Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly was made for New York City. Though born in Vermont and raised in Rhode Island, the ultra-busy composer’s work ethic naturally thrives in the city that never sleeps. Since receiving his masters in music from Juilliard in 2004 the multi-tasker has been bouncing between performances at Carnegie Hall, conducting the Boston Pops, writing operas and performing with pop artists like Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright. Refusing to be pinned down by his classical music roots, Mothertongue, Muhly’s second solo set, is a heady disc made up of three compositions that run the gamut from Eno-style electronic experimentalism ("Mothertongue”), dark, harpsichord-driven mediaeval murder ballads ("Wonders”) and rustic, banjo-laden folk tunes ("The Only Tune”). Caught on his cell phone, Muhly was running around New York trying to wrap up a few projects before taking off on a North American tour that’ll see him taking his genre-stretching compositions to fancy recital halls, dingy clubs, art spaces and anywhere else that’ll have him.

So, how are you today?
I woke up later than I would have liked today. I made an enormous amount of coffee and drank it quickly. Right now I’m working with the editor of a movie I’m scoring. I’m in her cutting room in midtown. Being in midtown Manhattan on the weekend is so insane, though. It’s all tourists. They’re everywhere! People aren’t walking the correct speeds on the sidewalk; it’s a pain in the ass. It’s the worst.

How do you approach working on a commissioned piece as opposed to making music on your own?
It’s all pretty different. For an album, I can be more experimental. I can take a long time. I can compose it out of order. I can basically do whatever I want. If I want to have a billion oboes on it, I can do that. When it’s commissioned they give you restrictions in advance. You already have that decision made for you. Movies are the most restricted. The length of the cue is very specific.

So how long did it actually take you to compose Mothertongue?
It took within the embrace of 14 months to finish it, but I was doing a million other things at the same time. I would say there were four episodes of very intense work on it of, like, three weeks each. It’s like you have a bag of vegetables in your freezer, weird fucked up tips of carrots, stuff that you eventually turn into stock. You save it until you have enough to make something. The album is kind of like that. You keep throwing things in the bag until you go crazy.

The piece "Mothertongue” is pretty crazy and frantic with your singer (mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer) chanting out names, places and addresses. What’s your interest with these words?
What I was going for was, instead of a journey of a narrative I wanted it to feel more like an archive, like you’re running in a library at full speed. I wanted to call out the things that make up your identity, all these digits. You have ways to remember language like "I before E except after C,” or listing the fifty states. Essentially I’m saying that the English language leaves this really fun, intense imprint on us about how it works with numbers, addresses, social security numbers, etc.

"The Only Tune,” takes the opposite approach and presents itself as a story...
In the case of "The Only Tune,” I was using the idea of how I think folk music is totally pussified and how I want blood and guts and infanticide. I’d like to hear that please, thank you. That was the emotional structure before I started writing. I don’t feel the pressure to make this big statement, just to make something beautiful.

The story is pretty gruesome. Where did it come from?
It’s a story about infanticide and sororocide and rape and violence. I heard the song as a kid. My parents used to sing it in a folky way and I was so freaked out by it. It’s the most terrifying story. I have this real emotional disconnect with the folk revival. I don’t get it. The folk that I like is so much more aggressive and with screaming. I love a yelling Sicilian choir. In America and Britain there’s this kind of guitar-based, wimpy thing happening which I find alienating. I knew the story, I knew the song and I knew the tune. I just wanted to own it again in my own way, really claim it.

You’re known both as a composer who has worked extensively with Phillip Glass and played for a classical music audience but you’ve also worked with contemporary pop artists like Björk and Will Oldham. Where do you fit in?
What I’m up to is a little weird. Classical isn’t the right term to deal with it. When I’m making an album, it’s just a sonic offering. It’s me saying to you, "Here, listen to this thing. What do you think?” I’m happy that it’s difficult to get your hands on. If at some point you or anyone that initially had difficulty listening to it likes it later on... it’s like wood you chopped yourself.