January 23, 2007—3 p.m.
A conversation with
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Nico Muhly is a force. At 25, he has already earned degrees from Columbia and Juilliard, sewn up a publishing deal, collaborated with major composers on both sides of the pop/classical aisle, and capped off 2006 with the release of his first album, Speaks Volumes.
He also speaks five languages, has 952 MySpace friends (at last count), and owns two ice cream makers—though just when he finds the time to make ice cream eludes me. What he clearly has made time for is writing music—ensemble pieces, film scores, sacred music—and sharing that enthusiasm with fellow composers and musicians—from self-taught to conservatory-trained. It’s a deceptively open, uncomplicated equation that goes a long way in explaining the domino-fall speed of Muhly’s success as an artist.
But what goes even further is that Muhly is a man not intimidated by definitions, which seems to have released his music from the pressures of trying to outrun them. He grew up as an artist inside the classical tradition, and his music solidly reflects this. And rather than awkwardly decorating his scores with elements drawn from the pop world to clarify that he’s cool like that, he has instead simply kept his ears open and his defenses down. The sounds and techniques that speak to him then comfortably flow into his own writing in much subtler ways and to much greater effect than I’ve previously encountered. Rather than setting foreign words, Muhly seems to be mining foreign grammars.
Though Muhly isn’t a name-dropper, it’s worth a look at his bio to see how he came to be the degree of separation between Philip Glass and Björk. And if you haven’t heard his name or his music yet, it’s only a matter of time. This month alone you can catch up on his work with Antony and the Johnsons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and then a week later hear a whole evening featuring his own music and work that has influenced him at Carnegie Hall during John Adams’s In Your Ear festival.
When we arrive for our teatime chat, Muhly is in the midst of packing up his Columbia University apartment for a move down to Chinatown. In the process, he’s turned up some old notebooks and a lot of memories, so it proved to be an auspicious time to get a little nostalgic.