Musical Chairs

Textual Improvisation with Nico Muhly

by by Lizzie Davis

illustration by by Diane Zhou

At age 31, Nico Muhly is already heralded as the premiere composer of his generation. The Providence local has collaborated with artists from Meredith Monk to Sufjan Stevens and Diplo and appears to be just as at home in small experimental music venues like Le Poisson Rouge as in Carnegie Hall. Muhly’s compositions combine his classical Julliard training with the minimalist practice pioneered by his mentor, Phillip Glass, and a strange kind of millennial pop sensibility that gives rise to a sound which is both a result of and definitive of music’s present state. My first taste of Muhly’s work was his 2008 album Mothertongue, a sonically dazzling series of suites layered with explorations of language, identity, and compositional conventions. Within moments of hearing vocalist Abigail Fischer rapidly reciting the alphabet over an escalating, twinkling base of intertwining strings, synths, and drones, I joined the the ranks of Muhly’s acolytes. Since then, Muhly’s released a flurry of incredible, boundary-pushing work including several EPs of drone-based pieces and two operas. When Muhly returned to Providence to participate in a two-day residency at Brown with past collaborator, pianist and Cage-affiliate Bruce Brubaker last month, I had an opportunity to talk to Muhly about contemporary opera, cross-genre collaborations, and the benefits of trying to know everything you possibly can.

The Independent: I read in an interview with The Believer that you sometimes start off composing a piece by filling bars with words and drawings instead of notes, then build off of that. Do you primarily work straight from vague ideas and feelings to paper while hearing the sounds in your head, or do you ever play out ideas as they come to you?

Nico Muhly: I almost always start vague and then zoom in. I’ve found it to be enormously useful to have a kind of itinerary of the piece at hand before I start even worrying about notes and rhythms. One of the dangers I fell into when I was younger was having all these pods of ideas that I would just throw into some order and call it a piece.

Indy: Do you think that growing up in Providence affected you musically?

NM: Yes. I had great music all around; I had a teacher, Kevin Sullivan, who, in addition to being classically trained, was involved in the jazz scene around AS220 downtown and was kind of a key figure in my musical development. Also, a lot of my parents’ friends were musicians and artists, so there was always a sense that one could grow up and be a musician without that being something shameful.

Indy: When you moved to New York City, you traded the downtown Providence scene for working for one of the premiere figures of the famed Downtown music scene, Phillip Glass. What was that like?

NM: Philip is heaven! He is incredibly hard-working, and the main thing I took from him is the ability to be completely selfless about collaborative projects. If something doesn’t work, you throw it out, and if something works, you learn to fight for the work, not just for your own involvement.

Indy: Is it easy to go back and forth between arranging orchestration for Grizzly Bear and Usher and composing works commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera?

NM: I feel like writing music and arranging music and all of that needs to be as easy as possible, in terms of one’s flexibility to pop around between things. Just as it’s easy to hop on a plane and be somewhere else and get right to work.

Indy: What initially attracted you to writing operas?

NM: Opera is the kind of last frontier for me—combining all these different things on a stage is an extreme expression of a lot of the musical/artistic concerns and is a giant Olympic exercise in organization.

Indy: From the perspective of someone who writes very avant-garde works, both musically and in terms of subject matter, what kind of innovations are keeping opera relevant?

NM: Fortunately, I don’t have to worry at all about how my music fits into the context of opera as a whole. There’s something grotesque, I think, about composers thinking about how their music is contextualized. That’s the job of critics. In opera, the music informs everything—it’s the beginning and the end of what you see, and even if the staging works against the music, the music is still the context against which everything else bounces.

Indy: Do you think opera is relevant?

NM: I think opera is wildly relevant but I don’t know if I have a really organized answer about why. It’s just amazing as a form.

Indy: Speaking of forms, during your conversation with Bruce Brubaker about authorship and appropriation in contemporary music, you mentioned how, contrary to what some people assume, having the framework of a commission to compose what feels liberating to you. Do you feel the same way about the framework of the conventions of music theory? Does a deep understanding of music theory impose any sort of limiting framework at all?

NM: There is nothing to be lost by understanding music theory. I completely and totally reject the idea that “the less you know the better.” It’s no longer cute, I don’t think, especially in the context of a major university, to not be in a constant state of trying to know everything about everything. Even if what you want to physically do isn’t directly relevant to, you know, learning Brucknerian harmony or reading late Henry James or whatever, there’s no reason or excuse not to do it if you have the opportunity to do so. Similarly, there’s no excuse for classical musicians to outright reject pop music as being something wasteful to listen to; it might not make you a better interpreter of Brahms, although I would argue it might, but it will certainly make you an asshole. Which is, of course, not the goal. Moral of the story is that everybody needs to study everything and learn everything, from now until the end of time.