Defining Nico Muhly

Molly Sheridan: So how do you work now, in a process sense? Do you have special socks you put on?

Nico Muhly: It’s funny you should ask. I’ve been in this apartment for four years now, [but I’m moving next week.] I know that when I leave, my process, such as it is, is going to completely change. Also, I’ve been traveling a lot, and I discovered, much to my horror, when I was doing my taxes last year, that I was out of the country a couple of days more than half the year. And this year seems like it will be similar. So my process for the most part has a lot to do with really detailed note-taking. So whatever I’m working on, whatever project it is, I have a notebook of words and a notebook of music—usually two separate things, sometimes the same. The notebook of words is essentially a series of descriptions for what it is I’m set up to do. References, if there are any. Also, grocery lists, whatever else is going on. And then there are a million scraps [of music notation]. So once I have those two things going on the stove, then I can start thinking about how to structure the whole thing. So there’s this white piece of paper that has the structure of everything, and if there’s a text, the text is on it. It’s kind of diagrammed out. When I was studying with Corigliano, he’s a big enthusiast of the diagram of the piece, which at first I resisted, because if you could just paint a picture, why are you a musician? Then it occurred to me that it is actually really efficient. I guess we accept diagrams. The way a calendar looks on a computer: we accept that as representing time. So why not? Music is basically just time, so why not have the same thing?

Nico Muhly's notebooks

So there’s diagrams, there’s pages of notes, pages of words, and then I print out blank manuscript with exactly the number of instruments that I need, and then I just write directly onto that in a little black book. All those four things are in my bag at all times, so that means wherever I am, I can be working. And eventually at the end of it, it goes into the computer at some point, but that’s the least interesting part of it.

MS: So you’re a paper-and-pen kind of man.

NM: Paper and pen, definitely.

MS: Have you ever met the composer Cynthia Hopkins? She does the same thing with a notebook of words and a notebook of music.

NM: The notebook of words is so important, and again, this is all fresh in my head because I’m moving. I found a kind of combination notebook from when I was 19, and it is unbelievable the kind of shit I wrote down. It was really kind of embarrassing. There’s a page of numbers that I don’t even understand what it could possibly be, and I know that it has something to do with music. It’s some sort of weird Fibonacci thing that I must have worked out. It looks like a serial killer’s notebook; it’s really intense.

MS: Now, you’re talking about being out of the country a lot, and I know that at least some of that time you were in Iceland working with Valgeir Sigurðsson on your first album, Speaks Volumes. I read something where it made it sound like that album was kind of his idea, that he pushed you.

NM: Yeah, essentially it’s this: When you’re a young composer and you’ve been at school, for the most part your music is going to be recorded in exactly the same way. You are on a composer’s concert. You have a chamber group that has rehearsed your piece. The concert is recorded with a stereo microphone hanging above the stage. Three weeks after the premiere, you are handed, by a gentleman, an envelope with a CD with your music on it. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t know better. “That’s great! Great, this is what my piece is. Awesome.” And if it’s an orchestra piece, there’s a big stereo microphone above the orchestra.

I had been working with Valgeir for a couple months on this Björk project, and it was super audio-intense. At a certain point he asked to hear what my stuff sounded like, so I sent him these recordings, and I think he was just appalled at the quality, that there could exist music that was recorded in this fashion. For him, it was like, “This is what you do? This is how you represent your work? What are you, crazy?” And he wrote me an e-mail that was like, “Why don’t you just re-record this with me?” At that point, I think it was more of a public service. I think you get used to listening to music recorded like [we did at Juilliard], and when you hear it, it sounds familiar. Any young composer’s piece that has ever been recorded like that sounds immediately familiar. And yet I think, now, that people are being a little more high-tech and that now the music you’re hearing on the radio even is getting more tactile, more interesting in general. And then Valgeir and I got to talking, and the sort of music that I was making, for whatever reason, in his head seemed to at least present the opportunity to record it in a different fashion.

MS: So what did he really do, then, for the recording? Is it just a matter of being more conscientious of where the microphones are placed?

NM: No, it’s a whole scheme. Essentially the plan was this: There are seven things on that album, and I think that three of them existed before I met him. And then I was going to write four more for the project. The way that I was thinking of it was—if we’re trying to go against the idea of stereo-mic-over-the-stage—what, in a more profound way, are we going against? And of course the answer is you’re going against the concertgoing experience: the idea of having the best seat in the house, that the recording of the piece is the equivalent experience of having spent a couple hundred dollars and sitting sixth-row center or wherever it is you sit at a concert that makes it sound awesome. So if we’re resisting that, what then is the replacement for that experience? What is the desired thing?

The piece called Clear Music is this harp, cello, and celesta thing I wrote for myself to play, because I love playing celesta. I love it, love love it. The piano? Whatever. The celesta is what it’s all about. And you can hear all the little noises in the celesta, and you can hear the breathing, and that’s the experience I should be interested in recreating. Because I find that much more pleasurable than anxiously sitting in the audience and just clenching my gut in horror at what might happen. So I thought that’s what we should do—we should make the recording sound like you’re playing rather than hearing it—because A) that’s what I like, and B) what fun to be able to listen to something as if you were inside the instrument or playing it yourself. So we opted for very, very close mic on the instruments, and everything is recorded in almost total isolation, which is another kind of horror, right? Is that true? Yeah. Not only is it true, but it’s also horrible.

No, it’s great. Because again, if you completely discount the idea that we’re going for this concertgoing experience, then you really have many, many options. I think recording things in isolation has problems, but it can be completely successful, which I hope we were. So that was the initial thing. And then from that, Valgeir’s sense of how everything should fit together and the overall sonic landscape of it. That’s something he’s very, very good at. I went to Iceland three or four times, and he came here a couple times. We did a little bit through the mail, and it was really fun.

MS: So clearly you, these renegade recording techniques, and the iPod are killing the future of classical music.

NM: Oh, you think so? You think that’s what’s happening?

MS: I’ve realized that in all of the reading I’ve done about you, everyone has been very careful to say “Nico Muhly is a classical composer who has worked with artists such as Björk , Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, and Will Oldham.” And I was really uncomfortable about how to talk about that, because it’s not something that I compartmentalize. But do you, for working purposes, need to? Is there value in that?

NM: Actually, I always think about this question.

MS: But I hate asking it.

NM: As well you should. Basically, it’s this: for people my age, and I hope this becomes more true for people younger than me, there really is not that much of a distinction. The best way to make there not be that much of a distinction, even if you feel there might be a teeny one, is to put your fingers in your ears and say, “La-la-la-la.” I’m so uninterested. It’s essentially like being from somewhere. I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition. It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else. The notion of your genre being something that you have to actively perform, I think is pretty vile. For people my age, it just never really comes up. It’s like, “Oh, this is the kind of music you do, and this is the kind of music you do, that’s great.” There’s no, “I call this this, I call this that.” The actuality of being in your 20s in New York is, I hope, to have friends who do stuff that you like. Whether or not that happens to be from a tradition of one thing or another, I think that never really comes up. Obviously, there are people who are doing one thing and doing it very well.

If you think about it more like food, actually, that’s a more productive way. Have you ever read those interviews with Italian chefs who come here and say things like, “Obviously, I’m not going to use mushrooms from Italy, I’m going to use local things because I’m here. I’m located here.” And Italian food is not about those specific ingredients and those specific things; it’s an approach. It’s a system of organization, and it’s about doing garlic to this thing in this way, but it doesn’t matter what the thing is, if it’s from this little village outside of Turin or from upstate New York. Do you know what I mean?

MS: That’s the sense in which I mean the question, though. As you were saying, thinking about how we traditionally record in the classical field, and then deciding to look at how they record somewhere else and try it that way.

NM: Right.

MS: Or when you orchestrate something for someone like Will Oldham, you’re coming at it with a whole different set of knowledge and experiences that you bring to that, a perspective that perhaps someone who’s regularly played with him would not have to offer.

NM: I really do think about that in the same way as I would think about where I come from. Like, geographically speaking. And there’s no way around that, the fact that, stylistically, I come from the classical tradition. Yes, it comes up in that sense where you say, I feel like I’m a stranger here, like I’m a guest in this music. But again, most people are saying, people who I like and respect are saying in their music, “Make yourself at home.” They’re not saying, “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not from here. You really shouldn’t do that. Don’t put that there. Take off your shoes.” You know what I mean? I feel a much more hospitable reaction among younger people. People who want to talk about crossing over and that whole thing, I have no idea what that would mean.

MS: Maybe it’s only called that when you don’t do it well.

NM: Yeah, I think so. This is something that, to even think about it musically is one thing, but it comes up a lot in school. Like if you’re from a family of immigrants, for instance, or if you yourself were born in another country and moved to America, or born in America and moved somewhere else. Those issues become much more intense, about identity and genre and politics and all these things. I think the minute you start trying to slap definitions on those things, like, “Oh, I’m Indian-American, but it’s complicated because my dad’s family is actually from Germany.” The minute you start getting too involved in that, you realize how limiting it is.

I know it sounds sort of like everyone holding hands, a Benetton ad, but to a certain extent, at the end of the day, everyone’s just people, and everyone’s just trying to make music. You know, you do what you do. And if people have the right attitude and if people are hospitable towards one another stylistically, then those concerns become less relevant.

MS: Okay, we don’t have to talk about that anymore.

NM: No, we totally can! I always get into a little bit of a froth about it because it’s so hard to talk about it, because I think it’s so specific to every situation.

MS: Why do you think we want to hold onto those walls?

NM: I don’t know. At no point am I saying we should all just learn everything about everything. I’m all a fan of hard-core classical education. I really think that’s a really important thing, and I think there’s this fear that if everyone gets too wishy-washy about style, that possibly people are not going to want to play Paganini caprices anymore and the general level of musicianship will be diminished. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Certainly I feel a much deeper kinship with old, unreformed classical musicianship after I’ve done a project that’s not really from that tradition. I’m always like, “I want listen to Brahms piano concertos right now!” Or Wieniawski or somebody. At least personally, I don’t feel like that’s a problem. Do you remember when people got into a froth where they were like, “Everyone’s teaching The Color Purple instead of Shakespeare”? And I think it’s kind of the same problem now, the idea of this glorious tradition, this glorious canon, that it’s somehow threatened. Like if, God forbid, we should teach a Toni Morrison book, then all of a sudden—. That argument always breaks down when you think, “All of sudden, what?”

What Nico listened to on a Thursday while walking around…

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