolitan Opera who have commissioned him twice – Two Boys (2011) and Marnie (2017) – an honour unique in that institution’s 140-year history. Now, it seems, Australians can’t get enough of him with Omega Ensemble, ACO Collective and Gondwana Choirs all performing new works by Muhly this year.
So how did those commissions come about? “I never ask,” Muhly laughs, his face animated, the conversation typically proceeding at breakneck speed. “Seriously, either the answer is: ‘we heard this one piece of yours and we liked it’ – and then the assumption is you’re gonna write that – or it’s ‘we asked so-and-so and they said no’.”
We’re swilling coffee in the composer’s New York studio-cum-office, part of a cluster of workspaces that includes a friend’s book publishing operation. Tech-savvy, Muhly sits with his Mac and MIDI keyboard hooked up to a large screen, which for the last three years has allowed him to confine his borderline workaholic life to the workplace. “It has allowed me to live like a human being in my house,” he admits. “In my dwelling, it’s now really only possible to edit scores – my computer doesn’t have Sibelius on it – so there’s no way for me to ‘do’ at home. That was a huge change, because I used to be very unboundaried.”
Smart, witty and gregarious, being part of an artistic ecosystem seems to suit Muhly very well, but perhaps that’s not surprising for a Vermont-born lad who grew up communal singing in a church choir in Providence, Rhode Island. With two services a week, boys and men, the environment was modelled after an Oxbridge chapel choir and appealed to a young lad whose tastes even then were leaning away from the Romantic piano music he was studying towards an earlier musical tradition.
Muhly’s Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
“In piano pedagogy, there’s this sense that you aim for Romantic music as the technical and emotional highpoint. I was always turned off by that,” he recalls. “It was just my wiring – at 11 you have no intellectual basis for saying this – but for me it was all a little bit too obvious what you were meant to feel. Even with Chopin there was still this programmatic sense of the emotion of it. Whereas if you take something like the Byrd Mass for three, four, or five voices, the only program there is the New Testament. That’s it. And we all know how that goes. It’s a three-word story – born, died, risen – that’s all you need. With Byrd, the emotional climax is deflected, or hidden, or behind a screen. There are moments of great beauty and tension, but it’s never ‘look, right here’.”
That early, collegiate and purposeful quality to the music making would stay with Muhly throughout his life. “I liked that you were making music in a team, that you were making music where no one clapped, and you were making music that had a function,” he says. “To me, that is still really satisfying.”
With Muhly, composing started early, around the age of 11, but what changed everything was going to Tanglewood as a high school student of 15. Meeting other composers made him realise that writing music was a thing you could actually do. He duly signed up for a combined five-year program studying English and Arabic at Columbia alongside a Masters in Music at Juilliard. “I was studying Arabic for pleasure – it felt like something beautiful to do – but I didn’t actually graduate because September 11 happened and the whole nature of the Arabic program changed,” he admits. “It felt really weird.”
College left him feeling oddly ill-equipped, but he didn’t want to stay in the institutional ‘slow lane’ and wind up teaching and chasing funding awards. “I needed to get myself to a place where I could figure out what the act of composing was going to mean to me,” he recalls. “I wasn’t clear-headed. I’d just moved to New York and it was chaos. And I am the least ambitious person. I’m not a go-getter, I’m more reactive. Only in the last four years have I allowed myself the pleasure of seeking out something I really want to do.”
Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera, 2019. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
At 19, he had started as an intern for Philip Glass, a role he occupied for six or seven months. “It was then that they realised I super-duper could read music, and also that I knew Philip’s work very well. I worked for his archivist for a bit and, eventually, Michael Riesman said there’s this thing I do for Philip’s film scores that you could learn how to do as well. So, I made myself as useful as possible until it was a fulltime job.”
Eight years later, Muhly was ready to emerge as a composer in his own right. Not only that, a mixture of osmosis and observation during the Glass years had taught him three valuable lessons: “With Philip, there is stuff he’s writing for his own ensemble – which is friends and family – and there’s stuff he’s writing for commissioned work. That’s something I still do, i.e. I write pieces for friends outside of the traditional economy of commissioner and composer.”
“I also learned that Philip’s work ethic is bonkers. He writes a shit-ton of music and it’s just relentless. But it’s not some kind of mania or avarice, it’s because he’s made himself part of an ecosystem of people who rely on him for their own wellbeing – in the publishing department, as copyists etc. So, he’s making that happen.”
“And then there’s this idea of musical citizenship, of being someone who thinks about making music as a community endeavour rather than saying ‘I’m a creative genius and if you give me $300,000 I’ll go into the woods and write you this opera’.”
Eclectic tastes have led to eclectic collaborations. Post-minimalist riffs and rhythms have blended with rock and pop-influences like Björk and Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons fame). The voice is distinctively Muhly, but you still sense those early passions for Tudor and Jacobean music and its influence on the likes of Finzi and Howells, composers whose music he identifies as a different kind of Modernism from the Second Viennese schools – “I mean, you don’t find too many hardcore, 12-tone evensong services,” he jokes.
Photo © Ana Corda
To date, Muhly has written more than 80 significant works, as well as a slew of arrangements and orchestrations. At any given time, he may have a whole metaphorical briefcase-full of works on the go. During our interview he multitasks, looking at a piece of music under discussion, spotting an errant slur, and firing off an email to a copyist somewhere out there in the ether.
“I work really hard, and I work a lot, and the result has been a lot of output,” he admits. “There are other people who work really hard, and work all the time, the result of which is not that much output. But neither model is bad. If you think about Varèse – I mean there’s only about an hour’s music but it’s amazing. However, trying to be healthier in the last five years I’ve slowed down on purpose.”
“Let’s speak practically, which I know is vulgar, but I’ve gotta make money,” he continues. “I don’t have family money, which is the unspoken thing about a lot of composers – it’s no secret, Elliott Carter had a bunch of money, he could have not written for 20 years. So, there’s an amount I need to make to live comfortably in New York City… but also, it’s the only thing I know!”
Muhly is both widely read and a talented writer. If you want to know more about his compositional process, google “Nico Muhly LRB”. There you’ll find a fascinating London Review of Books article he penned last year in which he talks about his three phases: the scheming and planning; the writing of actual notes; the editing.
Muhly will be in Australia for the Omega Ensemble and Gondwana premieres. The Omega concert will also feature two other works of his (By All Means and No Uncertain Terms), all of which are being recorded by ABC Classic for the ensemble’s second studio album. Omega Artistic Director David Rowden studied on a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Music and met Muhly as part of a Juilliard exchange scheme. “It was a formative experience and a really good vibe, for me,” Muhly explains. “We kept in touch and couple of years ago he said this thing has come up and did I want to do it?”
Omega proposed Muhly set a poem by Greek writer Constantine Cavafy. “I’ve set so much Cavafy – maybe an hour and 15 minutes of texts – so it was a natural ‘yes’,” Muhly enthuses. They settled on the 1927 poem Two Young Men, 23 to 24 years old. “There’s one man waiting in a café at 10pm, and then his friend arrives who’s won 60 pounds in a card game, and then they stay up all night in a bordello, and then they sleep with one another – which is like so much of one’s twenties,” he laughs. “I’ve set enough Cavafy to feel totally undaunted by how he handles homosexuality, how he handles a really specific sense of yearning, but also this amazing cinematic sense of camera moves.”
Muhly is the first non-Australian Gondwana Choirs has commissioned. “The brief was complicated,” he admits of the five-minute work. “They were interested in things that I have no business writing about, like the disappearance of indigenous languages. So, I thought, fuck it, I’ll set ‘Bobbi’ [Roberta] Sykes, because her poetry is so fabulous. That way I could come at it from the side.”
Townsville-born, Sykes grew up identifying as Aboriginal and her experience of racism profoundly affected her. Muhly has set her poem Only I.
The violin concerto, commissioned by the ACO for Finnish violinist and ACO Collective Artistic Director Pekka Kuusisto, was the biggest brief of all. Kuusisto, a valued colleague, also asked Muhly to help curate the program. “Pekka is so much bigger than his instrument. He just radiates, and he’s a hysterical human being!” Muhly laughs. “His crazy ass is inconsistent in the most bizarre – but not in a bad – way. When he plays, it’s like the itinerary is the same, but where you stop for lunch is different each time. It’s thrilling to make music with him.”
Different strokes for different folks, then, but Muhly has a healthy philosophy as far as audiences are concerned: “What is key for me about creating this sort of emotional and sonic architecture is the possibility of listeners having simultaneous but radically different experiences,” he writes. “With music, I want each listener to feel an intensity inside the music, and I only want to provide a few suggestions about where to look for it.”
This year, Australians are invited to discover a little of that addictive Nico Muhly intensity.
Omega Ensemble plays Muhly at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on July 2, Gondwana Choirs sings Muhly on July 15 at Sydney Opera House, and ACO Collective performs his Violin Concerto at Melbourne Recital Centre on December 4