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Interview with Nico Muhly | Nico Muhly in Conversation with Adam Gopnik
A list of composer Nico Muhly’s work—whose opera Two Boys has its Met premiere this October—reads like a mash-up of several different, incredibly curious, highly generative, and improbably busy people. One might stumble upon his choral writing in a morning service at St. Thomas Church on the Upper West Side. Or hear his score while seeing a performance at the Paris Opéra Ballet, or while watching a film like The Reader, starring Kate Winslet. Or happen upon Muhly and a friend performing a four-hand organ concert at Westminster Abbey. He’s written a range of concert works for such artists as countertenor Iestyn Davies, violinist Hilary Hahn, the New York Philharmonic, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein. At the same time, he has collaborated as an arranger and conductor for Jónsi, Bryce Dessner and Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, and Glen Hansard. His collaborators range from designer and illustrator Maira Kalman to choreographer Benjamin Millepied. And then there’s Philip Glass: while studying at Juilliard and Columbia, Muhly cut his teeth in Glass’s studio, working as a MIDI programmer and editor for six years. The 32-year old artist spoke with the Met’s Elena Park about composers, composing, and Two Boys.
Would you be able to characterize your musical style?
That’s always a difficult question. What I can always answer is what music sort of thrills me. It’s the music of Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis. It’s Stravinsky—something like The Rake’s Progress occupies this very strange intersection between something very old and something radically new, and you don’t quite know on which side of the lintel you are. And then, the music of the American minimal tradition of the ’60s and ’70s—La Monte Young and Terry Riley and Philip Glass and Steve Reich and, of course, John Adams who both comes from and doesn’t come from that tradition. I grew up with a sense that the only thing that mattered in music was [Adams’s] The Death of Klinghoffer as a sort of synthesis of and departure from so many things that had come before it. It’s all a process. So, to come back to your question about style, it’s not something that anyone needs to give a name to until you’re dead. And it’s better not to do it while you’re alive, if you can avoid it!
You compose a wealth of choral music, which seems to hark back to the early masters of the 16th and 17th centuries.
When I was eight or nine, my family lived in Providence, Rhode Island. And there was, for no good reason, a very, very wonderful Anglican church that had a great music program and a very ambitious music director. One of the best ways to make kids know how to do something is to not pretend like it’s hard or special. Just be like, “This is the time of year when you all sing all this Orlando Gibbons… This
is the time of the year when you sing this penitential Thomas Tallis that will never end.” Music of the English Renaissance and Tudor Music has been a cantus firmus through everything I do, not just musically, but also as a sort of philosophy of how to make music and think of yourself as a composer. That is something I think I share with Britten—he wanted to be a composer of useful music. He wanted the music that he wrote to be part of the community that
For Two Boys, you’ve said you borrowed structural ideas from Purcell (including repetitive bass structures and four giant passacaglias) and described Britten’s music as “a building block.”
In Britten’s operas, there’s always this element of sexual longing and non-sexual longing co-existing, and it’s always shrouded in mystery: what really is
the emotional engine that drives Claggart in Billy Budd? Why does Oberon want the Indian Boy in Midsummer? There’s also this kind of melancholy that pervades Britten’s work both for the stage and for the church. One of the ways he gets at this is through the voices of children. There’s an awareness that something goes directly to the heart of a listener if you have a boy soprano intone something; it unlocks the emotional realm of the piece. And then, at the very end of his life, when Britten was writing Death in Venice, he looks toward Balinese music. The last eight bars of the score is this sort of gamelan scale that vanishes as Tadzio goes off. And I thought that, for my purposes in Two Boys, that’s a really interesting way to de-electrify the world of the Internet, instead of it sounding electronic. There’s a lot of wonderful electronic music in opera, that apocalyptic thing that happens at the end of [Adams’s] Doctor Atomic is one of my favorite things in the world. But for me, it was about making the Internet be this kind of organically crafted thing that relates to the music of Britten. The chorus music is simultaneously referencing the Tudor masters as well as this sort of late-Britten exoticism, which, I think, is a coded high-five, as it were, into the past.
You said that composer Philip Glass, who’s been
a mentor to you, gave you some “super practical words of wisdom.”
When I starting writing Two Boys, I called up Philip and asked him what to do. Everything he says is very practical, which I love. He’s written, like, 40 operas
or something—some outrageous number. The most helpful thing was telling me how to be clear about what I needed in a libretto. The good news about opera is that the libretto does not need to do all the work. In point of fact, one word sung beautifully can contain in it five other big ideas that you would, in a play, have to actually say. And this was something that Craig and I found very easily: a way to divide up the work that the text would have to do and then what the music would have to do. Another really amazing piece of advice I got was from John Corigliano and Mark Adamo. Their thing was just: “Get the structure under your grip. Don’t let this thing burst out of control. And make sure you know exactly what’s going on.”
This interview was first published in the Met's Season Book in September 2013.