Nico Muhly, classical music wunderkind, on early success and ignoring his ‘flight map’

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Nico Muhly. (Samantha West.)
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“Don’t you know this place?” Nico Muhly, the wunderkind of contemporary classical music, was leading me to a booth in a back room of Temple Bar in Noho. “It’s where guys take their mistresses.”

Contrasted with the glare outside, the place was certainly dark enough to conceal an illicit affair. But the composer found his light with the easy expertise of a Broadway diva. He’s clearly used to being interviewed, and he talks almost faster than a tape recorder can catch his whirl of words.

Muhly, just two weeks short of his 30th birthday then, already had three albums out, plus dance scores, soundtracks, collaborations with everyone from Benjamin Millepied to Björk—and two operas premiering only months apart.

From his photographs, I tell him, I expected a little guy.

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“I do get that a lot, it’s so weird! I think that’s one reason I prefer to meet with [an interviewer] in person, because it is slightly more intimidating perhaps than otherwise. My old roommate I lived with for six years, every time I came home at night, she was like ‘you are so tall’. I’ve been the same height ... I’m 6’1. Apparently, I read as short."

I said I thought he might "read short" because he's so young.

“I think 'youth', and it's funny because I have this fabulous intern for the summer and he's like 21, and I feel like such a huge goddamn grandma who needs to get her sleep. I feel so ancient. One thing that’s useful to know about me is that my sense of my own output is completely no bird’s eye, at all…it’s like I’m so unambitious. Except that I’m completely focused on the thing that I have to do. So while it is true that I can appreciate the fact that there has been early success, it's also like whatever that means is so secondary or tertiary to the notes and rhythms that I’m constantly doing.

"That having been said, what it does mean—practically as it applies to my daily creation—is that I hope it means that I’ll be able to continue writing music and have that be the sole source of income for a while. That’s a big difficulty with being a musician, and this is something that I grew up with. My mother is an artist but she has a teaching job, and that pull was something that I was made very aware of as a kid. I enjoy the idea that maybe I won’t have to make that choice. And that when I make that choice, it’ll be a choice and not feel forced. And the other thing too, is one of the difficult things [for a composer] is when people are like ‘What does your music sound like?’ and now I can say ‘Get some albums.” You know having that kind of a calling card is useful.”

At this point Muhly still only had my offhand observation about his youth and "reading short" to go on, but he continued; to engage Muhly requires little more than a trivial opening gambit. But he was just getting warmed up.

“Now the other answer to your question, you know shame, burnout, a drug problem, press backlash, whatever that means… what else could go wrong now? Honestly, at a certain point those things are so out of my control and it shouldn’t be relevant to the notes and the rhythms. The minute it becomes relevant, that’s problematic for me. Back when I used to read a ton of blogs, I was always really flattered when people were like: 'It's the future of classical music!' But that's just as bad as: This faggot is dead in the water already. So stopping reading blogs was a really key thing, not just because of haters, but also because then you start thinking, yeah, I am doing this amazing thing, when you're like no, I have to get from A to this B-flat by way of this E-flat. It really distracts you from the craft of the thing, when you focus on these gigantic brush strokes, to be constantly looking at like the flight map of your career, to be like: Well girl, we're over Greenland now, so I should probably take the Ambien.

“There’s this of sense of composers as romantic heroes who're really aware of their own trajectories, which to me is problematic. One of the things I love about composers like Reich and Glass actually, is that they’re not even on the plane. Like they’re on some weird walkabout thing, where it's this constant Zen garden curlicue, like the journey is not aligned. There’s a real sense of, a modern desire to ascribe a line to Beethoven for instance, or Mozart but or… well, Richard Strauss is the best one, because that line got fucked up, right? That’s the kind of metanarrative, and in all that what you lose is, well, for example, at the end of Capriccio when there’s those crazy woodwinds—I still get a chill thinking about it—that are in this bizarre relationship to the tonic. All this tonal bullshit for the whole opera, and then [at the end of the piece] he’s, like, twisting someone’s braid. There’s something really weird about that moment, but you lose all that in the big flight map.”

On Muhly’s flight map, the most recent point of reference is Two Boys, his cybersex-and-murder opera that premiered this summer at the English National Opera. Despite all the high drama that attends any opera production, let alone a world premiere, Muhly blogged the day-to-day rehearsal process. What was most striking was the sense of quiet trust he had in his many collaborators, including director Bartlett Sher. I asked him about that.

“I think you sort of have to trust people. In this particular example, the people I was collaborating with are experienced in what they do. Really, the thing that I was there to do was to make the music as good as I could and to make the music be as—‘malleable’ is the wrong word, but something that could react with other elements [of the production]. I saw a projection that I really loved, or if I realized that it was taking a certain amount of time for something to read, the music could adjust to fit that. Or, on the other hand, if there was something [visually] that I really thought had to happen, I would be able to say that. I think part of the ability to tell anyone else what to do comes from your trusting them, that it is kind of a two-step dance.”

“It was pretty wild actually, the extent to which the whole thing is a huge machine that has to work in a really specific way, that was amazing. The other interesting thing that I was really surprised by was how really small details very late in the game can make or break in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of stages in the process, right before we finalize the libretto, then I’m sketching, a lot of stages of fuss, where you’re like, OK now I’m going to go through and edit all these things. And then we got to the stage, and even then I was thinking about not just ‘I think the fingering for the oboe should be more specific’ but also like ‘Scene 11 doesn’t need to be there’.

"That for me was surprising, because you think that after all that time, you know we had three workshops on the piece, that you’d be able to figure it out. But then when you get into [the theater], there are this many things and you’re like: Why does that feel long? Is it because of the transition? Is it the lighting? Or is it ‘we’re not connecting with this character’ in which case, well, fuck! There’s like 20 things that we could try, but then you’re on the clock, so I felt like pen strokes were having these huge Sorcerer’s Apprentice style reactions. It was sort of the third or fourth day when we were really rolling with the chorus and everyone and I realized how great Bart was at that, at navigating detail and big stuff at the same time.”

“Something I really appreciated was that Bart’s not scared to make a mess. I tend to work really clean: all of my physical work space is very clean, the way that I make edits is very clean. But what Bart does is, if you go to someone’s house for dinner, and it's like the food is great, and then you look in the kitchen and it looks like Katrina has struck. I mean he makes a mess, which I love.”

The thwarted character relationships in Two Boys reminded most British reviewers of the works of Benjamin Britten, who is, like Muhly, a gay composer. Though Muhly is completely out, he finds strong points of identification with his closeted predecessor.

“The Governess and Miles in [Britten’s opera] The Turn of the Screw, there’s something… maybe gay isn’t the right word, there’s something queer, there’s something other than the kind of what I would say the typical theatrical relationships that you see on the operatic stage, which sometimes are like: I just love you so hard, Lady My Age Also Singing In Italian. In Britten, there’s an inability to achieve the embrace, whereas there’s this inevitability in straight drama that it's going to happen, it's just a question of when. I was raised super queer-normative. My parents had tons of gay friends, but for me the isolation weirdly had to do with just being an odd kid, and being sort of obsessive. I was much more talking to older people than to people my own age. I was much happier thinking about, like, urban planning as opposed to anything else, like the way intersections are designed, which, like how traffic lights are timed. And then there comes a time when you’re becoming like 11, 12, 13, 14, as a pianist you’re meant to be playing Rachmaninoff, and I was like Gibbons, and strange transcriptions of Frescobaldi, whatever, like these weird things. I think I sense that in Britten too.”