If Gustavo Dudamel is the conductor du jour in the classical world, Nico Muhly is certainly its composer. Muhly is in his 20s, was recently profiled in The New Yorker and has worked with Philip Glass, the Boston Pops and Björk. To call him hotly tipped might be underselling it.
As a composer, Muhly has been busy fulfilling commissions from likely sources, but his most widely available work has been released on Iceland's Bedroom Community label. The imprint, run by frequent Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson, recently released Muhly's second record Mothertongue. Like his debut, it heavily features collaborations with other artists. Abigail Fischer patiently reads out addresses, phone numbers and other mental detritus throughout "Mothertongue," while organs, strings and electronics buzz away beneath the surface. "Wonders" contains bits and pieces from 17th century texts recited by Helgi Hrafn Jónsson. Folk singer Sam Amidon breaks down and then reconstructs a traditional English tune on the album's closer, "The Only Tune." The record is a whirlwind of modern classical, avant-garde electronic and traditional music. It's also kind of amazing.
As if the music thing weren't enough, Muhly's a talented writer too: whether it's for his blog, the UK's Guardian newspaper or hipster bible The Fader, Nico is never shy about talking about the things that he likes (Ratatat, fonts) and dislikes (poorly designed websites, the term "crossover artist"). eMusic's Todd Burns sat down with the composer recently to talk about some of his favorite work that also happens to be available on the site.
Antony sang on your first record, Speaks Volumes. How did you meet him?
I met him through Laurie Anderson. I first saw him play at St. Ann's and this is one of the songs that he played. It's so weird because it goes from this very placid beginning into this very apocalyptic ending. It has one of the most satisfying chord progressions, actually. It just goes up and up and up. I remember being completely freaked out when I first heard it.
You said in an interview that with the piece that you had Antony sing on your first record, you included the viola because it was sort of this transgendered instrument. I was wondering if you could talk more about that.
[laughs] When violists talk about their instrument, they always talk about it in the same way, in that it's caught in the wrong body. It wants to be a cello, but it doesn't resonate like one. Historically, it seems to get the scraps. If it has a melody, it gets a devastating and gorgeous Brahms-y type thing and if it doesn't get a melody, it's completely marginalized. Like in Handel's Messiah where it just plays the same note over and over.
You did the orchestration on this. Is there anything we should listen for here?
My little joke in this song is that I made the trombones play the line from “Sweet Caroline” very, very slowly in this.
You've worked with a lot of folk musicians, adding orchestration to these very simple songs. Is it easier or harder for you to adorn a folk song?
It's a lot easier actually. When I worked with Will Oldham [on The Letting Go], we didn't even meet. He would just send me single sentence e-mails. With Sam, there was even less contact. He recorded the album with Valgeir and then went to Nepal. Then I came, did all this crazy stuff and told him to take whatever he wanted. Luckily, everything was modular enough that you could take out a part without the whole thing collapsing.
Sam worked with you on your new album. What is it about his voice that drew you to him?
Any sound that has a complicated relationship with emotion and technique is interesting to me. I'm not so into high romantic cello playing, for instance, because it's so obvious. Whereas with him, it's devastating and it's hard to know why. He has this blank carefree face and then all of the sudden you're like, “This is really moving.” It's like Antony. He's doing this very intense vibrato, which is a very technical thing, but it's somehow so emotional. Sam's voice is this insane instrument that he uses in a specific way in his own stuff and I was interested in expanding that on my own record.
This is one of Stravinsky's most famous religious works. There seems to be a lot made out of your music's religious leanings, even though you aren't necessarily religious yourself.
Yeah. I'm not intensely religious at all, but I have an enormous respect for living in a morally accountable way. When I was a kid and starting to understand what music was, a lot of it was…a lot of teenage classical musicians get really addicted to being applauded, but for many years I did it in a church where that wasn't the goal. The best thing was when someone would say, “That service was really beautiful” rather than the music, as though it was one whole…
The church that I went to always felt so awkward in a way, because it seemed like people were unsure whether to clap or not for a soloist. It always seemed like there was a moment of hesitation after someone would sing, when the whole congregation was deciding what to do.
Interesting. I felt like church was one of the only places where I didn't feel awkward at all. Because you know what's up. You know what to do. The church has been around for millennia, so there's very rarely a situation where something could happen that hasn't been planned for.
What church did you go to?
I went to an Anglican church.
Ah, I'm a Methodist. So it's this very kinda modern, kinda not thing, which may mean more confusion about these things.
Right, you're not in it to win it. [laughter]
The reason that I love Taverner is that the trebles are always 55 miles above everything else, so you have this sense of enormous space. And in moments of great emotional intensity, it's even bigger.
In your own recordings, are you looking to have those sorts of separations?
I actually wrote a piece explicitly about this called “Clear Music,” which was on the last record. It's the equivalent of whipped cream, in a way, because there's so much air folded in between as opposed to, say, butter. It's the same thing with Stravinsky. He somehow made this discovery at one point how to have the maximum amount of space between instruments, while simultaneously making them sound as heroic as possible.
You've written about this piece before elsewhere and how much it struck you when you first heard it. What was the key?
There are many reasons, I think, but the story is this really beautiful and sad thing. The chords are always resisting resolution…
Did you know that when you first heard it, though?
No. For me, it's always emotional, and then the technical. Then I can harness it and steal it. [laughs]
Has that changed for you? Can you now listen to something and see it in your mind, so to speak?
No, not really. There was a time when I was in school where that happened out of necessity, because I was just studying all the time. By my last year at school, I had this weird revelation that there were some pieces that I'd never heard without having a score in front of me as I listened to it. Like, almost anything by Sibelius, for instance — because I had just started really listening to him when I got to school.
It's funny because it's then that you realize that there is a lot of stuff that is in the category of “sounds really good with a score” and when you hear it without one, you think, “well….” And sometimes it's totally the other way. Elgar, for me, definitely falls in that first category.
I don't want to beat the religion thing into the ground, but in listening to this today in concert with everything else that I was going to play you, I was struck by how hymnal this track sounds.
I'm telling you, those hymn chords! They're the best. It's funny, the summer that this album came out, every one of my classical friends was telling me how awesome this album was. It's the simplest chords, repeated, and — as a result — it has to work. They have to be good, because they repeat it so much. One of my favorite things of theirs is “Seventeen Years,” which has that crazy slide in it.
I completely stole it for this piece that I did for the Boston Pops called “Wish You Were Here.” [plays piece]
I just love the idea of some classical critic talking about that moment as some strange, romantic thing, not knowing you simply borrowed it from Ratatat.
[laughs] Yeah, I e-mailed them afterwards and let them know. “I'm stealing this thing. OK? Thanks!”