Defining Nico Muhly
Molly Sheridan: Okay, let’s go back to the fact that you’re only 25 years old and you already have a publisher here and in the UK. How’d you fall into that?
Nico Muhly: Very easily. I’d been working for Philip Glass doing editing and MIDI programming, sort of general stuff, for a couple of years. He owns a publishing company, and then a sub-set of that publishing company is, I guess, an affiliate of Chester in London. They represent Ravi Shankar, and they represent Rachel Portman and a variety of other people. And I just knew them from doing all this stuff for Philip for a million years, and then they just said, “We should represent you, and you should be represented by us.” And I said, alright. This is a good plan.
MS: What’s more important: the publisher or the MySpace page?
NM: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a really good question—good for you. You totally thought about that shit. I’m not really sure. In terms of things that happen, like fun stuff that happens to me, fun projects, I think both. Certainly it’s the case that if you want to write a large piece of choral music for a choir in northern England, the publisher is probably a better bet. But if you want to make choir arrangements for a garage band in suburban Reykjavik, then MySpace is probably your go-to thing. I mean, I think “both” is the answer.
The thing about MySpace is that it goes directly to you, whereas the publisher, there’s like a million people that can kind of vet stuff as it comes in and figure it out. At this point, I’m, again, 25, so it’s not like I’m turning down work. But it’s more like there’s a way, there’s a pre-existing system for dealing with stuff when you send it to a publisher. There’s a glorious classical tradition of what to do. Whereas someone just messaged me on MySpace the other day, saying that—it’s kind of amazing—he has a naked string orchestra. Have you heard about this? It’s amazing. That’s more MySpace than publisher. Publishers are like, “We are a percussion ensemble in Singapore and we want you to write a piece.” And I say, “Dear percussion ensemble, it would be my pleasure. Love, Nico.” And MySpace is like, “Naked Cello!! Write us a thing!!”
MS: So you have something for all occasions.
NM: Yeah. I mean, obviously I’ll do both.
MS: Well, even with the album. You were following an alternate distribution model, in a way, because of the record label you worked with. A publisher is a traditional way to get your work to people and putting your album out on a classical label is, you know, a label.
NM: “Classical label” is really funny to me, because what does that even mean these days? Did you see the Sting-doing-John-Dowland thing? God bless them, but those things are so appalling. Every time I sort of dip my toe in what’s going on in classical labels, like who’s recording stuff, these weird, weird things are going on. It makes me very uneasy.
One thing I like is that the people who represent me in England, they’re kind of hands-off. I think they really just don’t know what to do with me, with all of my stuff. They’re like, “What are you doing? You did what, you wrote what? There’s a banjo in it? Why? And a choir?”
MS: “We can’t possibly sell this.”
NM: “What are we going to do with this thing?”
MS: So, say I’m a composer who finds you on MySpace, and I write to you and ask, “Nico, I want do what you’re doing. I want a life just as cool as yours. What do I do?”
NM: Okay, again, I can only speak from personal experience. I have no idea if there’s a way to do it. I think the wrong way to do it is to stay in school until you’re 30. I’m pretty sure that that’s incorrect, like my gut feeling says that’s the case. I think the answer is: write as much music as possible and have as many people inside the institution where you’re studying as possible play it. But also see if there’s any possibility of anyone not affiliated with the school that you’re in—especially if you’re not in New York, I don’t even know how you would do this, but I think it would be important—to get people outside that system involved in your music.
And studying at Juilliard but going to Columbia and living at Columbia, I was sort of spoiled by my friends, who partially out of curiosity and also partially because I think—I hope—they genuinely liked what I was up to, would come to stuff at Juilliard. I was always so touched. My friends from Columbia who had nothing to do with music at all would just turn up and have a really good time and have completely great things to say about not just what I had done, but everyone else. I had some friends who began having a relationship with other people’s music, too, which I thought was such a great thing. So there’s that, and then the other thing, I think, is to try to make as much music as possible separate from you as a composer. So play piano, or play orchestra piano, which is what I did—I had some of the best experiences of my life playing orchestra piano. Orchestra celesta! I highly recommend it.
MS: Clearly this is your instrument.
NM: Oh, I’m totally a celestist. I think basically just make sure that whenever you’re making music, that that’s what you really want to be doing at that time. And if you don’t want to make music, then do something else with the same intensity: read something, think about something, get involved with something complicated. Just do hard stuff, I think, is the best thing. And through that you meet really good people and really interesting people and severe people and crazy people. And those are the people, I think, who can help you have a healthy life as an artist. I would add to this that I think that a healthy life as an artist is not one that is spent in school until you’re 30. I think that’s a big mistake. One of the things I loved when I was getting my master’s was basically every day Philip Glass, who was employing me at the time, would say, “Have you dropped out of school yet? I think you should drop out of school! Why don’t you drop out of school right now? You don’t need that. What, do you just want to impress your mom with your master’s? Drop out of school.” Like, every day! It was amazing. Which is sage advice. I mean, obviously I wasn’t going to drop out of school.
The idea that you don’t need a DMA is actually shocking. Even at Juilliard, the question was not, “Would you like to stay in school until you’re 30?” It was “Where would you like to stay in school until you’re 30?” And it’s such a weird thing, because I feel—well, maybe this isn’t true—but I sense that my mid-20s, the next four or five years, are going to be really productive. And I might have to die, like if I were writing some insane dissertation or teaching ear training, if I were in an institution getting a DMA right now. I would be spending a lot less time writing than would be wise. So the compromise that I made, of course, is that I have a job, and I take on a lot of work, I take on random conducting things, but it’s music making that leaves a lot of time open for me to write, which is really important when you’re in your mid-20s and you’re out of school.
MS: Do you have your eye on a project that’s going to be the second half of your 20s magnum opus?
NM: Not really. I had this idea like a million years ago to turn those Susan Cooper books, the The Dark Is Rising books, into an opera of some sort. First of all, I would get to learn Welsh. And second of all, those books completely rocked my world when I was younger. I think there’s a certain type of kid whose world they rocked that I would like to be in touch with.
That’s been a long time fantasy of mine. And there’s this amazing, weird case in northern England: these two boys got involved in not really a suicide pact, but one had multiple identities on the Internet and used the Internet to seduce this other boy and they ended up stabbing each other, or one ended up stabbing the other. It was very exciting. Anyway, I have big designs on some kind of a thing with that. I think that once my life is less scattered, I’ll be able to take on larger-length projects. I just wrote something, a single block of music, not in movements, that’s seventeen minutes long, which is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And I feel like I’m gradually working up to those lengths. So, yeah, I would hope to work in bigger forms.
MS: “Finish your short stories, get ready for the novel” kind of thing?
NM: Yeah, exactly.
MS: You have a concert at Carnegie Hall in March, so I just wanted to talk a little about the programming of that, because it’s interesting to me how it’s shuffled with some of your old heroes. I guess it would be kind of strange to have a retrospective concert all your own at 25.
NM: It sounds like that’s kind of what they wanted to do. The thing for me is that I know that the stuff that holds the most sway over me as an artist is not necessarily well known. And there are some pieces of English choral music that are just so—I hate to use the word “precious,” but there are some things that I really do hold in that fashion. Like there’s this piece by William Byrd called “Bow Thine Ear.” I think about it for maybe eight minutes a day. It’s three minutes long—it’s nothing—but it’s one of these things that is so important to me. And if you’re going to church and hoping that something will come around, you usually have to wait for a good long while before someone will do these. Because it’s like “Oh, this only makes sense on such-and-such a Sunday in Advent, which happens next in 2009.” So I just thought it would be great to kind of compile a bunch of these things that I just love and do them in between things of mine. There’s only like 11 minutes of choral music in this concert; it’s teeny stuff, but it’s stuff that is rare enough to hear live, which I think is a treat to do. And in certain cases, there are certain pieces that borrow from the British things, like this Taverner Mater Christi sanctissima motet and a cello, harp, and celesta piece called Clear Music that I wrote kind of based on my experience of singing that.
For me, again, as I was saying before, it’s very much where I’m from. It feels like very much home. The honor of being retrospective-ized, or whatever, is a little scary, so I thought I could make it a little more comfortable if I had some old stand-by things there, too.
MS: So listening to all the different music that you’ve written, there just seems to be this fundamental optimistic quality to the writing. Do you agree with that? Is that intentional?
NM: I don’t know that it’s necessarily intentional. I think a lot of it has to do with the way I think about things which is, in general, pretty optimistic. There’s not a lot of Romantic music in my music, there’s not a lot of [lifts back of hand to forehead in a faux swoon]. There’s just not a place for that in the language of it. So everything ends up sounding pretty clean. I would say “clean” rather than “optimistic.” Is that a better word? “Optimistic” doesn’t necessarily rub me the right way, but the music, I guess, always points upward. It’s a very excited music, I hope. I also think there’s a lot of kind of nasty, pessimistic music that other people are much better at writing than I could ever be. I don’t really have genuinely pessimistic thoughts, so it’s hard for me to get involved in that kind of bogged-down feel. It would be hard for me to express it.