Molly Sheridan: In previous interviews, you’ve talked a lot about this love affair that you have with language. I know you did your undergrad at Columbia in English, so now I have this image of you curled up in bed at night reading and having these musical ideas that you frantically scribble down in notebooks. Is that how it happens?
Nico Muhly: Essentially, the relationship, the love affair with language and love affair with music, is a tight one. When I’m thinking about pieces, I’m almost always thinking verbally before I think musically. Usually, if I have an idea about something, it’s an idea first and music second, if that makes any sense. Especially when I was in school—and I guess this will change as I become less and less attached to school—but I would be studying something, and something would occur to me—some exciting turn of phrase or some little detail—and I would expand on that and then music would happen. So language was always first.
My entire life I’ve been studying languages in such an intense way. When I was 13, my mom and I moved to Italy and I was sent to Italian public school, and there’s this immediate language intensity there. And when I was at Columbia, I was studying Arabic intensively. The process of studying a language, of learning how a language is put together, is, I think, very similar to the way that music gets put together. Which is to say, it’s slow and it’s awful, but there’s a curve at which you learn it. You know what I mean? When you’re studying a language, and all of a sudden, there’s a point at which you know more things that you thought you had put in. So that’s something I think about a lot.
MS: I know there’s a lot of debate over whether music really says anything, though, in the same sense that you can communicate using a spoken language. Does it communicate on that same level for you?
NM: That’s the fundamental question, and the fundamental problem with a lot of music, I think. It’s interesting. I hadn’t heard this term until I got to school, but a composer described music as being communicative, rather than non-communicative, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting distinction to have drawn.” And then I realized that is a key issue that a lot of composers wrestle with.
Specifically, if you think about religious music, that’s always a big deal, right? What exactly is going on? If you’re writing a piece of religious music, what are you meant to communicate, if anything? Or are you meant to just help something else get communicated? Is it an enabling device? I was thinking about these issues a lot at school, because the two musics that I like the best—that communicate the best to me—are underrepresented, I think, in school, which is to say, early music—early English choral music—and American minimalism from the ’60s and ’70s, both of which have fundamental communication problems.
MS: How so?
NM: Basically, in religious music, the big question is if you, as a composer, are innovating, is that helping the task of worship music, or is that getting in the way? There were always these issues, especially in England, where the government said, “Oh, the music is too complicated. The music is too simple. You can only have one note per syllable, or you have to have a million syllables, or if you have a million syllables, it sounds so Roman.” All these issues about getting the point across were debated.
And then in minimalism, I think it’s really interesting, because you have in the ’60s and ’70s, this music being presented as math, right? All those early Reich and Glass pieces, the composers are saying, “It’s just a process, all it is is a process. There’s no Wagner here, there’s no secret agenda.” And then of course, you listen to them, and you realize, well, okay, you can say what you like, but the fact of the matter is that those pieces are incredibly communicative—at least to me. And I’ve always loved the argument about minimalism, that it’s sterile, because you find composers buy into that in a really big way. For instance, if you read Steve Reich’s writings, he really wants to distance himself from being emotionally programmatic in the music. And yet, not really, right? Because you can say there’s something in it. Locating where the voice is is a big problem, and that’s something I think about all the time. And thinking about it linguistically, I think, is what helps me get through.
MS: What do you mean by that, “locating where the voice is”?
NM: If you think of a piece of music, like Music in 12 Parts, the Philip Glass piece, that’s meant to be essentially a series of etudes. Is there a possibility that that can be communicative? Can it say something about something? And specifically, can it say something that’s emotionally present? I always thought, yes, of course it can, but I think that’s an argument that people want to have. Is it sterile? Does it mean nothing? Is it just numbers? And if it’s just numbers, how is it different than other music that claims to be just numbers, like hard-core, twelve-tone, matrixed-out, everything. I mean, there’s no real answer, or even a real question. It’s just a grey area.
MS: Listening to your own religious music, I was amazed at how formal and huge, cathedral-like it sounded versus some of your other pieces, which are exceptionally intimate. Is that a reflection of your actual religious beliefs and spirituality?
NM: The fact that I’ve written it?
MS: Not only that, but also the way that you’ve written it.
NM: Well, I grew up singing in a boys’ choir. One of the kind of heights, for me, of what music can be when it’s great, is high Anglican choral music. That’s just kind of a built-in idea in my language. So for me to write it felt only natural. It’s an interesting question, something I haven’t really resolved, nor do I feel any compulsion to do so. I feel like, in writing music that I know to be successful as music for services, I think it’s as helpful to write about it as it is to think about in that particular instance. I certainly wasn’t raised religiously, but I definitely understand how important music in religious contexts can be. If you do it right, you as a composer just totally vanish, and it becomes all about something else. That’s a really exciting moment, I think, when you completely write yourself out of the picture.
MS: So you’re talking about religious music and minimalism as these two extremes, neither of which you were taught in school, but they both now get folded into the work you do. How did that happen, and in what ways are they now present in the work that you’re producing?
NM: You know, it’s funny, this last weekend and then this coming weekend, I’m going to the NEC Prep Division in Boston, and I’m coaching a bunch of high school kids who are playing my music. I did Tanglewood twice as a composer, when I was 14 and 15, but what I realize is that I totally never went to any of those school-year weekend programs for young musicians. As a result, I had this huge hole when I turned up at school at Juilliard. Theoretically, I knew that you should play Beethoven trios, but when I was in high school, I didn’t even know there were such things as these pre-conservatory programs, so I didn’t really have access to that music in a firsthand way. I turned up basically having a really good command of the Anglican choral tradition—anything that could be sung in high Anglican church, I knew really well. In terms of 20th-century music, what that includes is Howells and Finzi and definitely not anything from Germany, very little continental music. And if it was English music, it’s not Ferneyhough; it’s Judith Weir. So there was that.
And then I also had a weird access to the Wellesley library, because my mother teaches at Wellesley, and so I would send her these insane lists of scores and CDs I wanted her to check out. She doesn’t teach in the music department—she teaches in the art department—but as a professor, she could just take out whatever she wanted for an indefinite amount of time. So I, really haphazardly, sent her to get stuff without really knowing what it was. For instance, there’s this Messiaen thing that occasionally happens in the Anglican churches, for a little decadent French moment, and I said, “Ooh, who’s this?” I looked on the really primitive catalog and found there was so much Messiaen that you could have. I said, “Oh, let’s get that!” And she lugged back these enormous, heavy-ass French scores, a billion pages, Chronochromie and all that stuff, and I thought, “This is amazing! How cool is this?” But no one had been saying “Look into this, look into that.” And I was taking private lessons with a variety of people, but no one ever really caught on that I was completely out of it on 19th-century European music. I just had no idea.
MS: You escaped that part?
NM: It turned out to be kind of a blessing. Nineteenth-century German music, whatever happened that was genius then that, somehow, in the mind of crazy people, brings us to the stuff in the ‘40s and ‘50s—there’s this really weird kind of sinkhole that starts opening up around Wagner, when people start freaking out about music and can’t talk seriously about it anymore. I mean, I have a score to Parisfal right there, but I got into that so much later that when I turned up at Julliard, I was really a naïf. All I knew was the American minimalist stuff which I had just fallen into randomly. Like, “This is great! Wow, how cool is this? This sounds amazing! David Lang, oh my God!” And then, Howells and Purcell and then Byrd and Tye and Gibbons, all this kind of random stuff. And then I turned up at Juilliard and everyone was into Pfitzner and obscure lieder, and I just didn’t know anything.
MS: You keep saying you “turned up” at Juilliard, as if you had a library card and a piano and a really willing mother, and then all of a sudden there you were. Before your arrival, how much training and thinking and preparing did you really do?
NM: In the middle of high school, after I had done the Tanglewood BUTI thing, which is what teenage kids do there, I started taking lessons with David Rakowski. He’s sort of like a Babbitt student-type, although because he’s kind of crazy and wacky, he never did any of that bad stuff that sometimes happens when you study with hard-core Princetonites. I didn’t even know about it and he never brought it up; there was no ideological pressure about anything, and it was just really fun. To a certain extent it really did shield me. So I’d been studying with him for two years, and I knew I wanted to be in New York, I knew I wanted to do Columbia-Juilliard. It was really important to me; I knew if I went to a conservatory I would go insane. I’d had friends from Tanglewood go to Juilliard, I’d visited them a few times, and I thought I could totally get down with this, this is great. I visited Columbia—no worries, it’s amazing—and so I applied to both and got in and literally did just turn up. That program is one of the most under-administrated things that you can possibly imagine. Essentially, the way that the program works is that you do both schools. There’s no guy, there’s no person to talk to.
MS: “Welcome to New York! You’ve just enrolled into two of the most challenging undergraduate programs in the country. Try not to kill yourself.”
NM: Well, at Juilliard, if you were a composer, all you had to do was just go to the fora and lessons and stuff. You didn’t have to take academic classes at Juilliard, because they assumed that you would at least be able to test out of enough that you wouldn’t have to start doing it until you started your master’s. You could take little things here and there if you wanted to, which I did, but it was definitely the case that you had to design your own schedule between two institutions that don’t have a similar day rotation.
MS: I was really curious about how you were able to write so much music by 25, and now I think I understand.
NM: I did a lot. I like to keep busy. When I was in school, I had a really unhealthy work attitude. I was sleeping very little and working a lot and thinking a lot and being as high-saturation as I possibly could. I’ve been trying to calm that down a little of late.
I was in school for five years, and the first four years were a very, very intense time because I realized how little I knew. But also I realized that I had really been spared a lot of conservatory music-education drama by the weirdness of my high school musical education, which was really patchy in a great way. So in as much as I didn’t know anything, I also found a safer path through those waters. And now I have a very healthy relationship with 19th-century German music! I’m very proud of myself.